PolEcReMo. My Take

Movie Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Posted in Movies by Ali Athar on April 9, 2008

It’s difficult to start a revolution, even more difficult to sustain one, and still more difficult to win one.

These were the words that defined the epic struggle of Algeria against the French occupation; captured meticulously on celluloid by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo in his docudrama The Battle of Algiers. This 1966 black-and-white narrative was shot around the neighborhood of Casbah, in downtown Algiers, couple of years after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962. The gruesome recreation of French persecution of the Algerian populace to sustain control appalled the world and the film stayed banned in France for many years.

Many watchers will perceive Algiers’ vintage documentary style and finely crafted battle scenes to be actual war footage. In fact the realism of its skirmish settings became synonymous with guerrilla tactics of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The kidnapping and torture occurrences of Argentinean Dirty Wars were highly reminiscent of Colonel Mathieu’s methods of information extraction. Parallels were even drawn with the conduct of insurgents in the current Iraq War with FLN, the Algerian revolutionary group that fought the French. There was an official State Department screening of the film in 2004 to educate policymakers and intelligence officials about the urban warfare and stakes involved in it.

Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, one of the military commanders of FLN or National Liberation Front, Battle of Algiers portrayed the resentment of the masses against the French colonialists that grew each day. The plot revolved around Ali La Pointe, an uneducated and unemployed youth, who became the symbol of revolution. His struggle inspired three women who stopped at nothing to emancipate Maghreb from the scourge of the west. Even the general public shared the mood of resistance, as women performed the traditional “ululation” after each tactical or moral victory against the invaders.

“Should France remain in Algeria? If your answer is ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the consequences.” This was the question Col. Mathieu asked the French people: Either we could glorify our colonial possessions or vindicate ourselves by ‘doing unto others (Algeria, et al) as we would have them (read Nazi Germany) do onto us.’ Sadly, the French chose the former and unleashed terror to tame dissent. Thus began the tit-for-tat; one force would launch attack on the other, which provoked revenge of greater intensity. But, the causalities of the deadly game were civilians: French and Algerian alike. State terror proved fatal and the French won the battle, but not the war. The seeds of discontentment were sowed, which eventually led to the expulsion of the French in 1962. Hail to FLN!

Alas, the euphoria didn’t last long. Three decades of FLN rule harbored corruption and obstructed democratic progress, which brewed antipathy towards the government. Casbah, the site of anti-colonialist forces now became the site of anti-establishment activities. However, this time the movement didn’t materialize in another form of Marxist-socialist revolutionary, but a religio-political entity called Islamic Salvation Front or FIS. Such was the popularity of the party that it won the 1992 general elections, but was denied to form a government by the military-FLN nexus. Thus, FIS resorted to guerrilla warfare; a period we now call the Algerian Civil War.

Gillo Pontecorvo visited Algeria in 1992 after three decades, and to his dismay the public vented anger on him for the European states indifference for Algerian military government’s suppression of political freedom and west’s mocking of the religion Islam. He had to clarify that he was a friend of Algeria and the director of one of the most important films about Algerian War of Independence; they say only an Italian could have made.