Battle of Algiers

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Gillo
Pontecorvo's famous film, Battle
of Algiers
(1966), was recently released in Italy on DVD. Unfortunately,
at the moment it is not available in the United States, which really
is a pity, given the current occupation of Iraq and the possibility
of further wars of occupation in the Middle East. For Battle of
Algiers shows us what the United States military is likely to be
up against as it seeks to carry out its mission civilisatrice in
that part of the world.


French army confronts
demonstrators for Algerian independence in 1960

The
film concerns the career of one Ali la Pointe, an illiterate petty
criminal and boxer who is radicalized in prison after seeing the
execution of a fellow Algerian. As the condemned man is being led
to the guillotine, he shouts, “Allah is great! Long live Algeria!”
Once out of prison, Ali is recruited by the FLN (National Liberation
Front), the terrorist/national independence group that, fighting
from 1954 to 1962, forced the French out of Algeria after 130 years
of French presence.

In
the film, the FLN starts off its campaign of national liberation
by attempting to purge the Algerian people of what the political
organization sees as decadent Western influences. One of the FLN's
communiqués reads:

“People
of Algeria, the colonial administration is responsible not only
for the misery and enslavement of our people, but also for the brutalization,
corruption and degrading vices of many of our brothers and sisters,
who have forgotten their dignity…. Starting today, the FLN has
assumed responsibility for the physical and moral health of the
Algerian people and has therefore decided to forbid the use and
sale of all types of drugs and alcoholic beverages, as well as prostitution
and pimping. All offenders will be punished and habitual offenders
will be executed.” Ali himself shoots to death a pimp who had befriended
him during his pre-revolutionary life.

One
can only wonder if the permissiveness and hedonism that is such
a prominent aspect of Western democracy will be any more welcome
in the Arab world of today than it was in the 1950s.

Then
begin the murders of French policemen, who are usually shot in the
back. The incidents multiply, and the prefect of police decides
to take extra-legal measures that involve the bombing and complete
destruction of an inhabited building associated with the FLN in
the Arab quarter. Thereafter, the FLN starts it own bombing campaign.
In the film's most famous sequence, three Arab women made up and
dressed as Frenchwomen manage to sneak bombs into the European quarter,
which has been cut off from the Kasbah by checkpoints. Their targets
are a bar, a milk bar, and the Air France office. In one scene,
the youthful, carefree French – teenagers and children among
them – socialize, drink, and gyrate to the Latin tune “Hasta
Manana” in the bar, while one of the women hides her bomb and leaves.
What happens next in all three places is as horrific as it is familiar.

On
the 11th of September, 2001, we saw another example of this strategy
of hitting three targets simultaneously in order to disorient and
demoralize the enemy: The attack on the World Trade Center, the
attack on the Pentagon, and the attack manque on the White House,
the putative target of the plane that went down in Pennsylvania.

As
the situation deteriorates, the French send in reinforcements, which
arrive marching to the applause of the French residents. The narrator
informs us that “the Inspector General of the Administration has
taken drastic steps to ensure law and order and to protect people
and property. In particular, to bring the 10th Para Division into
Algiers…. The Commander will take over responsibility for law
and order in Algiers using all civil and military measures necessary.”

Commander
Lt. Colonel Philippe Mathieu tells his men: “The problem, as usual,
is: first, the enemy; second, how to destroy him. There are 400,000
Arabs in Algiers. All against us? Of course not. There's only a
minority that rules by terror and violence. This is the enemy to
isolate and destroy…. It's an unknown, unrecognizable enemy. It
blends with the others. It is everywhere: in the cafes, in the alleyways
of the Kasbah or in the streets of the European quarter, in the
shops, in the shops, in the workplace.”

The
Lt. Colonel also tells his men that they need an excuse to go on
the offensive, and if the Arabs don't provide one, he himself will.
But the Arabs do give him his excuse in the form of a general strike:
anyone participating in the strike is considered an FLN member.
In an operation code-named “Champagne,” the French soldiers empty
the Kasbah of its men, and through interrogation and torture manage
to identify members of the terrorist cells.

But
even as the FLN is being broken up, the bombings continue. A horse
race is interrupted by two explosions, and the French spectators
attempt to wreak their vengeance on an Arab boy selling refreshments
in the stands. As the mob moves towards him, the boy's eyes become
filled with terror – a terror that is also wary, doubtless because
the boy has feared the wrath of the French before and intuitively
understands the workings of corporate guilt. The lad, who ironically
is wearing a cap with the Coca-Cola logo, is reminiscent of the
little Jewish boy with hands raised in the famous WWII photograph –
a comparison made almost certainly on purpose by Pontecorvo.

Immediately
after the explosions, while the bloody victims are being carried
to safety, the French pounce on the child, striking and kicking
him, shouting: “Salopard! You'll pay for the rest! Little rat! Get
going! Son of a bitch!” The child is saved by a French policeman,
who puts himself between the boy and the mob while shouting, “Take
it easy! He's only a child!” To which someone in the mob responds,
“So what? Don't they kill our children?!” The officer and his colleagues
succeed in carrying the boy to safety – an intentional endorsement,
possibly, by Pontecorvo of the Western sense of justice and fair
play.

This
is certainly the most moving scene in the film, and it is the one
that stayed with me vividly all during the thirty years after I
first saw the movie.

In
a following scene, Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing
of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force.
During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of
the FLN: “Isn't it a dirty thing to use women's baskets to carry
bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And
you? Doesn't it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on
defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would
be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and
we'll give you our baskets.”

In
a second press conference, another reporter questions Colonel Matthieu
about the use of torture against FLN members. The colonel responds:
“I'll ask you a question myself: Should France stay in Algeria?
If the answer is still yes, you'll have to accept all the necessary
consequences.”

There
follows a graphic but at the same time stylized sequence of the
torture of suspected terrorists.

The
colonel finally succeeds in destroying the terrorist cells. He is
convinced that if the head of the organization is taken or killed,
the organization itself will die. And he does succeed in blowing
up Ali la Pointe, after which there is a period of calm in Algeria.

But
the peace does not last. The narrator informs us: “It is not known
why, but after two years of relative quiet, apart from the guerrilla
war in the mountains, trouble has broken out again.”

The
demonstration scene at the end of the film, with its Algerian-flag
waving, ululating protestors, is where Pontecorvo indulges and celebrates
his communist convictions – the victory of the people over their
imperialistic oppressors – not foreseeing where liberation and independence
would lead: in 1991, the FLN government of Algeria cancelled the
results of a free election in which the decidedly un-communist FSI
(Islamic Salvation Front) was poised to win a majority and banned
the party. In response, a splinter group of the FSI, the Armed Islamic
Group (GIA), set out to purify Algeria of all apostate and infidel
elements. It is estimated that 100,000 Algerians have lost their
lives as a result of the GIA's zeal.

Battle
of Algiers is gripping with its scenes that seem to have been shot
today in Palestine and that possibly will soon be shot in Iraq.
Though Pontecorvo was a communist who sympathized with the FLN,
it is quite easy to watch and appreciate the film even if one identifies
with France's mission civilisatrice and believes in the superiority
of Western over Eastern values. But even though a Western viewer
might root for the French, he is still faced with the intractability
of that discord between two cultures that Rudyard Kipling summed
up so memorably.

The
question that the film poses to us present-day Americans is the
same, mutatis mutandis, that Lt. Colonel Matthieu poses to the journalists:
Should France stay in Algeria? Should the United States stay in
Iraq?

If
the answer is yes, I'm afraid that, like the French, we'll have
to accept all the necessary consequences.

Gillo
Pontecorvo and Battle of Algiers

In
her biography of Pontecorvo, Memorie Estorte a uno Smemorato (Memories
Wrung from a Scatterbrain – a reference to Pontecorvo's famed absent-mindedness)
Irene Bignardi tells us that the future director of the Battle of
Algiers was born into an Italian-Jewish family of Pisa in 1919.
Like the families of not a few Italian communists, Pontecorvo's
was well-to-do: his father, a cloth manufacturer, owned three factories
and employed 1500 workers.

The
director was introduced to communism in the late '30s by an older
brother, Bruno, who worked as an atomic physicist in Paris, and
by Bruno's circle of anti-fascist friends. The group set to work
on the young Pontecorvo, who later explained his conversion thus:
“Those boys were older than I, and they had a certain prestige,
a certain fascination. Maybe I would have become a rugby player,
if they had been rugby players….”

During
WWII, Pontecorvo worked as a courier and journalist for the Italian
Communist Party. But he became disillusioned with the party in 1956
as a result of its support of the Soviet invasion of Hungary: “For
a long time, I had begun to criticize that which I had liked for
so long: those [Communist Party] grooves that had given me a great
sense of security, the romanticization of the working class…the
romanticization of the Soviet Union and the myopia concerning certain
facts…. This series of small delusions had brought [me and others]
to the truth and had separated us from the religion. When the suppression
[of the revolt] in Hungary took place, all these feelings came to
a head, and I decided to leave a party in which I had believed blindly,
but which had deluded me in many ways.”

Pontecorvo's
brother Bruno's disillusionment with the Soviet Union took somewhat
longer. He defected to that country in 1950 and remained there for
many years. Only towards the end of his life did he confide to his
brother Gillo how absurd it seemed to him that “doing the [scientific]
work I do, which should be completely based on reason, I was conditioned
and driven for forty years by impulses that I can only define as
religious in nature. Just think: I got to the point where I could
justify to myself without hesitation even the mass murder of the
kulaks.”

Like
many other Italian communists who left the party in disgust at the
Soviet invasion of Hungary, however, Pontecorvo did not abandon
his communist convictions. Which brings us to Battle of Algiers.
Algerian independence was declared and recognized in 1962, and Pontecorvo
and his collaborator Franco Solinas, Bignardi writes, were “fascinated
by the events and their ideological implications, convinced that
the anti-colonial struggle was an urgent and important subject,
almost a symbol and model for the political struggle against u2018an
invincible capitalism in Italy,'” as Solinas put it in an interview.
In 1964, a representative of military head of the FLN leader Jacef
Saadi (who in the film plays the part of the FLN commander Kader)
arrived in Italy looking for a leftist director to make a film about
the struggle for Algerian independence and decided on Pontecorvo.
In 1965, the government of Algeria gave the director “not only all
the necessary permits to shoot the film in Algiers, but put at his
disposal – though not completely without charge – the Algerian army
for the crowd scenes.”

Pontecorvo
wanted to shoot his film without using professional actors (in fact,
the only professional is Jean Martin, a French stage actor who plays
the part of the French commander Matthieu). He found the 138 faces
featured in the film while wandering the streets of Algiers. “The
journalists and French soldiers,” Bignardi tells us, “were played
by tourists of various nationalities – in particular, for the French
troops, some British tourists were chosen for their height and build….
Brahim Haggiag, who played Ali La Pointe…had a splendidly dramatic
face, but he was a poor illiterate farmer whom Pontecorvo had found
in a city market and who hadn't the faintest idea what cinema was….
[He] would be taught his part step by step by the use of signals
and by keeping the memorization of his lines to a minimum.”

If
one has not seen this film, one cannot begin to imagine Pontecorvo's
extraordinary achievement. The acting is so natural and convincing
that many viewers and even some critics assumed that the movie was
a documentary. Only a master director could have taken this raw
acting material and gotten such performances out of it. And despite
his leftist viewpoint, Pontecorvo neither ridicules or demonizes
the French, as does Michael Moore the Americans in his recent putative
documentary Bowling at Columbine – though I do a disservice to Pontecorvo
to compare his work to that of Moore.

Although
nearly forty years have passed since its creation, Battle of Algiers
is more timely than ever – especially for Americans, given the American
involvement in a contemporary colonial war in the Middle East. One
hopes that it will soon be available in videocassette or DVD in
the United States.

June
30, 2003

Kevin
Beary (send him mail)
writes
from his home in Italy.


     

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