The Battle of Algiers (1966)
Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo
Written by: Franco Solinas
Starring: Brahim Hadjadj, Saadi Yassef, Jean Martin
I first saw The Battle of Algiers in the spring of 2005 when it was assigned to me for a project during my freshman year of college. I was taking a World Film History course and the major assignment was to do a short research project on a classic international film. Films were chosen at random out of a hat, and I was lucky enough to draw a film that was not only readily available to screen, but was actually experiencing a cultural and critical re-evaluation at the time. Some students drew films that were more obscure, or even lost, having to rely on secondary and tertiary sources to build up their projects, but The Battle of Algiers had actually been released on DVD through the Criterion Collection in 2004, and there was a wealth of criticism about the film, both contemporary and from the film’s initial release in 1966. It was one of the first overtly political films that I had ever seen, and I watched it several times while I was working on the research project. Exposure to The Battle of Algiers at that early time in my study of film, and to the primarily Marxist essays and criticisms I was reading about the film, changed the way I thought about movies and how to approach them analytically.
The film depicts the events of a three year period from 1954 to 1957 during the Algerian War of Independence, focusing particularly on the formation of a guerilla branch of the FLN (National Liberation Front) in the Casbah and the subsequent attempts of the French military to quell the uprising. The film opens at the end of its narrative, with Ali La Pointe (Hadjadj) and several other FLN freedom fighters trapped in a building in the Casbah, surrounded by French paratroopers, and then flashes back to 1954 to show the events that have led to this point. Ali is a petty criminal who is recruited by the FLN, and rises through the ranks, providing the audience a glimpse into how the group is organized and the tactics that the rebels employ in their fight against the French colonialists. The film doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war. Over the course of the film, we see the violence in the Casbah escalate from shootings to bombings. At the same time, we are shown the French army respond to this violence with equally savage methods including torture and summary executions. While the military wins the Battle of Algiers by assassinating or neutralizing the FLN’s leadership, the film’s epilogue flashes forward to 1960, showing that the spirit of revolution is still alive in the Casbah as pro-Algerian demonstrations have broken out again. On July 2, 1962, the Algerian nation was established, and French colonization of the country and its citizens was ended after nearly 150 years.
An Italian and Algerian co-production, The Battle of Algiers is part procedural, part action film, and part docu-drama, and it could be considered a very late entry into the cycle of post-war Italian neo-realist films. It is based on the field memoirs of Saadi Yassef, a military commander for the FLN who was captured during the Battle of Algiers, who also plays a fictionalized version of himself in the film, El-hadi Jaffar. Pontecorvo was no doubt influenced by the films of his peers in the school of neo-realist filmmaking, as he consciously chose to give the film the feeling of a documentary, though it is fictionalized. The Battle of Algiers is shot like a newsreel, in black and white, employing handheld camerawork and quick zooms. Its style and relationship to actual, recent, historical events help the film blur the line between fiction and documentary. The film features almost exclusively non-professional actors, furthering its realism. Pontecorvo chose his cast based on their appearances, rather than their acting ability, and he often frames his characters in close-up, capturing expressive faces that resonate emotionally and contrast with the more detached, documentary presentation of the chaos and violence of the Casbah during the war. The film ultimately doesn’t make an explicit endorsement for either side in the conflict, mainly due to pressure from its Italian producers who insisted on a neutral presentation of the conflict, but I think that Pontecorvo’s stylistic choices in the film make it clear that his sympathies are with the Algerians. Though the film depicts the suffering of Algerians and French alike, we are intended to see Ali, Jaffar, and the other FLN freedom fighters as the heroes, and the French Colonel Mathieu (Martin, the film’s only professional actor) as the villain.
Though it is presented simply, as a realist document, The Battle of Algiers certainly doesn’t lack for style. The film’s camerawork is technically impressive, with cinematographer Marcello Gatti creating a claustrophobic, oppressive tone as his camera explores the maze of alleys that make up the Casbah through masterful handheld tracking shots and zooms. As mentioned earlier, these zooms often end in close-ups of people’s faces, drawing the audience’s attention to the palpable suffering of the Algerians. The film’s grainy, black and white is evocative of newsreel footage, but it is also beautiful, allowing for both softly-lit interiors and high-contrast exterior shots of the Casbah that establish a concrete sense of place. The film’s use of sound also helps to establish place and mood. The score, by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone, alternates between pieces built around frantic drumming and woodwinds, underscoring the tense mood of the conflict, and pieces that feature slow, elegiac strings that heighten the emotional impact of some of the film’s more violent scenes. The film also uses diegetic sound to establish the differences between the French colonialists, who are associated with the sounds of gunfire, trucks, and cars, and the Algerians who are associated with the explosions of bombs, native drumming, and with the wailing and chanting of the citizens of the Casbah as they take to the streets to protest their treatment at the hands of their colonizers. The French are aurally associated with elements of modernity while the Algerians are associated with a more primal, tribal sound palate. The effect of this contrast isn’t pejorative, however. When coupled with the numerous shots of the thousands of Algerian extras-all actual residents of the Casbah-gathered in sorrowful prayer, the soundscape imbues the Algerian cause with a sort of religious piety.
Despite its resistance to embracing an overt political position, The Battle of Algiers has become an important film in the history of political discourse. At the time of its release, the film was praised by many critics, and won several awards at major European film festivals, but the film also had detractors and was banned in France until the early 1970s for being too sympathetic to the Algerian point of view. It was released at a time of global decolonization and worldwide struggles by oppressed peoples to assert their right to self-determination, and The Battle of Algiers was seen by many as a primer for revolutionary action. The film was also used as an example of successful counter-insurgency tactics due to its realistic depictions of urban military operations and guerilla warfare tactics. The film was famously screened at the White House in 2003 due to the similarities of the film’s subject matter to the then-new Operation Iraqi Freedom. This similarity to geopolitical realities at the beginning of the 21st century led to a renewed interest in the film, ultimately resulting in a remastering and theatrical re-release of the film in 2004. It was in this context that I first encountered The Battle of Algiers.
Coming of age during the George W. Bush administration helped shape my development as a politically progressive, leftist-leaning malcontent. I spent my teens reading Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Saul Alinsky, and developing more and more disdain for the American military-industrial complex, in general, and the seemingly endless military conflict in the Middle East, in particular. The more I learned about the history of America, the more I was able to connect the Iraq war to a long chain of injustices, played out on the global scale, committed in the name of American cultural hegemony and imperialism. Seeing The Battle of Algiers helped to connect that sense of history to a larger, global context, and to the anti-imperialist struggles of oppressed peoples throughout the world. I already had a vague sense of the global history of revolution in the 20th century, but my work researching The Battle of Algiers and its context brought me into contact with writers such as Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernesto Freire who helped to illuminate the power relationships between the colonizer and the oppressed, and underlined the role of global capitalism in upholding these relationships. For someone of my political persuasions to discover The Battle of Algiers at that time was a revelation. It felt extremely relevant at the time, and helped to crystallize my beliefs.
If The Battle of Algiers felt prescient to me in 2005, it may be even more so after watching it again in 2017. The military conflict that I found so abhorrent then, in its infancy, has continued on for nearly 15 years, a slog that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Over the course of the conflict, debates over the morality of remote drone warfare and “enhanced interrogation techniques” filled the news, reminiscent of the scenes of torture in the film. American attempts at regime-building, proposed under the guise of “spreading democracy,” have continued to further destabilize the Middle East, ensuring indefinite continued military engagement in the region. The tactics of warfare have changed in the 21st century but the underpinning motive of promoting the cultural and political hegemony of the United States remains. Over the last decade, Islamophobia has become rampant in response to high profile instances of religious extremism, but I’m always conscious of the fact that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. Terror inducing violence is unacceptable on every level, but I’m reminded by The Battle of Algiers that often acts of terrorism are direct responses by the oppressed to the injustices meted out on them by their oppressors. In many ways, Western hegemonic powers such as France and the United States laid the groundwork for the 21st century terror state through their history of colonial oppression. As Fanon pointed out, often violence is the only language that can be understood by those who would wield power violently over the disenfranchised.
The scene that stuck with the most during this rewatch of The Battle of Algiers was the film’s epilogue. After Ali la Pointe, Jaffar, and the rest of the FLN’s leadership has been eliminated, the film shows us that the revolution lived on without them. After a two year period of relative piece in Algiers, the residents of the Casbah once again took to the streets in December, 1960, waving flags and asserting their desire to live free of the tyranny of colonialism. Pontecorvo somehow recreates this scene, filming hundreds of extras as they teem through the streets of the Casbah, chanting, ululating, and waving flags bearing the crescent and star. Again, the handheld camera puts the audience in the midst of a mob scene, moving through the crowd, picking up on determined faces, as a reporter gives context to the images through his voice-over description. Smoke and dust obscure the view as the crowd faces off against police and the military, who are badly outnumbered despite their martial superiority. Police beat the marchers with clubs and the army attempts to drive them away with tanks, but the crowd will not disperse. The demonstrations are shown to have gone on for nearly a month, before finally ending on December 21st, 1960, after having captured the hearts and minds of the French public and prompting many in the political class to consider “seeking a new relationship with Algeria,” as the film puts it.
In the film’s final scene, a French military officer approaches the gathered mob in the Casbah, who are obscured by smoke. “Return to your homes!” he shouts, “What do you want?” The camera slowly zooms past the officer, and from the smoke comes the response from the demonstrators, “Independence! Our pride! We want our freedom!” Slowly the smoke begins to clear, revealing the demonstrators, who are chanting defiantly in the face of authority. Two women who are dancing and waving flags stand out from the crowd immediately, and the camera again picks up on their faces. Though they are pushed back by the police, the women continue to advance, their visages alight with pride and dignity. The film’s final shot is a close up of one of the women twirling and waving her flag, a smile beaming across her face, as the voice over narration reminds the audience that though there were still two years of struggle to come, “on July 2nd, 1962, with its independence, the Algerian nation was born.”
I was struck by the passion that that woman displayed. No doubt, she had experienced first-hand the oppressive nature of colonialism just a few years before being shot for The Battle of Algiers. The pride and the determination she showed was earned through her actual struggle to live in a free society. Watching those last scenes, I thought about the real-life scenes of riots and demonstrations that I had seen broadcast from Baltimore, from Ferguson, from countless other cities in America where African-American men were murdered at the hands of the police. I was reminded that the struggle for freedom isn’t limited to the past, nor is it confined to matters of national identity. If, in my country, a person cannot walk down the street without fearing for their life, then we have not moved past the injustices of a colonial system in which the ruling class seeks to exploit and dominate the underclass. The civil rights leaders of the 1960s looked to global anti-colonialist movements with an eye towards solidarity, and I think that it could be instructive for those who would fight for equal rights to make sure that they continue to explore that history. The combined forces of nationalism, capitalism, and ethnocentrism seek to divide and oppress the masses, profiting the wealthy while treading on the poor and the weak. There are historical examples of times when revolutionary action was necessary to overthrow tyrannical governments, right historical injustices, and restore power to the people. The lesson I’ve taken from watching The Battle of Algiers after seeing my country elect a quasi-fascist bigot to the highest office in the land is that revolution is a struggle, but, as I was reminded by the woman from the film’s ending, it should also be a joy.