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Film Review: Battle of Algiers (1966) Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo
After The Battle
What Does The Battle of Algiers Teach Us?
by Gerry Fitzpatrick
13 May 2015
Gillo Pontecorvo began his political career as an anti-fascist activist during the WWII in Italy. He is mostly known for his drama documentary Battle of Algiers (1966), much less so for this follow up film Burn (1969) which Marlon Brando, who as leading man in that film thought was his best work. Both films teach audiences about the history of resistance to modern imperialism.
For people who have lived through what Battle of Algiers shows it is by far the most realistic depiction of modern counter Insurgency and has no equal in cinema:
The first thing you become aware of is the film's intensity. We see from the first scene that this intensity is the power of the French - at their torture centre, on the streets, wrecking people’s homes – looking out from every roof top – a panorama of domination. From this point on and in flashback the film charts the inevitability of the application of French military power: the National Liberation Front's secret military cells are systematically crushed and General Salan is victorious. That of course was not the end of resistance or the end of the film.
Legend has it that the future leaders of the Provisional Movement in Belfast first saw the film at Queen's University Film Society. If they had done so, then the full effect of the films depiction of the torture of suspects, dawn raids and the destruction of Algerian homes by colonial troops – should not be underestimated. Republican areas and those opposed to Stormont had experienced directly what the film depicted. However, what was taken from the film and seen as a program was the depiction of the Algerian National Liberation Front's answer to the presence of colonial troops: urban guerrilla warfare.
In the film young men are seen using pistols against French officers and are presented as nervous and desperate as are the men who are in hiding, who will pay the ultimate price rather than give themselves up. Significantly, those who appear to be in control of what they do are the young women in the film who are seen to carry out methodically a series of bomb attacks against civilian targets.
Needless to say when it came to the same actions being carried out by actual nervous young men here, who had little or no experience of urban guerrilla war, or the dangers of bomb making, many of them died needlessly carrying or making explosive devices. This was a far cry from watching a young woman take a bomb from a bomb maker casually go out and wait patiently in line to be searched and get through by smiling at the man whose job it was to search her...
Women As Heroes
By showing the Algerian women as heroes, and the men as trapped, Pontecorvo worked to produce a very powerful subconscious effect on the viewer. The men represented the desperate reality of Algeria: killed, imprisoned, hounded and tortured at every turn. The women represent the ideals of freedom in action as they react to the overwhelming domination of the French military occupation. The depiction of the after effects of the bombing at the race course, a department store and a French teenagers milk bar pull no punches – they are depicted just as coldly and realistically as the effects of French military power and its torture and bombing of NLF cells. To watch this is to experience and be part of the daily horror, desperation and confusion that is modern counterinsurgency and urban guerrilla war.
The Unity of Art, Experience and History
That is what the film appeared to teach to those wanting to be free from colonial domination. But in fact that is not the lesson of the film. After General Salan has blown up the last NLF cell his victory is only made hollow by what happened next in reality and in the film:
The inter titles proclaim “Two Years Later” (1:52.09). We see a huge demonstration which has arisen without the NLF who are now in exile. The demonstration grows, surges and intensifies. The camera lens finds women shouting, whooping and yelling.
The following day there is no let up. Baton charges and snatch squads pick off and beat demonstrators. A large tank moves up to force a surging crowd off a road. The voice over reports that the demonstrations are having an effect on the French political class who are now calling for a new relationship with Algeria. We see the demonstrations keep on going and growing.
Then gloom: not of frost or of smoke – but of gas. A French Police Commander approaches the edge of a cloud of teargas, “what do you want?” he asks, “Independence!”, “Our Pride!” , “We want our freedom!” come the replies. The roar, whooping and yelling of the women starts up again, the cloud of gas clears. The Women move to the front of the crowd pushing the police back moving forward again and again. Closeup: One young woman moves forward and pushes a policeman out of her way. Her face is animated by her continual cry for independence: freeze frame.
Battle of Algiers is a unity of experience, history and art. It succeeds on two levels;
a) by showing and teaching what would become the common aspects of modern counter insurgency and b) by inferring that these aspects have a specific historical and productive context beyond the film that must be known and understood.
Algerian War Reshaped By Right Wing Propaganda
For the right and far right, the Algerian War is about the victim-hood of the colonists and the immorality and brutality of the rebel forces. Their explanation for the inability of the French to retain Algeria as a colony, is commonly seen in terms of de Gaulle's failure of Moral Will to support the white and Loyalist population:
It is regularly and correctly pointed out (see Meedes account), that the FLN were a minority among the majority of Algerians who had not only fought for France in Algeria but in its world wars and countless other colonial campaigns. French Algeria they say owed what progressive modernity it had to the Pied-Noir settler class. For this class and their supporters the author Albert Camus' fate became symbolic of what they saw as the tragedy of Algeria and what many on the right and far right see as the French lack of responsibility towards “its own people”. There is one problem with this account – it ignores the social and political changes among the ruler and subject classes that took place in Algeria during WWII.
After the fall of France to Hitler in June 1940 the French Algerian ruling class became ardent supporters of Vichy France. Anti-Semitic laws and French official accordance with Hitler's racial plan for Europe were given their African premiere by the colonist government. They continued that affinity with Hitler after the fall of Vichy Algeria in November 1942. The armed forces of Vichy Algeria then went from suppressing Free French Algerians to concentrate fully on the suppression of Algerian nationalists and revolutionaries. During the War, Vichy Algeria had clearly demonstrated to its subjected classes how it had willingly become an integral part of Vichy France. When Algerian's celebrated the defeat of fascism in 1945 in Sétif, banners were included that attacked colonial rule. The police attacked the demonstrators and opened fire with live rounds. Algerians then took part in hand to hand fighting with settlers in which 103 settlers were killed. The extent of the casualties caused by state and settler force reprisals by air, land and sea, is estimated by the UN at 6,000 Algerian deaths. The power to inflict such loss of life and on such a scale remained with the settlers. From then on the French Algerian Military dominated the leadership of settler groups, their politics transformed by the racial governance of war time France. That was the context that produced the Loyalist para-militarism and the intense opposition to reform. It was then a foregone conclusion that Algerian nationalism's mission to negotiate with de Gaulle and his provisional government would fail.
The rejected Abbas plan had called for the establishment of a social democratic welfare state in Algeria, which he thought could work as a collection of "department's” within France. However, de Gaulle had opposed such reforms and was fully aware and accepted the settlers opposition.
As the conflict developed between the two sides it was obvious that there would not be any social democratic solution or reform. This was made clear in the run up to independence when General Salan in 1958 not only led a Military Coup in Algeria he threatened to stage a similar coup in France unless de Gaulle was recalled as president to stop Algerian self-government. But as the war progressed political opinion only grew for independence. De Gaulle then agreed to hold a referendum in Algeria. The majority voted for independence. In response the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) and the colonists no longer staged regular huge flag waving demonstrations, organizing instead strikes (constitutional stoppages) in French Loyalist areas which they barricaded. They then conducted a bombing campaign against prominent supporters of Algerian independence in France and attempted to assassinate de Gaulle himself as he was now seen by the OAS as traitor.
Today this historical reality has been replaced with a moralist discourse that seeks to negate the Algerian independence movement's role in history by saying that supporters of independence must balance their view with accounts of nationalist atrocities. The point of which is to infer that those fighting the French had lost moral authority to do so. When the truth is that morality did not play any objective role in colonialism in the enslavement and later expropriation of the colonized. Rather it was the colonists who regard and still regard it moral to have been and to be - colonists - to freely dominate expropriate and enslave. In such circumstances those who are colonized were only regarded as worthy of colonization and not to take part in a debate about what is, or is not acceptable morally about being colonized.
It is therefore historically speaking absurd
when bourgeois commentators wish to start a moral debate about the role
of the colonized and not the colonizer after decolonization.
This aspect of colonial war was the subject of Pontecorvo's next film Burn (1969) which will be reviewed later.
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