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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Review: The Battle of Algiers (1966)

* * * *

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Starring: Brahim Hadadj, Jean Martin, Yacef Saadi

It's hardly hyperbole to say that Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers is one of the most influential movies ever made. It not only echoes in movies about terrorism made after 1966, but has been used in the real world as a sort of training tool, studied by US officials in 2003 as a means of better understanding the situation in Iraq, and by insurgent groups around the world as part of strategy discussions. That it could have value to both sides of any given armed conflict going on at any given time in the world is hardly surprising. Though it ultimately leans far more to the side of the rebels of its story, The Battle of Algiers isn't so partisan a film that it depicts the army as "evil." It depicts atrocities committed by both sides and it depicts both sides, at times, in a sympathetic light; it is, if anything, on the side of the nameless, faceless people caught in the middle, their homes turned into war zones. With is realist, newsreel style filming, The Battle of Algiers is a work which remains highly powerful, and perhaps has only grown in power since its release as wars between two military forces become increasingly less common than wars between military and insurgent forces.

The Battle of Algiers covers the period between 1954 and 1957 as guerrilla fighters of the FLN (the National Liberation Front) clash with the French army during the Algerian War of Independence. The character who provides the audience with a point of entry into the conflict is Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadadj) who, upon being released from prison, is recruited by the FLN and given his first test: he's to shoot a policeman who meets regularly with an Algerian informer with a gun which will be provided to him by a woman who will approach him in the street. Ali follows through on his end, taking the gun when the time comes and pulling the trigger, but immediately believes he's been set up when he finds that the gun isn't loaded. Upon meeting his FLN contact, El-hadi Jafar (Yacef Saadi), Jafar informs him that the gun wasn't loaded because the FLN didn't actually need him to kill the police officer, they merely needed to test whether or not Ali had been recruited by the French to infiltrate the FLN (the reasoning being that if Ali was a French informer, his police handlers would never let him murder one of their own). From then on, Ali works closely with Jafar as the FLN proceeds with a campaign of police murders that results in the French government cracking down by quarantining Muslim neighborhoods, trying to control movement in and out of the districts and abandoning any pretense that the Muslim population enjoys anything remotely resembling civil liberties.

When the police prove unable to contain the insurgent forces on their own, French army paratroopers under the command of Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin) are brought in and take the battle to the next level. They crack down even further on the residents in the Muslim neighborhoods, going in and smashing up shops, randomly searching houses, using torture techniques when they bring people in for questioning, and blowing up buildings (the FLN blows up a few buildings, too). Yet, while Col. Mathieu and his troops are clearly in the power position and abuse that power in ways that are typical in this type of situation (not to mention that their actions are often depicted as being laced with an undercurrent of racism as the term "filthy Arab" gets tossed around a lot by the French troops), the French aren't really demonized by the film and Mathieu, in particular, is portrayed as a complex man rather than a one-note villain. He's willing to blow up a building, killing the members of the FLN who are inside and rendering the ordinary people who usually live there homeless, but he'd rather take the FLN members alive and minimize the destruction if that's an option. He also expresses respect for leaders of the FLN and bemoans the fact that the renowned thinkers of the world are never on the side of the government in situations like this one. He's there to do a job and he intends to do it well, but ultimately none of this is very personal to him, which is perhaps why the Algerians are destined to win the war even if they lose this particular battle. Mathieu can smother the rebellion for a time, but people who want to be free will always want to be free and even if the French succeed in cutting off the head of the rebellion by capturing Jafar and killing Ali, the rebels will find a way to regroup and push their cause forward even if that takes years.

As written by Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas, The Battle of Algiers is a film which has greater sympathy for the FLN than it does for the French, but doesn't flinch when it comes to showing the FLN employing terrorist tactics in order to make gains in the war. Mid-way through the film is a sequence in which three female FLN members make themselves up to look like French women, which allows them to pass through check points without being searched. Each one is carrying a bomb in a handbag which she will leave in a crowded place and each one, one she gets to her respective target, looks as if she may have second thoughts as she glances around and sees the people who are about to be killed or harmed by what she's about to do. Some of the people who will be victims of the bomb are children, and none of the victims are combatants; all are merely civilians. The sequence is rendered with such incredible tension that it makes you feel a little bit sick watching it and waiting for the results, and the film uses it to make two important points. The one most immediately made is that innocent people will be caught in the middle of combat and both sides will have occasion to be guilty of using civilians to strike a moral/psychological blow against the enemy. The other point, made a little bit later, is that in a system built on oppression, the oppressed people have the advantage of understanding the oppressors better than the oppressors understand them. This point is made when the check point portion of the sequence is revisited as Mathieu meets with his men to review footage that was shot at the check points on the day of the bombings. The women appear in the video footage Mathieu is reviewing, but he doesn't notice them because neither he nor any of the other officers is looking for them. The women have had the opportunity to observe the French and found ways to assimilate to look like them and so they're rendered invisible to the eyes of the army even when they're right in front of them.

The Battle of Algiers features a lot of action rendered with great immediacy as the war is fought in the streets, but what ultimately makes the film so powerful is less the destruction that it depicts (though scenes of both sides picking through the rumble of bombings to collect their dead are certainly affecting) than the way that it pulls back the mentality of both sides to show the more psychological aspects of warfare. The FLN engages in acts of terror (and acknowledges them as such) but, as Jafar explains to Ali, those acts of violence are only meant to be a short-term strategy to allow Algerians to get a foothold in the fight and gain the confidence needed to pursue independence through less violent means (such as work strikes and mass demonstrations). On the other side, Mathieu laments that the French are being compared to the Nazis despite the fact that many of the French soldiers fought in the French Resistance and some are survivors of concentration camps. That the irony of the situation is lost on him is telling and speaks to the racial aspects at play even more than the slurs tossed around by the French soldiers or the way that white/French citizens are routinely depicted as lynch mobs ready to make sure that the Algerians are kept in their "place." The French may not compare to the Nazis in terms of the sheer level of atrocities committed, but they're still a foreign force occupying a nation and keeping the native population under thumb through brutality. To the Algerians, the comparison of the French to the Nazis is apt, but to the French, seeing the situation through a colonial lens, the situation is totally different. The French don't see themselves as a force occupying a country they have no right to; from their perspective, the Algerians are being done the favor of having a "civilizing" force present to drag them into modernity. Mathieu can't see the Algerian insurgents as kin to the French Resistance because to do so would be to admit not only that Algerians have the right to govern themselves free of the presence of a foreign invader, but that the right to autonomy belongs to people of color just as much as to white people.

That The Battle of Algiers met with controversy on its release is not surprising. The directness of its violence alone, rendered as it is in so matter-of-fact a fashion, would probably have been enough to inspire a pearl-clutching reaction in several corners, but it's the political content that ultimately resulted in it being banned for several years in France, and the fact that the film ended up being adopted as an inspiration by insurgent forces throughout the world did nothing to temper the controversy. Putting all that aside though and just looking at the film for what it is (a film), what you inevitably see is the incredible amount of craft, both in terms of the narrative and in terms of the visual rendering, involved here. The Battle of Algiers has an "on the ground" feel to it that puts the viewer right at the center of the conflict and which makes the story particularly involving to watch. The Battle of Algiers is a great movie, well-deserving of its status in various polls as one of the greatest movies of all time.

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