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  The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo

Philip Cunliffe
posted 5 June 2007

The Battle of Algiers is Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent 1966 masterpiece chronicling Algeria’s struggle for independence from French colonial rule. Since its re-release in the last few weeks, it seems that virtually every reviewer has felt obliged to mention a New York Times article of 2003, which reported that the Pentagon was offering screenings of the film to its top brass, with the tagline: ‘How to win the battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.’ I’ve organised screenings of the film myself across the last few years, and it seems that each time people watched it, like the denizens of the Pentagon they too saw it as a distant mirror, reflecting the bloody disaster in Iraq.

The film concerns the eponymous battle in Algeria’s capital city, during the protracted 1954-1962 struggle for Algerian independence. Told as a flashback on the cusp of defeat, the film begins by depicting the internal preparations within the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) as it mobilises to launch an urban uprising against the French: its disciplining of its own members, its propaganda against colonialism and establishment of a covert rudimentary government over Arab quarters of the city, as it steels the city’s Algerian population for the coming struggle. The film traces the dialectic of escalating violence between the FLN and the colonial security apparatus, as clashes between the two inexorably expand to embrace the civilian population of Algerians and European colonists in their entirety, with naked racist oppression of the city’s Arabs by the French on the one hand, and indiscriminate FLN bombing of the European quarter on the other.

As the uprising gathers momentum, the colonial government brings in elite paratroopers, who proceed to decimate the FLN cells by systematically torturing suspects, until they finally succeed in annihilating the FLN leadership. But as the Pentagon’s tagline indicates, out of the military defeat of the FLN emerges something greater and much more powerful: an entire nation united in resistance, making French colonial rule impotent no matter how many tanks are on the streets. Despite some aspects of the film clearly being dated (such as the audio dubbing of gunfire), it is remarkable how little this jars, so completely does the film sweep up the viewer in the tumult of historical struggle, with its black and white, documentary-style cinematography that does not have even one second of actual documentary footage – the historical events all having been re-created.

But it is not just the film’s narrative or visual impact that explains its force – it is also the political arguments of the protagonists: the discussions and ideas of the FLN leadership on the one hand, and on the other, the news briefings of Philippe Mathieu, the colonel leading the French paratroopers. Its cinematic power notwithstanding, the success of the film is usually attributed to this supposed ‘balance’: both sides get their say, and the FLN violence inflicted on the European colonists is depicted as unflinchingly as the French brutalisation of the Algerians. But this conventional characterisation is not quite right; mere even-handedness cannot explain the film’s power. The Pentagon’s tagline is closer to the truth here. Without needing to invoke agitprop, the film still demonstrates, with the remorseless logic of a mathematical proof, that the French defeat in the war of ideas is inevitable. For all the withering critique offered by the FLN’s leaders in the film, the key political moment is articulated not by an Algerian, but by the French oppressor, Mathieu. ‘Should the French stay in Algeria?’, Mathieu asks the liberal reporters questioning his paratroopers’ brutal methods. ‘If your answer is still yes,’ he tells them, ‘then you must be willing to accept all the necessary consequences.’ And that is the crux of the matter: all the Algerians want is freedom, while all the French have to offer is napalm, torture and racial oppression. The French have no justifiable reason to stay.

That is probably as much as can be conceded to the Pentagon, for there is very little similarity between Iraq today and Algerian independence. Bombings and atrocities there may be aplenty, but the Anglo-American war in Iraq is not about colonialism, but driven by democratisation and human rights; and there is no national liberation front leading the Iraqi insurgents in a struggle for freedom. That is at least one good reason to see this film. Although it portrays a different era, the film has a timeless and universal quality: not in its depiction of the brutalities of war in some distant Eastern country, but in its portrayal of what is entailed in a genuine struggle for freedom.

Philip Cunliffe is a coeditor of Politics Without Sovereignty: a Critique of Contemporary International Relations, published by UCL Press.


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