The Battle Of Algiers: Neo-Realist Revolution

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Since winning the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival, The Battle Of Algiers has been seen as both a revolutionaries cinema verité manual, and a warning to military occupiers the world over. Its audacious style and semi-documentary feel are firmly rooted in the leftist tradition, yet it walks a fine line of even-handedness.

During the Algerian war of independence (1955-1962), Saadi Yacef was military head of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale), specifically fomenting resistance against France in the capital Algiers. During captivity, he wrote his Souvenirs De La Bataille D’Alger. Post independence in 1962, he hoped to base a film on his memoir. He was now focusing his efforts, having resigned from public office, on creating the country’s first film production company. As an admirer of Italian Neo-realism, he sought out Gillo Pontecorvo. The Italian director had himself fought during WWII as an anti-fascist partisan. He enlisted screenwriter Franco Solinas, whose experience ranged from dramas to spaghetti westerns.

Their first idea, to Yacef’s dismay, was to tell the story from the viewpoint of a French reporter entering Algiers with the Paracute Regiment. Paul Newman was all set to star. “That,” recalled Yacef, “would have been a rather different movie.”

Pontecorvo rethought his approach. Utilising his extensive research interviewing Paratroops in Paris, and the people of the Casbah in Algiers, he adopted a newsreel style, immediate, hand held, in amongst the movers and shakers, and ordinary people caught up in the momentous events. He even persuaded Yacef to appear as himself; as an on-set advisor and actor, he was invaluable. “The house where you see me finally arrested, that’s where it happened. I wanted the film to act as a record for later generations…it’s all there to show them.” A later scene where a young girl runs upstairs to replace the grout around false tiling hiding FLN fighters was shot done twenty times until the inexperienced amateur was panting, agitated – just the real effect Pontecorvo wanted.

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The film’s opening scene begins with those self same survivors, the last remaining cell, surrounded and holed up in the Casbah. It then unfolds in flashback, from escalating resistance and atrocities on both sides, to the crackdown by French paratroopers, using torture to extract information. Finally, after a two year lull, with the FLN seemingly defeated, mass demonstrations of ululating women press the barricades, demanding freedom.

The story is mostly built around a petty criminal-cum-zealot, Ali La Pointe (a real person). His death marked the end of the Battle Of Algiers. The other main character is the Paras Colonel Matthieu (Jean Martin), based on General Jacques Massu. Many sequences are painstakingly accurate, such as the chilling suspenseful moment when three FLN women, wearing western make-up and clothing, smile and nod to soldiers as they pass through the Casbah checkpoints, before placing timed explosives in crowded bars in the European Quarter.

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Later, Matthieu runs security footage from the checkpoints, and we see one of the women bombers, in the same moment we saw earlier, from a slightly different vantage point, the silent film whirring in the projector. We are complicit observers, whether it be on the streets, in an FLN cell meeting, or a press conference.

Pontecorvo and Yacef  were determined not to demonise Matthieu. Yacef: “If we’d turned him into a devil it wouldn’t have been true and no-one would have believed it. There were intelligent men in the French army (Matthieu was a decorated veteran of the WWII resistance). It’s only a shame they were pressed into a colonialist war.”

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“And you’ll notice that Ennio Morricone uses the same tragic theme for when the French bomb a building in the Casbah and women and children are killed, as when our people bomb a milk bar in the European quarter. It shows you the equality of suffering. There’s no hate in it – it just shows you what happened.”

Moral compromise and obfuscation permeate each sides tactics and strategy. Matthieu endorses torture to extract information on the FLN’s cell structure. Challenged by hostile French press, he asks of them, “Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer “Yes”, you must accept all the necessary consequences.” What are the “necessary consequences” in the West’s “War on terror”? A question that vexed critics of the recent dramatisation of the hunt for Bin Laden, Zero Dark Thirty. 

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The FLN meanwhile, was a secular organisation, yet it cynically whipped up the populace with appeals to Islamic law – at one point a baying group of children harass and beat a drunk returning to the Casbah.

The film suggests a spontaneous eruption of people power led to the French abandoning Algeria, ignoring the terror campaign against settlers in the wider country. French interests continued to have a say in the exploitation of its natural resources. The victorious FLN was split – weeks before Pontecorvo began filming in Algiers, Minister of Defence Colonel Houari Boumediene staged an audacious coup against weak president Ben Balli on 18 June 1965. The director had been promised carte blanche to film in the city, thousands at his disposal, including half the armed forces. As the coup took place in a matter of near bloodless hours, troops reassured the population, “Don’t worry, we’re shooting the Battle Of Algiers.”

And what of the film’s reception in France? Popular myth has it that it was banned there until 1971, while elsewhere everyone from The Black Panthers of America’s ghettoes to the PLO were furiously taking notes in cinemas. Pontecorvo states:

“In fact, the French authorities, who were very sensitive on the Algerian issue, banned our film for three months. They sabotaged it, in effect, because although it was announced as playing at four big cinemas in Paris, the Fascist organisation, the OSS, let the exhibitors know that they would be bombed if they went ahead with the screening. After four years of this, Louis Malle and a group of French film directors who adored the film said, “We must fight for this film.” I made an agreement with various youth organisations, and some thirty of them maintained a round the clock watch on the three cinemas where the film was screened – discreetly, of course. Nothing happened, and the film was released throughout France. In fact, there was only one incident, when someone threw ink at the screen in Lyon.”

Nearly fifty years later, The Battle Of Algiers has lost none of its power, but do audiences learn from it? Before entering Iraq in 2003, the Pentagon’s Special operations chiefs screened the film. Their release read:

“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas…children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervour. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically.”

The legacy of American involvement in that troubled land would indicate it has failed to heed the lessons of France.

Originally posted 2014-02-25 22:51:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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