When I was a young child beginning to grow especially large in my cinephilia, I got to asking my dad what his favorite movie was. “The Battle of Algiers”. Oh cool, a movie from our country – Algeria – as my dad started going into what the movie was about and in terms of how it related to our history as a country finally emancipating from the French after a long war.
Or at least I like to think, because child me had that shit go in one ear and out the other.
Flash forward to maybe late 2000s, when I’m a teen and browsing the movie selections at video stores and I am first introduced to the Criterion Collection home video and figure it as a sort of public canon of films, since they are selective as to which films they bring to the ranks to begin with. Only a strictly prestigious distribution company would allow the likes of Armageddon and The Rock within their ranks. OK, so not as flawless a record, but I catch in the Criterion section of this video store The Battle of Algiers and recall my dad singing its high praises, even if I didn’t really recall what those praises were exactly. I guess it’s more than just my dad’s favorite movie, it’s a well-regarded piece of film canon.
I didn’t pick it up then.
Before I move on, probably better to hit upon the history behind the story The Battle of Algiers tells: In the late 1700s, negotiations and diplomacy between France and Algeria was a huge misnomer for what went on between the two states: Charles X – the Bourbon King – and Hussein Dey – the Ottoman ruler of Algeria – fucking hated each other and kept slighting each other one after the other, hurting the possibility of compromise and negotiation. By 1830, France became exasperated enough that they took to invading the capital of Algiers under the command of Marshall Bugeaud and a method of devastating the entire native population of Algeria through “scorched earth” tactics of extreme inhumanities and continuous bloodshed until they muscled France muscled itself into completely occupying and dividing Algeria in 1848. While the violence toned down after that year, for a century, relations between France and Algeria had been hostile and based in stifling the Muslim population until Front de Liberation Nationale was fomed in 1954 to regain independence for Algeria by any means necessary.
FLN was not the first or only of these groups to be formed but it was the one that apparently hit hardest as it spearheaded guerilla warfare and reopened the chaos and violence against the French occupation until French President Charles de Gaulle finally relented with a vote for Algerian independence in 1962 (I find it nothing less than providence that the American Day of Independence and the Algerian Day of Independence – the two nationalities with which I proudly I identify – are in fact consecutive… July 4th and July 5th) and Algeria has been since slowly rebuilding itself as a nation to this day. These events have been a shadow over Algerian history since and its most formative years.
That takes care of the historical context. Fast forward to 2011 and my first face-to-face introduction with The Battle of Algiers as a film itself…
In one of my college courses, we watch the very first few minutes of the film depicting a man in the aftermath of a particularly torturous interrogation by the French counter-insurgency in the presence of Col. Mathieu (played by Jean Martin, based on several French figures including Colonel Roger Trinquier and General Jacques Massu who oversaw the counter-insurgency in the real-life conflicts). Apparently the interrogation has been successful as they extracted from their subject the location of the hiding face of the rebellion himself, criminal turned FLN leader Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) and are on their way to take him down.
Two things hit me about the snippet of the film that we just watched: the hyper-realist style that director Gillo Pontecorvo, cinematographer Marcello Gatti, and editors Mario Morra and Mario Serandrei adapt to their content feels like a documentary or newreel presentation of completely unglorious elements of warfare you would not expect newsreels to have such access to. A man is completely beaten and humiliated and ashamed and it’s captured in grainy black-and-white cinematography with lighting more to accent the ugliness of the situation than to remind us that we’re watching a dramatization of these events essentially, the editing style of this scene is the only element that seems to adopt a more movie-style in its efforts to capture continuity of this – though Morra and Serandrei also are willing to let shots simply linger and overlook the officious yet destitute space this interrogation takes place in. It was unmistakably an aesthetic demanding that you recognize the real inhumanity of the scene without the artifice of it, while distancing yourself and making note of that distance in its documentary style, the sort of distance you get watching news footage of a war zone.
The second thing that hit me was that I recognized the tortured figure. Personally. He had been long passed since I last saw him as a child, but the man was my upstairs neighbor back in Algeria. Which made for a really uncomfortable watch in my classroom, seeing him act out being beaten. And when I finally got to watching The Battle of Algiers later that year, he was not the only face I’d be able to pick out from Bab el Oued in Algiers.
That’s the thing I have to acknowledge about Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. These elements of both personal recognition with some of the faces and places that Pontecorvo shot the film in that lead to a resonance that jumps right over the line of personal bias with the film. This was MY home they shot The Battle of Algiers in, these people were there for my childhood, this is my nation’s history that they’re planting into the streets I lived in. That’s not something I can pretend doesn’t affect my high enthusiasm for the film.
The other is that these elements of hyper-realism: the camera acting as a journalist, the editing adding emotional impact to moments (my favorite cut – indeed the very first image that comes to mind is when we’re introduced to la Pointe as a character and he witnesses with a charged fever the guillotine execution of a man from his prison cell; the shot immediately after we see decapitation from his point of view doesn’t even wait for the transition to complete before slamming into the daggered eyes of la Pointe noting his potential fate), the usage of local Algerian actors and very few familiar faces (Martin is a better known theatre actor in France than a film actor; Saadi Yacef, the real life leader of the FLN now sitting in the Council of the Nation is another recognizable face) are all expected of an Italian filmmaker in the neorealist movement of 1960s and all are continuously present in the film, but to scenes of extreme brutality and violence on both sides.
We are now meant to reckon with the reality of bombings occurring in the Casbah – a scene that most essentially showcases that Pontecorvo, Morra, and Serandrei know exactly how to use film technique to draw out tension in a heartstopping manner that recalls the famous opening scene to Touch of Evil in my mind, ticking down how distance and time left for our subjects before the bombs to be planted will explode; later on touching on that humanitarian aspect of neorealism to have our three central bomber characters interact with the French citizens they target and use it as coming of a cruel punchline where suddenly the faces in the crowd are granted personalities seconds before they are to become casualties – and a difficult scene Algerians beating a man to death for drinking to illustrate the adoption of Sharia law on the streets. The immediacy of these images and moments as we watch recalls the dark violence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which is also for my money the only movie that could actually use such realist framing of violence to an off-putting (and shallower) end.
Wait a second, both of those last scenes were portraying violence perpetrated by the Algerian rebels in a reprehensible manner, shouldn’t we be rooting for them? Most critics would use these depictions to argue that The Battle of Algiers is a film neutral in attitude towards the conflict, but I don’t think that’s the case. I find the movie heavily skewed on the side of the Algerians. My answer to that is quite complicated: the movie spent much of its time before this climactic bombing portraying the French counter-insurgency as inhumane and callous to Algerian lives and much of the same camera techniques looking over the dead casualties of the bombing parallel earlier shots overlooking dead Algerians. And I think it is necessary to drawback away from identifying the French as faceless tyrants simply ready to be punched in the face by the FLN – which I think also is aided by Martin’s casting in the film, something which especially pays off in a scene where he intellectually matches with the press during a conference discussing how the conflict has progressed. The Algerian rebellion may have the more impassioned argument (Haggiag gives la Pointe a coolly restrained attitude for many tense moments punctuated by moments of vocalized anger in the thick of a fight – he’s a guy looking for a reason to hit something rather and having found one, decided not to question it), but the French are the more satisfied orators of the sophistication and patience of their techniques, brutal as they are (in the press conference scene, there is made reference to the mysterious circumstances of FLN leader Ben M’Hidi’s alleged suicide, which was always made dubious based on Islam’s prohibition of the act. Pontecorvo and company completely play this sketch scenario as an obvious cover-up, forseeing the reveal 34 years after this movie’s release that M’Hidi WAS in fact summarily executed). The ugly side of wars like this is that it’s always going to end up lives being lost, real full lives that we are faced with in the bombing scene.
But even that’s not what I think Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas have in mind. The truth is that there’s no point where we are made to QUESTION the FLN. We are simply shown that these are things that happened regardless, there’s no punitive moment for this crime as opposed to the French counter-insurgency given all the villainous angles – they fucking waterboard a man at one point, and The Battle of Algiers is still notably on its side and the point to be made behind it is that: sometimes, violence IS the answer. It’s not pretty, it leaves behind a large mess afterwards for the nation to clean itself, but this was the only way FLN could fight against the French Occupation and make progress enough to earn its independence. The movie is using this as a rallying cry that revolution is a messy, bloody affair and that very rarely will you move forward by standing still and peacefully.
It’s a strong fucking message, one that forces a question of morality and pragmatism and it’s not even something it’s completely convinced by with a nightbound scene where Ali discusses the strike with a leader and is told violence is not the complete means. I’m not sure I completely agree with it, I’m not even sure how I parse it when the landscape used to illustrate this is my home and the places I grew up. But it’s there: Pontecorvo and company want to push you to realize that “this is how far things go when the stakes are this heated”. Does that make it a piece of propaganda? Undeniably so, it even acknowledges this in the same night discussion by addressing that the FLN actions are meant to mobilize people and having Martin discuss the battle of ideals with figures in his office – both in Algeria and France – yet it’s a towering achievement in speaking to the audience the varied veritability of cinema to communicate the ideals of its filmmaker and amplify its emotions with each cut and shot.
In the end, the movie hits me as both a cinephile and an Algerian and just as a person. It resonates in the side of me that recognizes that its an invaluable document of a history that bleeds into my country and even my family. It resonates with the side of me that sees that any element of a film can be used to speak to the audience in different tones and attitudes. And it resonates with the side of me that thinks that sometimes it’s harder to fight – physically or intellectually or emotionally – over something you need, a dignity you are entitled to, an independence that was stolen, an identity, and that’s going to take its price on you, but it’s imperative that you fight. And keep fighting and don’t count the cost until after you’ve done.
It’s an ugly truth and a hard pill to swallow, but I wouldn’t feel half as free as I do in either nation of mine – America or Algeria – if the people who established them didn’t swallow that truth first and fought my battles for me.