Revolution in the Mirror

Life Imitates Art in the Middle East and North Africa

by Timothy Ledwith

7 April 2011


The Cinema of Struggle

Qaddafi stands alone at a lectern, stabbing the air as he speaks. In the voiceover translation, he calls his enemies vermin. He pledges to hunt them down. He says he will fight to the death. A BBC correspondent breaks in to explain that it’s been a week since the protests broke out in Benghazi. The correspondent says Qaddafi seems divorced from reality. The rant goes on and on.

Debates about interpretation seem to be coded into the DNA of The Battle of Algiers, which has long served as a sort of fictive looking glass for wars of insurgency and liberation.

In revisiting The Battle of Algiers, I couldn’t help sensing shades of the unrest in cities across Libya, especially in the country’s war-torn east. There, a ruthless, determined army has been suppressing a revolt by people who strained under the burden of oppression for decades and are equally determined to throw it off. In this respect, Pontecorvo’s film mirrors the battle joined by Qaddafi and his internal adversaries.

Now, any comparison between The Battle of Algiers and the battle of Libya must acknowledge a fundamental contradiction: The Qaddafi regime is not a colonial occupier, as France obviously was. Attempts to equate the struggle against Qaddafi and the one rendered by Pontecorvo, therefore, remain subject to debate. Allied intervention in that struggle muddies the waters even further.

Curiously, debates about interpretation seem to be coded into the DNA of The Battle of Algiers, which has long served as a sort of fictive looking glass for wars of insurgency and liberation. During the Vietnam War, for example, peace protestors often cited it as a metaphor for US folly in Indochina. It was screened in Jerusalem during the first Palestinian intifada, as well, amid fierce controversy over the idea of equating colonial Algeria with the West Bank and Gaza. In 2003, Pentagon officials showed it during the early months of the Iraq war to learn from the mistakes of the French counterinsurgency.

cover art

The Battle of Algiers

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin

US DVD: 12 Oct 2004

It’s easy to make these connections because The Battle of Algiers deliberately lends itself to blurred distinctions between fiction and reality. Shot in black-and-white documentary style, largely with a hand-held camera, the film has the in-your-face immediacy of news footage from a war zone. At the same time, Pontecorvo casts non-professionals in almost every role, including some Algerians who actually had been prominent insurgents. The result is disorienting. It’s also one of the most realistic representations of urban guerilla warfare ever filmed.

Pontecorvo’s camera doesn’t flinch in its impassive portrayal of calculated acts of torture and terror by the French forces and the National Liberation Front rebels. The French ultimately win a tactical victory, blowing up a rebel leader’s hideout in the labyrinth of the Casbah after he refuses to surrender. This is just the kind of no-holds-barred response that manifested itself in the Libyan bombardment of rebel neighborhoods. If Qaddafi succeeds in crushing the insurrection in spite of all the forces arrayed against him, it’s not hard to imagine the opposition going underground. The result would be the sort of war of attrition that Pontecorvo illustrates to such suspenseful effect through most of The Battle of Algiers.

But then, in a coda that goes by so quickly it feels almost like an afterthought, the screen fills with images of demonstrators, mostly women, rallying vigorously, dervish-like, in the streets of Algiers. As the story ends, they have overcome colonial rule as if by sheer force of will, and Algeria wins its independence.

In the grim context of Libya today – along with Yemen, Syria, Bahrain and Algeria itself – this finalé offers a ray of hope for anyone who believes that life imitates art. While dictators rely upon brute force to have their way, The Battle of Algiers posits an alternative view: that authentic mass movements can withstand the blunt instrument of state violence, and in the end, they can even overcome it.

From The Battle of Algiers (1967)

From The Battle of Algiers (1967)

It’s late. CNN fades in and out of focus. Now cruise missiles are piercing the Mediterranean night off the Libyan coast, briefly illuminating the superstructure of an American destroyer. I can’t help thinking, I’ve seen this show before. Next, protestors in Yemen rally under the bright San’a sun as soldiers wearing fatigues and red berets greet them warmly and join their ranks. Then women in headscarves line up at a Cairo polling station. They vote, dip their fingertips in ink and exit to the street. They talk to the camera crew. They laugh with each other, unafraid.

If Eisenstein and Pontecorvo were alive today, they might well seize upon the compelling story of the Arab spring and use it to work their cinematic magic. Certainly some present-day filmmaker will attempt to do so, and soon. In this case, the first digital draft of history is already being sketched; the challenge will be to transform the chaos of struggle into a narrative that speaks to something elemental in our nature.

Still, it has to be said: While the triumph of the popular will is exhilarating to witness, on film and in real life, it can also lead to unintended consequences. Neither Battleship Potemkin nor The Battle of Algiers addresses this thorny issue, but the post-revolutionary histories of both Russia and Algeria provide some cautionary insights.

In Algeria, as in so many former outposts of empire, the government that took power after independence in 1962 went on to lose touch with its people, leading to a brutal civil war whose embers still smolder. Now that government is caught in the pincers of popular unrest on one side and a quasi-mutinous army on the other. In Russia, of course, a victorious revolution followed the abortive Odessa uprising of 1905 by a dozen years. The Soviet system was installed in 1917 and endured until 1991, under stifling and usually iron-fisted rulers. That empire, too, was toppled, like the Tsarists’ domain before.

At first glance, these are hard lessons in the corrosive effects of power, even and perhaps especially among former revolutionaries. But this history also reaffirms – as Eisenstein and Pontecorvo so artfully proposed – that the human impulse toward equity and justice is innate and indestructible. Nearly three eventful months after I ventured out to the Film Forum on that freezing January night, Battleship Potemkin and The Battle of Algiers still serve as timely reminders that the pressure cooker of dictatorship cannot abide. Eventually, it will either lose steam or self-destruct. If only for a brief moment, common decency will be ascendant. And with any luck, someone with a conscience and a camera will tell the tale in shadows and light.

Timothy Ledwith is a fellow at The Writers’ Institute of the CUNY Graduate Center.

Battleship Potemkin, restored and released by Kino International, comes complete with composer Edmund Meisel’s rousing original score and all 1,374 shots from the print that premiered in Moscow in 1925. The film’s US theatrical tour concludes in mid-April in Kansas City.

The Battle of Algiers is newly available as part of the Criterion Collection on the internet movie channel Hulu Plus.

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