[17 January 2005]
In the past year Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers has experienced a revival. Its connections to the current U.S. war in Iraq are obvious, leading to Rialto Pictures’ theatrical re-release in January of 2004. The Pentagon also reportedly arranged a private screening for CIA and Special Forces operatives as a primer on what not to do in Iraq. Perhaps the lesson didn’t stick, as it appears that U.S. troops, obeying short-sighted leadership, are doing exactly what the French did in Algiers over 50 years ago, and then some.
Shot in black-and-white “documentary” style, The Battle of Algiers chronicles the four year insurgency in the streets of Algiers that galvanized public support of the FLN (National Liberation Front) and marked the path towards Algerian independence from France in 1962, though the FLN lost this specific battle in 1957. The film details the apartheid of colonial Algeria, and the vast discrepancies of life and enfranchisement between the majority Muslim Arab population and French colonists.
The independence movement begins in the Casbah (the Arab quarter since the time of the Turkish empire), led by Djafar (played by real-life FLN leader Yacef Saadi) and Ali La Pointe (Brahmin Haggiag), a street crook turned radical nationalist and devout Muslim. Events proceed in a back and forth of insurgency/counterinsurgency, as the violence on both sides escalates.
Frustrated by the FLN’s elusiveness, the French colonial administration brings in the 10th Paratrooper Division, led by Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin). The military cordons off the Casbah and systematically hunts down the members of the FLN, from bottom to top. Mathieu insists on the appropriateness and necessity of torture to extract information from the insurgents, depicted here in gruesome detail. But neither the destruction of the FLN’s leadership nor the execution of Ali La Pointe ends the resistance. New leaders emerge, the resistance expands, and five years later, France will be forced to withdraw from Algeria.
Shot in Algiers in 1965, less than three years after independence, The Battle of Algiers features an impressive variety of non-professional actors, and masterfully directed crowd scenes. Criterion’s beautiful new edition both reintroduces the film to a wider audience and places it in relation to ongoing global political events, giving it renewed urgency. First and foremost, it is a supremely political film, indicting imperialist exploitation, state-sanctioned violence, the failures of counter-terrorism, the undefined status of enemy combatants, and the unethical conduct of war.
The question of contemporary film’s political efficacy is directly addressed in the featurette, “Five Directors.” Here, Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone discuss Pontecorvo’s influence and style. While Stone and Soderbergh are markedly pessimistic and Nair more optimistic, all consider the difficulties of making political films in the U.S. today. Even if this past year (when the featurette was produced) saw the release of many overtly political films, unlike Fahrenheit 9/11 or Supersize Me, The Battle of Algiers cultivates nuance and balance.
While Pontecorvo is clearly sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence (though he is strangely evasive on this point in two documentaries on the DVD, “Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth” and “Gillo Pontecorvo’s Return to Algiers”), his film shows the human and moral costs of violence on both sides of the conflict. With the exception of Mathieu, the French soldiers are mostly victims of poor administrative decisions and military hierarchies. If some French colonists are knee-jerk anti-Semites, many others are ordinary citizens leading their day to day lives. And though the film implicitly criticizes the FLN’s early religious “purification” of the Casbah, it respects the Muslim population’s desire for independence throughout.
It is interesting then, that The Battle of Algiers has been received in such divergent ways. In the extra, “The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study,” Richard A. Clarke, former U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, and Michael A. Sheehan, former State Department coordinator for counter-terrorism, discuss the film in a post-9/11 context. As Clarke points out, it has previously been cited by radical/leftist groups like the Black Panthers as a “blueprint for revolution”; he goes as far as to speculate that current global terrorist groups like Al Qaeda have seen the film, as it depicts many of the same guerrilla tactics deployed by the network.
Clarke sees two French failures in Algeria now repeated by the U.S. in Iraq and the war on terror. Rather than seek out moderate Arab and Muslim allies to support our political aims, we declare a global war, then torture prisoners to extract information necessary to win. But as Clarke and Sheehan both point out, information gathered from torture is unreliable at best. Without allies or useful intel, the U.S. only ensures that more and more Arab and Muslim populations throughout the world are dead-set against U.S. political aims.
What Clarke leaves out is that it is not terrorism that impels counter-terrorist actions on the part of imperialist powers. Rather, counter-terrorism directly produces terrorism. In Algiers, the French first execute members of the FLN. The French claim a right to kill these “criminals,” but the FLN asserts they are prisoners of war, jailed for fighting a just cause. After these executions bring a series of reprisals by the FLN, the French once again ratchet up the violence. It is only after anti-Algerian Europeans bomb an apartment building in the Casbah that the FLN resorts to bombings, striking three civilian targets in September of 1957.
This causal logic is complicated by events noted in another documentary on the DVD, “Remembering History.” Well before the French and FLN bombings during the Battle of Algiers, the FLN had been involved in other bombings in rural Algeria. Thus one might say the FLN “started it,” though it targeted military and administrative institutions, not civilian sites like apartment buildings. And the FLN was not so “innocent” in the consolidation of its own power as Pontecorvo’s film suggests. About the same time as the 1957 bombings in Algiers, out in the countryside, the FLN massacred members of Messali Hadj’s alternative insurgent group, the MNA (Algerian National Movement).
Things are never as simple as administrations would like us (and themselves) to believe. The current war on terror is not simply a response to an attack by “them” on us/U.S. The U.S. has a long history of monkeying in the affairs of the Middle East, supporting insurgents, terrorists, and “freedom fighters” in Islamic countries. The most important lesson of Criterion’s The Battle of Algiers is that, historically, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism reproduce the very terrorist acts and tactics they seek to eradicate. It’s perfectly Foucauldian; power produces its own objects of exploitation. Just so, the National Intelligence Council (the CIA director’s “think tank”) reports that Iraq is now a “breeding ground” for a new generation of smarter, more experienced terrorists (Washington Post, 14 January 2005, A1+).
As the military trials concerning abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay continue in Fort Hood, Texas, we might keep in mind the words of Henri Alleg, editor of the Algerian Communist Party’s newspaper Alger Républicain, whose opposition to French policy led to his arrest and torture at the height of the Battle of Algiers: “Every time torture is used throughout history, it leads to revolt, not only of those tortured, but also others.” Unless the United States acknowledges and takes responsibility for the violence and abuse it sanctions, and unless we create alliances rather than merely eliminate global networks, our “war on terror” will become the battle of Baghdad.