Revolution in the Mirror: Life Imitates Art in the Middle East and North Africa

Battleship Potemkin
Sergei M. Eisenstein
Kino Lorber
20 April 2010

The photos are easy to find but awful to behold. In one of them, a man in flames is standing between two other men who reach out helplessly. In another, the burning man is on all fours on the pavement, holding himself up, still engulfed in accelerant and fire. This is an act of protest. He is charred nearly to death, and soon he will die, but he remains rigid, determined. I’ve never been an adherent to the cult of martyrdom, in fact I find it repellant. But I can’t look away.

One frigid night this past January, I left work in mid-Manhattan and braved the cold to attend a screening of Battleship Potemkin at the Film Forum. I had seen Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein’s silent epic of revolution and reaction before, but a meticulously restored print was on view downtown. Besides, world events seemed to recommend a fresh look. By coincidence, mass uprisings were sweeping the Middle East and North Africa just as Eisenstein’s 86-year-old agit-prop masterwork commenced a multi-city US tour.

Battleship Potemkin had begun its theatrical run in New York on the same day Tunisia’s entrenched ruler resigned following a month of street protests. When I saw the film about a week later, pro-democracy demonstrations were erupting in Egypt. Images of rebellion were everywhere in the media by then, from grainy cell phone pictures to live broadcast coverage. They told a perennial story of human beings who had roused themselves from submission to demand their rights and dignity against the odds. As I watched Eisenstein’s ode to a 1905 revolt in the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, I realized this was the very story, in broad strokes, that I had been following in the news.

As the film begins, the hulking Russian battleship is returning to port in defeat at the end of the Russo-Japanese war. Led by the Bolshevik seaman Vakulinchuk, the already demoralized crew mutinies when the ship’s officers insist that they eat borscht made from maggot-infested meat. The crew prevails, but Vakulinchuk is killed. His shipmates take him ashore, where a general strike is under way. The Odessans turn out in force to view his body, strengthening their resolve to fight on.

Flash forward to Tunisia in December 2010, when a young street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, immolates himself to protest official corruption and indifference. Like the fictional Vakulinchuk, he is mourned by his countrymen as a martyr. They rise up in his name, leading to the fall of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power.

For the masses portrayed in Battleship Potemkin, things don’t turn out so well. Their uprising is brutally suppressed in the “Odessa Steps” sequence – one of the most widely celebrated scenes in film history and the apogee of Eisenstein’s quick-cutting montage style. A squad of the Tsar’s Cossacks marches against the assembled crowd on a great stone staircase leading up from the Black Sea. Firing methodically and indiscriminately, they advance without remorse over the bodies of slaughtered men, women and children. Eisenstein captures the random brutality of the attack with a riveting series of split-second shots that have become iconic: a runaway baby carriage, a woman’s glasses shattered by a bullet in the eye, the jackboots of the advancing soldiers.

When thousands of pro-democracy Egyptians encamped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for 18 days during January and February, the army stood down. But Egypt’s paramilitary state-security forces, ominously reminiscent of the Cossacks, were notorious for their brutality and loyalty to the autocratic regime. In the end, with some blood spilled but no Potemkin-style massacre, President Hosni Mubarak was forced to step aside.

The video clip is pixilated, impressionistic. It suggests a window into the past: a hundred years ago, or a thousand. Dozens of thugs on horses and camels burst into Tahrir Square. Clubs swinging, they charge the dense crowd, which disperses in panic. It’s hard to see exactly what’s happening from this distant angle, but soon the battle seems to have turned. The protestors regroup. They close in on the attackers. A riderless horse gallops out of the frame. A camel rider zig-zags back through the square in full retreat. The crowd roars.

The movement that brought Mubarak down has been described as spontaneous and essentially leaderless. It was organized in large part through social media and the internet, rather than coalescing around charismatic or inspiring figures. Eisenstein’s decision to eschew the use of “stars” in Battleship Potemkin – instead placing the broader story in the foreground – creates a comparable impression of the events in Odessa. The proletariat as a whole is heroic enough, the film implies, so why focus too tightly on individuals?

For many of us watching from afar, the Egyptian protestors were similarly heroic. And for those of us who had even a passing familiarity with Battleship Potemkin, some variation on the Odessa Steps bloodbath was the most nightmarish imaginable outcome as those 18 days in the square wore on. In effect, Eisenstein’s furiously edited sequence has become a generic signifier of raw political repression.

This may explain why so many governments have been wary of Battleship Potemkin over the years. The film was banned in much of Western Europe for decades, and for a short time in the Soviet Union itself. Even when it was screened, the authorities excised scenes that they considered inflammatory or subversive. Film preservationists Enno Palatas and Anna Bohn took years to complete the newly restored version specifically because the original had been so badly butchered by the censors. It had to be pieced back together, frame by frame, from prints scattered around the globe.

In fact, Battleship Potemkin has always been in the thick of the political fray. It started out as a Soviet propaganda vehicle commemorating the 20th anniversary of the failed revolution that unfolds onscreen. The film transcends its propagandistic origins by capturing the sheer humanity of a people pushed beyond their limits.

Right now, as millions of people in the Arab world are being pushed – and are pushing back – the long-term prospects for democracy and human rights in their region remain unclear. Tunisia and Egypt, at least, have made some strides forward. Elsewhere, the darkest Odessa fears of democracy supporters have become all too grotesquely real. The circumstances are especially ominous in Libya, where non-violent mass mobilization has degenerated into full-scale civil war and international military engagement in the wake of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s violent crackdown.

Yet despite the similarities between Qaddafi’s tactics and the cruelty of the Cossacks, Battleship Potemkin may not be the ideal cinematic prism through which to view the Libyan conflict. In Battleship Potemkin, the narrative amounts to a prequel to armed struggle, not a depiction of it. In Libya, on the other hand, a bloody clash is already, tragically, in progress. So a true filmic doppelgänger for the current crisis would have to address the moral complexities of resisting an oppressor by force of arms.

Those complexities are at the heart of The Battle of Algiers. The 1966 classic by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo dramatizes, at ground level, the Algerian war for independence against the French in the ’50s and early-’60s. Having last seen the film about a decade ago, I caught up with it recently online and was jolted by its echoes of ongoing events.

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.

DVD: The Battle of Algiers

Film: The Battle of Algiers

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo

Cast: Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin

Release date: 2004-10-12

Distributor: Criterion

Image:’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)

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.