Film Review: The Battle of Algiers Criterion Collection DVD
Any time you’re in somebody else’s land, in their country, and they don’t want you there, you weren’t invited: I think that you can just look at The Battle of Algiers and see what you’re in store for.-Spike Lee
I spent from about 6PM to midnight Saturday evening watching the 3 DVDs in the Criterion Collection release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers. I had never seen the movie before, so the whole set was a new experience. Outside of having seen a film on Frantz Fanon’s life and work about 10 years ago I am ignorant of Algerian history and the struggle against French occupation. So the DVD set was somewhat of an education for me.
There are two broad kinds of political film. The first is overt propaganda, the second is fictionalized storytelling with a political message. I am as much a fan as the next person of well-made politically astute propaganda (Robert Greenwald’s valuable Wal-Mart is a recent example ). In my opinion, the purpose of such pieces is to build a strong emotional response to injustice, gather supporting arguments, and to marshall forces. The Battle of Algiers, however, falls into the second category. The director Gillo Pontecorvo obviously supports the anti-imperialist Algerian resistance, but the film’s sympathetic treatment of the French occupiers, who like many in such circumstances, have an interlocking set of rationalizations and justifications for their behavior (albeit false and morally unjustifiable at their core), gives the film a breadth and sense of reality that it would not have if it were solely a propaganda tract. The price to pay for this is, however, the fact that people of different political stripes will draw different lessons from watching it. This is not in my opinion a bad thing. Any movement for social change worth its salt must acknowledge the humanity of those it is up against, understand their motivations and probable tactics, and not sugarcoat the tactics of resistance, both violent and non-violent. Criterion’s The Battle of Algiers set does this well.
Pontecorvo wanted to impose a “dictatorship of the truth” on audiences, so he attempted to make his film appear as real as possible. The realism of the film is heightened by the newsreel-style black and white cinematography and the use of nonprofessional actors in almost all roles. The scenes of rioting in Algiers were filmed only a few years after the real demonstrations, and many of the extras who made up the crowd were probably involved in the original events, thus bringing real emotions and sensibilities to their work. It was like interviewing all the Arab residents of Algiers, all at once. More realism comes from the fact that the The Battle of Algiers is based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef (now member of the Algerian parliament), the head of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the Casbah, who plays himself in the film. Pontecorvo’s experience as a communist leader of the Italian anti-Fascist resistance in his own country in World War II surely informed the film as well.
Since its release in 1966, The Battle of Algiers has been referred to by both the left and the right to justify, instruct, and inspire various colonial and anti-colonial projects. This is the paradox of the film’s success over the years, I suppose. The documentaries that accompany the film perhaps deliberately follow this “balanced” approach: there is a piece produced in the early 1990s by Tariq Ali and narrated by Edward Said which comments among other things on the relevance of the film to today’s struggles against occupation, notably the Palestinian intifadah; and there is an interview with former US “counterterrorism” officials Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan discussing the French “mistakes” and what the US should do differently in its war against Al Qaeda.
The Clarke/Sheehan interview is truly surreal. In an otherwise anti-colonialist DVD set, you have two “anti-terrorism” pundits in the Clinton and Bush administrations discussing “what the French could have done,” and remarking how torture and heavy-handed strikes are not tactically correct for an occupying power which should be trying to deligitimize it’s enemy. Since this is the only real entry in the set that deals with current US policy in the light of the Battle of Algiers, there is little to suggest that the US current project in the Middle East is just as wrong as the French occupation of Algeria. Thus George Will could easily write last April,
The differences between the Algerian insurgency and today’s Iraqi insurgency are, of course, profound. In the former, North Africans were rising in the name of self-determination against rule by Europeans. Since the Jan. 30 elections, Iraqi insurgents have been fighting an Iraqi government, albeit an embryonic one with a dangerously protracted gestation period. 
I’m sure the French colonists were just as incapable of seeing the Algerian insurgents as fighters for a worthy cause, and justified their suppression of the NLF by saying those fighting the French-imposed system were against their own people, who after all were French nationals who could even become citizens.
The Criterion set includes an interview with 5 of today’s well-known directors influenced by The Battle of Algiers: Mira Nair, Spike Lee, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone. Nair, who has done some good socially-conscious films, praised Pontecorvo’s film as the film she wish she had directed. Personally I’m glad she hasn’t tried to direct such a film, especially given last year’s disengaging costume drama Vanity Fair, whose hands-off approach to British imperialism bordered on overt orientalism (according to her this was a subtle comment on orientalism, but I didn’t get it). (Ironically, Vanity Fair was dedicated to the late Edward Said, who was a friend of Nair’s). Her statements about political filmmaking were to the effect that she hopes someone will do it, but it won’t be her. Equally disappointing was Soderbergh, who lamented the fact that he started making movies after the era of great political films like The Battle of Algiers and Costa-Gavras’s Z. As if Pontecorvo decided to make his film because he thought it was a good time to make a political film, and there were few risks. Schnabel, the only director who I wasn’t familiar with, made a rare comment that the kind of struggles the film depicted were still going on today.
It looks like if you saw the news in Iraq and you had a black and white television set, it looks like you could have seen this film right now. It’s the same thing, and there’s something very disturbing about that.
Lee said, correctly, that the Algerians were right to fight their oppressors. Stone praised the technical aspects of The Battle of Algiers, but remarked that people complained to him that the film was a little too biased in favor of the Algerians.
If anything, Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers took more than the necessary pains to give the French occupation the benefit of the doubt. The historical context of the film is pretty much left out, poorly motivating the need for violent resistance. Today’s audiences benefit from the excellent historical material that is on the companion disks, in which we learn that The Battle of Algiers was only a piece of the 1954-1962 Algerian war for independence, the part fought in the capital city Algiers, where most of the French colonists lived. The French had occupied Algeria since 1830, but the invasion was immediately resisted by Abdel Kadir. A nationalist struggle for self-determination was always a part of the Algerian milieu. In particular, the violent suppression of Algerian demonstrations in 1945, leading to the massacres of 6-8,000 villagers near Setif, set the stage for the final freedom struggle that led to independence. The NLF movement was already active for years in the countryside before the 1954-1957 events in the capital that are the focus of Pontecorvo’s film. Little of this history was provided by the film, perhaps allowing today’s audiences to think that the French settlers were helpless victims of Algerian terrorists in the same way as the Algerian civilians were victims of the French military. The film does show that in Algiers, the first attacks on civilians were carried out by clandestine French terrorist groups made up of police officials and settlers. Only after the French terrorism did violent attacks by the NLF on French civilians begin.
The French had participated in the crime of occupation with the full benefit of the French military to enforce it violently, with all the tools of terror and torture at its disposal, and a supposedly blind legal system, which was racist in practice, backing it up. (Compare with the similar situation in Palestine, or in the American occupations of native lands, or in today’s current US projects in Muslim lands.) The French were reaping the logical consequences of their actions. As Oliver Stone noted in the companion disk (and as has been said by other commentators regarding the 9/11 atrocities), the French chickens were coming home to roost.