One of the most controversial films of all times, The Battle of Algiers (1966) is based on the events that took place during the Algerian struggle for independence from the French between 1954-1962. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, the film is based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a leader of National Liberation Front or Front de Libération Nationale, (FLN), who also featured in the film as a character based on his real-life self. The film was banned in France for almost five years after its release.
On the face of it, Battle of Algiers is considered to be both historically accurate and balanced but the director made no bones about the film being politically motivated. Pontecorvo’s film is specific to events to Algeria and FLN’s guerrilla warfare and terrorist tactics, not just against the occupiers but also against fellow Algerians who did not support the independence movement. However, it also raises interesting questions about colonization and the extent of force used by governments to quell a local uprising.
The film begins in 1957 with a captured FLN member breaking down following the torture by French paratroopers and giving the location of Ali La Pointe, the leader of the radical group. La Pointe had carried out a series of attacks on the police in 1954 that led to a crackdown on the Casbah, the Arab quarter in Algiers. The film goes back in time where checkpoints and a curfew is imposed but the attacks still carry on as weapons and bombs are hidden in street carts or trashcans that let the perpetrators get away. Some French citizens as well as the Harkis, the Muslim Algerians who didn’t demand independence and joined the French army for some reason or the other, bomb Casbah and this action inspires women and children to join the movement. We see Algerian women dress up as Europeans to evade checkpoints and place bombs in crowded cafes and such. The mounting tension forces the French troops to increase their patrols and torture prisoners for information. This leads to the French press as well as intellectuals questioning not just their own army but ask – is France to remain in Algeria? To this the man in-charge Colonel Mathieu asks, "If your answer is still yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences."
Watching The Battle of Algiers does not leave any doubt in the viewer’s mind that the director, Pontecorvo, sided with the Algerians, as did most of the world, and this becomes more evident from the fact that the film appears more authentic with its documentary-like treatment. Pontecorvo’s decision to cast non-professional actors for almost all the roles along with opting to cast Jean Martin, a known French actor to play Colonel Mathieu, creates a further sense of imbalance as far as the believability of the actors is concerned. He originally wanted to cast Paul Newman as a European journalist who comes to Algiers and the story would have been told from that point of view but when he showed the script to real revolutionaries they were not impressed. In turn, Saadi Yacef gave him his own script based on their experiences and while Pontecorvo found it too extreme, he chose to adapt it to a middle path and that is how the film how we know came into being.
The sheer audacity of the visual style with which The Battle of Algiers was executed struck a chord with viewers all across the world. Interestingly enough, the film was so powerful that it ended up becoming a training video for militant outfits such as the Black Panthers, IRA and such. It seemed so organic, so real, that Pontecorvo actually had to put a disclaimer right at the start that the film that said the film contained no previously shot footage from documentary films or news.
One of the things that Pontecorvo did to show heightened chaos was to place the camera below the eye-level and made his actors run right in front of the frame which showed great numbers. Such visual tools of the film and the manner in which Pontecorvo shot faces have inspired filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap while making Black Friday (2007), the investigative film centered on the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts. The chase sequences in the film evoke memories of The Battle of Algiers and so do most of the police interrogation scenes. In fact, Pontecorvo cast nearly all the 138 speaking parts of his film on the streets and prison and for one particular person whom he wanted in the opening sequence, he liked the face of a prisoner so much that he even convinced a minister to allow him to be free for the duration of the shooting. Ironically Pontecorvo found it most difficult to convince Algerian women to portray the real women who supported FLN even after the 4 years of Algerian freedom.
Ever since its release, The Battle of Algiers has been discussed whenever the topic of colonialism, terrorism, insurgency, and torture have come up. The reason for this could be the impact that the film had on both sides of the fence. At its core, The Battle of Algiers remains one of the finest examples of incendiary filmmaking. Its legacy of being a speculated guide to terror outfits ranging from the al-Qaeda to IRA or from the Black Panthers to a few Palestinian groups is testimony enough. However, it also remains a rare tool to understand the level of forceful comeuppance that ought to be used to quash opposition. More than that, the film is a treatise to comprehend the various facets of a kind of a “people’s war” for all involved parties. Perhaps it is this enduring legacy of The Battle of Algiers that even the special operations chiefs in Pentagon decided to screen it for his staff in 2003. In a bid to think out of the box to deal which insurgency in Iraq, the Pentagon used The Battle of Algiers as a study to “how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”
There is a difference though between what the Algerians attempted in the 1950s to what was happening in Iraq in the mid-2000s following the American invasion. While the former was fueled by nationalism, the latter had a strong religious overtone, but the methods used by both were the same.
Many ‘film-literate’ observers in India love to mention The Battle of Algiers whenever someone mentions any struggle in any corner of the world where a textbook oppressor – read State - is out there to thwart the ideal Davids – read anyone who feels their voice is suppressed – but most of them simply refuse to see how the film was designed as a created documentary to elicit just that kind of reaction. In her review of the film when it first released in 1960, Pauline Kael wrote in the New Yorker: “The burning passion of Pontecorvo acts directly on your emotions. He is the most dangerous kind of Marxist: a Marxist poet”.
Moreover, in an Indian context and especially naming the elephant in the room, Kashmir, the analogy is completely flawed for the simple reason that here both parties are on the same side. Irrespective of what someone would like to believe, factually India has not occupied Kashmir and therefore the ‘protests’ are not a struggle for freedom.
The Battle of Algiers compels you into believing that the FLN’s methods are the only way to freedom and the manner in which it opts not to focus beyond a point on their own torture of the Harkis or ignores the struggle between the FLN and other anti-French factions for control of the revolution is something that one can also see in Haider (2014). Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider transports Hamlet to Kashmir to tell the story of a tormented young man Haider (Shahid Kapoor) but his screenplay, written in collaboration with Basharat Peer, does not include even a slight hint of the anguish of the Kashmiri Pandits or the hard choices that the Army has to make. As a writer Peer, someone who constantly questions his Indian identity and calls it a “matter of dispute”, says that he did not want to do tokenism by writing about Pandits in Haider as giving 10 minutes to that story in the film “would have been an insult.”
The film is his point of view and he has every right to believe what he believes but like The Battle of Algiers, where even after fifty years the viewer somewhere cannot help but feel that FNL were the only troubled souls, many out there think Haider is what happens in Kashmir. The power of the moving image attains a whole new meaning with films like The Battle of Algiers and even though it might just be half-truth the fact that they are often mistaken to be the whole truth only cements that.
The Battle of Algiers turns 50 this month.
Gautam Chintamani is the author of ‘Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna’ (2014) and ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak- The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema’ (2016)
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