I’ve been meaning to write about a movie I saw recently, The Battle of Algiers, at the Castro Theatre. I took the day off to go to San Francisco because I really needed a break, and saw this movie with my friend Sarah after munching on some cheap sushi. When it came out in 1966 in France it was censored, and the reviews called it “the most controversial French film of all time,” a distinction which I felt may have been deserved. It tells a story of the independence/resistance movement in French Algeria and how the French responded. The action of the film is eerily familiar in today’s world of suicide attacks and vicious retaliation.
The film opens with the French Army raiding the hideout of Ali La Pointe in the Casbah. It then flashes back to the beginnings of the resistance and how Ali joined in after being imprisoned for attacking some French kids. Within a few minutes we are shown a prisoner being led to the guillotine (yes, they still used the guillotine, even in 1956), shouting “allahu akbar” and other inflammatory statements. The resistance was an Islamic movement — through violence and intimidation they sought to end prostitution and substance abuse in the Casbah.
The French decide to bring in the military to deal with the insurrection. Headed up by Colonel Mathieu, a hero of the French Resistance in WWII, his eloquent if terse justification for the brutal techniques used by the military helps to temper the anti-French bias in the film:
The problem is: the NLF wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain. Now, it seems to me that, despite varying shades of opinion, you all agree that we must remain. When the rebellion first began, there were not even shades of opinion. All the newspapers, even the left-wing ones wanted the rebellion suppressed. And we were sent here for this very reason. And we are neither madmen nor sadists, gentlemen. Those who call us fascists today, forget the contribution that many of us made to the Resistance. Those who call us Nazis, do not know that among us there are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers and our only duty is to win. Therefore, to be precise, I would now like to ask you a question: Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
I don’t think I agree with his argument here, but he poses the problem as one of having your cake and eating it too, which I think it a fundamental problem in the process of releasing an Empire. They showed this film to US soldiers before they went to Iraq, perhaps to prepare them for techniques of resistance that would be used against them. I find the analogy imperfect. In Iraq, we there to establish a new empire, not to preserve the existing regieme. It seems hard to draw the parallels, because I doubt the majority of the Iraqi people really hate the occupying force with as much passion as the ghetto-ized Algerians hated the French. Of course, I’m not there, so I can’t be sure of this.
The movie is eerily documentary-like, although not one frame of documentary footage was used, according to the advertisements. It is in this, its verité uninterrupted by the tricks of the cinema, that the power of the film truly lies. A film entirely shot hand-held to give the impression of immediacy seems fake to me because my memories of things are not as jerky or grainy. Here we get a combination of narrow shots in the tight alleys and multistoried houses of the Casbah as well as panoramas from the rooftops that are clearly constructed but don’t feel fake or over-edited.
The film is certainly more powerful today because of the current climate of Islamic intifadas and the techniques of bombing cafes, buses, ambulances, and so on. The historicization of these themes works both on the level of Brecht to distance us from them and judge the more objectively, but also reminds us viscerally of how little some things have changed in the last 50 years.
The screenplay is freely available, which is where I got the quote. It does not appear to be available on DVD, but if you still have a VCR you can probably rent it from your local not-Blockbuster store.