Monday, 3 January 2011

The Battle of Algiers

Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Italy/Algeria 1965

Now that is some serious movie for the beginning of New Year. Classic film of urban terrorist insurgency, very graphic, straightforward and realistic reenactment of the events that led to the birth of a free Algeria in 1962. This is one of the most unique and influential films in the history of political cinema. While it’s is not a documentary it feels like one: realistic settings and a day by day, moment by moment chronological telling of the story. People in 1965 had to be told that there is "not one foot" of documentary or newsreel footage in this two hours of film. The announcement was necessary as everything about the look and feel of the film is just so real.

“The Battle of Algiers” chronicles the harrowing events of 1957, a key year in Algeria's struggle for independence from France. Provocations, assassinations and violence escalate on both sides, the French start to torture prisoners for information and the Algerians resort to terrorism in their quest for independence, children shoot soldiers, Algerian women, disguised as chic Europeans, deposit bombs at cafes. “The Battle of Algiers” is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest political films because it covers the widespread use of torture in order to crush the revolt. It begins in a torture chamber, where an FLN (National Liberation Front) captive has been coerced through repeated doses of electricity to reveal the hideout of Ali La Pointe, the last rebel still free in the city. Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag, who plays him, was a peasant Pontecorvo discovered in the Algiers market) is the pivotal figure in the movie. When we first meet him, in 1954, he's a petty thief and street hustler from the Casbah, the Muslim section of Algiers. During some time in prison he meets members of the the FLN and becomes radicalized by the executions he witnesses. After being released, we follow him on his daily rounds while he finds himself engaged in a guerilla campaign, and soon becomes one of the four leaders of the movement.

The film focuses on the the resort to torture, justified by the colonizers as a necessary evil. French military view of it is articulated by the main French character, Col. Mathieu (based upon the real-life leader of the counter-rebellion, Général Jacques Massu) in the course of a series of exchanges with French journalists. At one point Mathieu challenges the hostile French reporters with a question of his own: "Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer 'yes,' you must accept all the necessary consequences." We understand the French, and we see why they do the things the do, but we are never invited to agree with them. Unlike Tunisia or Morocco or even Indochina from which France had just been ejected, Algeria was viewed as a territorial extension. But the political costs to the French far outweighed the gains of staying there and as France grew isolated internationally, it found itself forced to deal with the FLN on its own terms. They won the battle in 1957, but ultimately lose the war as FLN defeat turned up to be only temporary.

French in the movie appear remote - pale, anemic, insipid and featureless in their army and police uniforms. Apart from Colonel Mathieu, they’re denied the least spark of personality and systematically refused close-ups. The Algerians, by contrast, are given flesh, sensuality, bodies and, above all, faces. And the faces are so compelling you can't take your eyes off them. No doubt we unconsciously sympathize more with this embodiment of suffering and rage. The acid test of this comes in the unforgettable sequence, perhaps the key sequence in the entire film, where three Algerian women plant bombs at various crowded hangouts in the French quarter. We follow the women as they remove their headscarves, silently cut and dye their long, dark hair; put on lipstick, blouses and skirts and, finally, pick up their handbags so that disguised as chic Europeans, they can sneak through the checkpoints outside the Algerian ghetto and reach their contact in the European Quarter who provides them with the bombs. Those bombs will explode in 28 minutes, whether they're in place (two cafés and an Air France ticket office) or not. Once they arrive to their destinations, they attempt to blend in to their surroundings, so that they can casually leave their bags without being noticed. We look through their eyes at the innocents about to be slaughtered. They even have some friendly conversations with the people they're about the blow-up. In that moment, for once, the French settlers are particularized: in vivid snapshots of teenagers dancing, men sipping drinks and idly chattering, a toddler licking an ice cream. The women take no pleasure in their mission, they are aware that these French persons all have lives and personalities and aspirations. When the explosions come, Pontecorvo makes sure to shoot the carnage using much the same language that he did earlier in the film, when the bodies of dead Algerians were pulled from the ruins of a bomb left by French.

The confrontation between the French and the FLN involves real and composite characters played nearly entirely by nonprofessionals. The only major character played by an established actor Jean Martin, and not an amateur, is Col. Mathieu. Gillo Pontecorvo once explained his preference for nonprofessionals. When he has a face in mind for a certain character, he will not rest until he finds the person who has just the right appearance. In the most stunning casting decision made by Pontecorvo, the real leader of the Algerian revolutionaries Saadi Yacef plays a thinly disguised representation of himself. His experiences were used for the plot. The movie began as a sketchy screenplay written clandestinely by Yacef while he was in French prison. Later he interviewed several European filmmakers before settling on Italians Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas and keeping for himself the role of film’s producer. The path that it took to get from the concept to “The Battle of Algiers” as we know it was a twisted one (at one point, it was going to be an epic melodrama starring Paul Newman!), but it ended at the right place.

The strength of the film comes from passion and concern with both sides. There is no caricature and no glamorisation of either of them - just a feeling of palpable horror. Pontecorvo sees the colonialists as victims of their own system, and the rebels as taking on some of the excesses used against them. French colonel seems to respect his opponents but believes that ruthless methods are necessary. Pontecorvo is very cautious as there is always a danger that you can end up in one way or another justifying the man with the bomb or the man with a gun. It's actually very tricky, one person can be terrorist or liberator, depending the perspective.

Who ultimately won the Battle of Algiers? No one... The French won the battle, but in 1962 they lost the war. French soldiers, most of whom hated the idea of torture, were tainted by the association. Algerians got rid of the French but in their place got an authoritarian regime that, before it fell, was itself guilty of torture. There's also a little irony that Gillo Pontecorvo's critically acclaimed and undeniably powerful 1965 film was screened at the Pentagon in the early days of the war on Iraq. In the end it quite clearly spells out the occupiers' inevitable failure in a situation where they're against civilians who do not wish to be occupied.

No comments:

Post a Comment