You never know.
It’s almost impossible to receive an objective depiction of war considering how easy it is to skew art towards propaganda through the dissemination of a political agenda. And it’s only been getting harder as new technology keeps costs down when making movies that serve one side of things no matter the veracity of claims held within. A film like Gillo Pontecorvo‘s La battaglia di Algeri [The Battle of Algiers] therefore stands as a vision of what once was with a documentary-like vérité style refusing to pull punches when it comes to either party—in this case the Algerian people and their French colonialists. By matter-of-factly unfolding his and Franco Solinas‘ script through meticulously segmented events accompanied by newsreel-esque voiceover introduction, the result proves less historical fiction than reenactment.
The start introduces a heaving, shirtless man who was obviously tortured into giving up the location of one of the Algerian National Liberation Front’s (FLN) leaders Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj). French Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) arrives on scene to escort this informant with him to the hideout so he can directly point out where Ali and his comrades are. Pontecorvo shows the four rebels starring silently in the darkness behind the false wall their oppressors speak through with orders to surrender, proving there’s no escape. Seeing their scared yet determined faces straight away is probably the film’s most editorialized moment if only to set the stage for what’s to come—or what’s already happened to put them there. Suddenly we’re transported back in time before Ali’s radicalization.
That we’re to automatically sympathize with the Algerians considering the “interrogation” methods used to wield the might of those foreigners who have ruled over them for one hundred and thirty years is a direct play on our notions of freedom and independence. This reality doesn’t, however, render them innocent as far as their guerilla warfare displays of terrorism. Despite Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger—a book written by former FLN commander Saadi Yacef while incarcerated—being Pontecorvo’s inspiration, its unsurprisingly skewed perspective went too far for his vision of war’s absolute destructive power. The revolution therefore serves as his lead character with everyone entering and exiting in alignment with each respective mission towards victory. As deaths increase on either side, it becomes a matter of who blinks first.
What’s intriguing about this set-up is that we get to spend time in both camps. Colonel Mathieu delivers a speech that truly epitomizes the hypocritical nature of a soldier insofar as he/she is sworn to obey the chain of command thanks to an unwavering level of fidelity to the cause. So while he seeks to defame detractors who call him and his men fascists by explaining how many of them fought the Nazis during World War II, he’s completely ignorant to the reality that he is in fact doing some of the exact same things they did. Because he’s in the uniform designated as “good” this particular moment and the Algerians are dismissed as the “dirty Arab terrorists” murdering innocent civilians, he’ll forever refuse to accept the similarity.
Where do you then draw the line with wars comprised of insurgents battling for their right to rule land that has been stolen from them? Complexities don’t blindly allow villains the room to feign victimhood and the victors ultimately write the history books. This is why Americans who hail themselves as descended from patriots who took this country from a tyrant can so quickly label Palestinian civilians struggling to survive as terrorists for rising to do the same against an impenetrable Israeli military force. It’s through entitlement that we selfishly paint ourselves as innocent when we’re the ones killing, imprisoning, and displacing innocents with impunity. One man’s enemy is another man’s hero and Pontecorvo does well to ensure that contradiction is front and center from beginning to end.
He accomplishes this by portraying the guerilla warfare being used with a pyramid hierarchy of command, coordinated public bombings, and the use of women and children to sneak across checkpoints with the means of destruction. The Battle of Algiers proves an educational experience in this way because it never diminishes the heinousness of their actions or the desperation that’s led them to this strategy. When you see the French bomb their civilians and chalk it up to an act of war despite sensationalizing their retaliation as terrorism, you can’t help but acknowledge the double standard. But this is the type of rhetoric that’s surrounded such revolutions throughout history despite Ali and his fellow FLN commander Djafar (played by Yacef in a semi-autobiographical role) are fighting for their lives.
It’s a brutal yet effective strategy because its carnage does shine an international light on the conflict. And as Mathieu glibly remarks, the press plays a major role in massaging that message. Do they ignore the human cost of France’s stubborn hubris or admit their government is off the rails? It’s an issue that’s only been exacerbated by a 24-hour news cycle turning facts into for-profit editorializing ratings grabs. And if we can’t receive objective news, how could we ever expect art to mirror the same realism Pontecorvo put on-screen? People should have the ability to make up their own minds by noticing the similarities this rebellion has with others before it. To be told one is bad and one is good is in direct conflict with sanity.
Pontecorvo creates a duality with all his characters so that we must question our preconceptions. Where films today foster a black and white narrative of two-dimensional monsters, neither Mathieu nor Ali/Djafar are without sympathy. The French colonel gives opportunities for surrender and isn’t wrong when he says he’s acting in the interest of the French people who want to retain Algeria as their own. The Algerians are being treated like animals, fingered for arrest, and pushed out of their homes by private European citizens as an extension of that manifest destiny creed. How can you then say these white “tourists” remain innocent? To willingly occupy a foreign country regardless of whether you’re wearing a uniform automatically makes you an aggressor. When is enough going to be enough?
So prepare yourself for violence and murder devoid of reverie. The filmmakers literally went to the scene of these bombings, rebuilt the structures, and blew them up again to maintain as much authenticity as possible. And the same goes for the aftermath of abject terror without concrete answers as far as where to go next. Bodies fall on both sides, back and forth for perpetuity. Some say it’s the Algerians’ fault for refusing peace while others maintain peace can never realistically be an invading force’s intent. At the end of the day, either side could stop the bloodshed. But when one side can pack up and leave while the other has nowhere to go if they don’t stand-up and fight, it’s tough to argue their blame is equal.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.