"The fact that we can think with certain films, and not simply about them, is the irrefutable sign of their value" - Nicole Brenez

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

"THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS" a collective review by the workshop's participants

"Our Day Will Come!"

“Once their rage explodes, they recover their lost coherence, they experience self-knowledge through reconstruction of themselves; from afar we see their war as the triumph of barbarity; but it proceeds on its own to gradually emancipate the fighter and progressively eliminates the colonial darkness inside and out."

- Franz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth

The second decade of the 21st century has marked a period when most African countries are celebrating the golden jubilee of their independence from colonial masters. Consequently, stories on historical heroes from across the continent told over and over again are being revived by the protagonists of the independence struggle. By now, we are aware of how men spent cold, endless nights in the jungle fighting, and of how women made them food and secretly passed them crucial information about the white colonizers. Most films on this subject have corroborated this part of the story. Enter The Battle of Algiers, a film about Algeria’s fight for independence from the French and all the generalizations made about the fight for independence in Africa gets challenged on so many levels it makes your head spin. Gillo Pontecorvo’s film gives you a story of a war fought in the jungle, a concrete one, Algiers, the capital of Algeria. It tells the story of women who were at the fore-front of the struggle. Moreover, this story has something that you do not hear every day when independence stories are being told: the children’s contribution to the liberation movement in Algeria.

From acting as message carriers between the FLN (National Liberation Front) members, to spreading resistance newspapers to the Algerians, the children were in the thick of it.  The image of the jolly kid distributing papers with instructions about the eight-day strike, and his cheeky wink while he is at it with the threat of arrest and detention always hanging over the city, is incredible. That act of courage, however, would pale in comparison to the small boy that sneaks around and steals a microphone from the French soldiers and uses it to encourage the people of Algiers to continue with the strike. Just to show that the children who participated in this struggle were in it to win it no matter what, one of them chooses to die along with Ali Pointe, one of the leaders of the resistance, rather than surrender to the French.


Rather than take the point of view of a singular protagonist, The Battle of Algiers is a holistic story about a significant event. We are treated to several points of view, allowing us to step into the shoes of both the leaders of the resistance (La Pointe and Jaffer) and the commanders of the French authorities. This is a welcome break from the widely deployed ‘hero’s journey’ format of storytelling, where we see and experience events from the point of view of one or little more than one central character; it allows us to form alliances with the oppressed, while understanding the point of view of their oppressors.

Because of our history as the ‘colonized’  and the education we get in school as far as colonialism is concerned, we tend to view this subject from a certain fixed angle – the colonial master was swindling, exploiting and killing us. But The Battle of Algiers presents us with a totally fresh point of view: the possibility that Africans are not completely untainted when it comes to colonialism, and that, in a battle field, everyone walks wounded. In the case of The Battle of Algiers, the master and the subject alike suffer from the deeds of the other. The attacks and crimes against humanity that are committed by both the French and the Freedom Liberation Movement are soberly portrayed and resisting the temptation to romanticize the protagonists of The Battle of Algiers is one of the qualities that sets this film apart and makes it a must-watch. Its fair-mindedness, objectiveness and balance in looking at the deeds of the people during colonial times is a major selling point of the film especially in this time and age when the single story that was sold to us about colonialism no longer holds.

Saadi Yacef appearing in the film as himself

 Few stories like this come in the history of a people. The Battle of Algiers is a strong story about the struggle for independence of the Algerians from the French. Lately films have been using true stories as a gimmick to get more viewers. This has been successful since audiences get more attached or emotionally inclined to feel a film if they know that it was a true story. This is also true for this film, but it does not negate the emotional impact of this film. The fact that this film was a true story was anything but a gimmick. The film was made only two years after Algieria gained independence as a way for the freedom fighters to tell their story. Being a film based on a book written by one of the fighters The Battle of Algiers feels genuine and authentic.

As it is still today, Algeria was a Muslim majority country between 1954 and 1957 when The Battle of Algiers is set. It is not by chance that religion plays a vital role in Gillo Pontecorvo’s film as it gives a strong foundation for the struggle for independence. One of the ways it is represented is at the start of the film, where rebels state that they want to establish an independent Algerian state based on Islamic principles. Again, in a prison scene where a rebel is about to be executed, he proclaims “Allāhu Akbar” (“God is great”), showing that as much as the fight in the film was about independence, religious beliefs existed. In Islam, after a couple marries, families usually hold a public wedding party. That is not the case in The Battle of Algiers, where Islamic weddings are seen to be taking place "underground". A character even says that they hope to have weddings in the open one day. The women in The Battle of Algiers predominantly wear hijabs and veils: religious symbols of modesty, privacy and morality in Islam.

Moreover, when a French guard attempts to touch a woman, a colleague of his tells him, “Never touch their women”. The teachings of Islam say that touching members of the opposite sex you are not related with is not allowed. The use of “ethnic” music helps to enforce the fact that Algeria was seeking independence as a nation and culture of its own. It works to enhance the story, although is not a strong feature of the film.

The Battle of Algiers is a film that relied heavily on the director’s notes and personal recollections of the resistance he had carefully gathered. The film is a case study in urban guerrilla warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Shot on the streets of Algiers documentary style, it features a heavy use of handheld camera. Wide panoramic shots revealing the beauty of Algiers’s and vivid close-ups zooming in to the heat of the battle, make the cinematography an integral part of the emotional wiring of the film.

For once, we get to see history from the side of the oppressed (though the film carefully avoids oversimplification) and violence is put into context. The armed insurrection of the Algerian people is in fact understood as the only possible means of liberation from a violent and ruthless administration; rather than the violent vagary of few extremists thugs, violence is the outcome of the colonial condition and the only way to overthrow it. As the great German playwright Bertold Brecht would say: "violence helps where violence rules."

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