This review is part of a series, with fortnightly instalments, reviewing African political films or political films on African subjects.
It has long been accepted that history is written by the victors. However, in some cases, it is the film version of events rather than the history books that are paid the most attention, and these films are often dictated more by commercial values and Hollywood glitz than historical accuracy. Recognising this, the leaders of the then newly-liberated Algeria decided in 1966 to make the film of their successful revolution against the French themselves, rather than let others ‘bowdlerise’ it.
Episodic in nature, The Battle of Algiers tells the story of Algeria finally gaining independence in 1962 by focussing on the character of guerrilla leader Ali la Pointe. The film shows him as a young street hustler before he is radicalised in jail and joins the National Liberation Front (FLN), devoted to freeing Algeria from French colonial rule. As he rises through the ranks, he is forced to make increasingly difficult decisions and eventually ends up killing both former friends and enemies alike as the FLN step up their attacks against the French.
Part of the brilliance of this film is its willingness to show both sides of the story and it does not shy away from the fact that unspeakable acts of brutality were carried out. Early on, for example, a FLN supporter is beheaded in jail, while Ali la Pointe kills a brothel owner who helped raise him but now refuses to submit to FLN governance. Later, after several of their officers are gunned down in cold blood, the colonialist police react by planting a bomb in the Casbah, killing innocent civilians. The FLN in turn take revenge by bombing restaurants across the city.
The sequence where three women carry the bombs to the targets in their handbags is almost unbelievably tense. One target is a bar filled with women and children and as the camera cuts across their faces, one hopes that the bomber will have a last-minute change of heart and not carry out her deadly mission.
The film excels in its examination of guerrilla warfare strategies and tactics. In fact, the Pentagon screened it during the 2003 Iraq War to help show the military where they were going wrong. Early on in the film for instance, the FLN takes advantage of the fact that French soldiers at checkpoints will not search pretty women, simply waving them through. From that point on many of their weapons are smuggled in and out of the Casbah by women dressed in ‘western’ garb.
Another great sequence is when the leader of the paratroopers, Colonel Mathieu, eloquently explains why current French occupation tactics won’t work. Its relevance to the situation today is staggering as the history of colonialism continues to cast a dark shadow on relations between modern France and North African immigrants. Colonel Mathieu also outlines the ‘triangle cell terrorism’ model. Each cell leader is recruited by someone and then recruits two further people themselves. As a result they only ever know three people in the organisation so cannot reveal too much if captured and tortured. As Colonel Mathieu points out, ‘How can we know them when they don’t even know themselves?’. The irony of course is that many of these methods were developed by the French Resistance for use against the occupying German army during the Second World War.
The film also goes into some detail concerning the political philosophy behind national liberation. In a conversation with the FLN’s leader, Pointe asks why they are ordering a general strike rather than persisting with guns and armed struggle. The leader replies that while terrorism serves as a beginning it does not win revolutions. He sagely points out that while starting, fighting and winning revolutions is difficult, their true problems will only really start once they have gained power.
In the historical context, the impetus driving the FLN stemmed from a longing for independence and revolution, a chance for self-determination and the coming into fruition of a turning tide in self-determination, which was ricocheting all over Africa in the 1950s to 1970s.
One of the most interesting things about the film is that the French win, at least in the short-term. Through the use of increasingly brutal methods such as torture, they are able to destroy the FLN’s organisation in Algiers and murder its leaders. However, in the long-term they lose the wider war as the citizens turn against them and the liberation movement becomes unstoppable.
Fifty years on, The Battle of Algiers remains an unsurpassed film of revolution and guerrilla warfare, and a landmark in African cinema. Shot in shaky black-and-white and mainly using non-professional actors, the film is utterly compelling. While it is no masterpiece in terms of characterisation or dialogue, the director Gillo Pontecorvo excels in examining the major events of the war and the political, tactical and strategic decisions that were made by both sides. What results is an extraordinary piece of work that would be compelling and fascinating to anyone with an interest in revolutionary politics.
Dr Matthew Ashton lectures in politics and the transnational media at Nottingham Trent University.
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