Tuesday, October 17, 2006

The Battle of Algiers

"The Battle of Algiers" is the story of a revolution. The film based on real events begins in 1954 with Ali-La-Pointe, an illiterate, unemployed ex-boxer. He winds up in prison, and it's there that he begins to identify with the F.N.L.--the National Liberation Front. The F.N.L.'s goal is an independent Algeria--free from French occupation--ruled "with a framework of Islamic principles." Once out of prison, Ali joins the F.N.L and begins 'cleansing' the Casbah (the Muslim section of Algiers) of undesirable Algerians who dabble in prostitution, narcotics and alcohol. The film shifts focus from Ali to the uprising against French Occupation. The situation subtly escalates--French police who sit peacefully drinking coffee in street cafes are murdered, and anti-Arab feelings mount. With a momentum of its own, the situation is blown beyond all control--terrorism is rampant--cafes, air terminals, and racetracks are all targets. Naturally, the French respond, but terrorism still increases, and French officials bump up against such bureaucratic necessities as search warrants and paperwork. Soon the French are behind sandbags and barbed wire, and the Muslim population of the Casbah is subject to checkpoints manned by French soldiers. At this point, seasoned warrior French Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu arrives. While the French residents of Algiers welcome his arrival, Mathieu's march though the streets ultimately seems sinister. He's a career soldier, highly principled in his own way--and he's there to win.
Mathieu doesn't mess about. He takes control of the situation and tells his officers "to succumb to humane considerations only leads to hopeless chaos." Strategy dramatically changes as Mathieu methodically rounds up and tortures Algerians. It's a shotgun approach--evidently if you round up enough people and torture them, information will eventually pry loose. And it is by this method that Mathieu begins to break down the cell structure of the terrorist group. Using torture undermines the morality of the French position, but Mathieu tells the troubled French press that the matter is simple--the F.N.L wants the French out, but if France chooses to keep Algeria "you must accept the consequences."
"The Battle of Algiers" is a masterpiece of filmmaking. It's black and white, directed by Italian director, Gillo Pontecorvo with English subtitles. The film has a somewhat grainy look to it that underscores the feeling you're watching a documentary. Interestingly enough the only professional actor in the entire film is Jean Martin who plays Lt Colonel Mathieu (based on General Massu). It's a travesty that this film has faded into obscurity, but evidently enough people know about it for a screening of the film to take place for Special Operations at the Pentagon on August 27, 2003. "The Battle of Algiers" was banned in France and is considered the quintessential film study of a nationalistic insurgency against capitalist suppression. If you are interested in watching an unforgettable political film, it doesn't get better than "The Battle of Algiers." After watching "The Birth of a Nation" Lenin commented that cinema is "History written with lightening." And after finishing "The Battle of Algiers" I'd have to agree—“displaced human”.