Why everyone should watch ‘The Battle of Algiers’

In a September 2003 article in the New York Times titled “What does the Pentagon see in ‘Battle of Algiers’?”, Michael Kaufman wrote: “challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon held a screening of [the film]” … “As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

What use could a film “that makes you root for the Algerians” have had for the minds behind the US led military campaign in Iraq?

 

As ‘the Battle of Algiers’ recounts the struggle between the Colonial French and the indigenous FLN for control over the City of Algiers in the mid-1950s, it does so in a way that is sympathetic to the Algerian resistance. According to scholar Sohail Daulatzai (an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies as well as African American Studies): “[The film] centered the Algerians within the narrative. They had linguistic dignity .. they were able to speak their own language, they weren’t being forced to speak French… [Its] power comes from its ability to have spectators identify with the Algerians and their resistance to the French.” So what was the Pentagon doing screening it for its top dogs?

Halfway through ‘the Battle of Algiers’, the reason becomes startlingly clear as Colonel Mathieu, decorated war hero and active member of the anti-Nazi Resistance (emblematic of the French forces’ cold colonial morality) briefs the French forces:“It is a faceless enemy, unrecognizable, blending in with hundreds of others. It is everywhere. In cafes, in the alleyways of the Casbah or in the very streets of the European quarter … I deliberately chose footage taken shortly before a number of recent terrorist attacks. Among all these Arab men and women are the perpetrators. But who are they? How can we recognize them? ID checks are ludicrous. If anyone’s papers are in order, it’s the terrorist’s.”

It is easy to imagine the heads nodding along in agreement at that Pentagon screening. While ‘the Battle of Algiers’ can be celebrated as “the first time in a very popular or public way that a film forced spectators to identify with the other, that is to say the non-European”, the world-view of the contemporary viewer turns out to be a potent medium through which this effect can be overturned.

While in the context of the film, the Algerians were simply a people struggling for their freedom, their identity as Muslims takes on a particular signification for the viewer today. More than 50 years after its initial release and subsequent ban in France, members of the English speaking world will find within the movie an open invitation to reinterpret what was recorded then, through the eyes of now. We have something now that we didn’t have then: the ‘global’ discourse on terror. And this changes everything. This is what John Berger once called “the abyss between the moment recorded and the moment of looking” (Another Way of Telling. 1982). It makes another reading of the film natural.

In Daulatzai’s words: “how do we think today about Muslim resistance? … Muslim resistance of any kind today, whether it be by word, by pen by camera or by gun is completely unfathomable. Its not something that can even be understood because “you’re either with us” – to quote George Bush – “or you’re with the terrorists”… and even that language of terrorism is a very racially coded language and that’s central to why the film is viewed differently in today’s context.”

battleofalgiers
A still from the film shows FLN leader Ali La Pointe along with other indignant members of the Arab quarter as they protest the violence of the French. Source: Slant Magazine

To illustrate, as the film draws to a close, cutting to a pan over the dusking skyline of the Arab quarter, the words of the radio news reporter – “The Muslim quarters still echo with those unintelligible and frightening rhythmic cries” – seem naturally to shift the haunting undulations of the Algerians’ defiant taunting into a less than human register. Eerie. Menacing. Animal cries.

Watching this scene in 2017, I find that the Algerian who for a brief duration had become human (Pontecorvo really makes us feel for the Algerians), is reduced to a fearful robed figure – the human being demanding her freedom is replaced by an incomprehensible creature; an unreasonable Muslim creature. A creature that multiplies endlessly with every passing second. It becomes suddenly easy for me to imagine a shrill hostile horde swarming, scuttling under the veil of that dark night as the panning shot slowly fades out.

Viewed from within the post 9/11 world, how logically this transmogrification proceeds! As the film unfolds, I discover the unmistakeable effects of the hegemonic white imperialist discourse that we consume everyday. I find that my eyes, my brown eyes are in constant peril of becoming white eyes. While the other (the not-white, the Algerian, the Indian and so on) may have a family, a history, a voice, from today’s naturalized point of view we are posited only as an unsettling un-wholesomeness. Makes us easier to sell as collateral damage.

You will recognize this fact as you watch the film and it will chill your spine. How Colonel Mathieu’s words must have resounded at that Pentagon screening! – “Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” What was unsaid was that the French considered themselves right by virtue of who they were.

BATTLE OF ALGIERS, THE / BATTAGLIA DI ALGERI, LA
Colonel Mathieu and his troops march into Algiers to take control of the tense situation created by the actions of the FLN. Source: Filmlinc.org

Listen carefully to the Colonel words at the final press conference and you will hear a subtle re-assertion of the status quo: “The problem is this: The FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay. Even with slight shades of opinion you all agree that we must stay. When the FLN rebellion began, there were no shades at all. Every paper, the communist press, included, wanted it crushed. We’re here for that reason alone. We’re neither madmen nor sadists. Those who call us fascists forget the role many of us played in the Resistance [against the Nazis]. Those who call us Nazis don’t know that some of us survived Dachau and Buchenwald. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win.”

He may as well have said: “We are French. Our right is to win.” Let’s face it, maintaining the image of the other as a vaguely unsettling Orientalist figure remains an essential foundation for justifying the violent assertion of white power globally. But of course, the lamentations for lost white lives resound loudest of all on the news.

For more about why “the Battle of Algiers continues to be relevant today”, watch the film and listen to this episode of ‘Against the Grain’ (a podcast on KPFA.org) where Media and African American studies scholar Sohail Daulatzai joins Sasha Lily to “[look] back at the film’s history and shifting impact on the world.”

Daulatzai has also written a fascinating article on the socio-cultural influence of the film. This essay also draws heavily on the ideas of John Berger from his book ‘Another Way of Telling’ and Frantz Fanon from his book ‘Black Skin, White Masks’. 

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