Reel Terrorism: Reconsidering The Battle of Algiers

BY PROF. STONE

“People practically never experience the great events of history with their own eyes,” explained Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo. They experience them only through the “200mm or 300mm lens” of the mass media — photographs, TV, newsreels. With this insight Pontecorvo captured one of the most important anti-imperial conflicts of the twentieth century by filming The Battle of Algiers (1966) in black and white, using lenses and camera angles that simulated newsreel footage. Pontecorvo succeeded so well that many viewers thought they had watched a documentary of the Algerian National Liberation Front’s (FLN) revolutionary struggle against its French colonial oppressors.

Pontecorvo succeeded on another political level as well: He convinced middle-class audiences that terrorism — deliberately bombing innocent people in order to pressure political opponents — might be necessary. His case was so emotionally compelling that Pauline Kael described The Battle of Algiers as “the rape of the doubting intelligence.” She dubbed Pontecorvo the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a “Marxist poet” who uses the power of film to persuade his audience that “terrorism is a tragic necessity.”

The Battle of Algiers was the first European political film of the left. Pontecorvo wanted to portray the Marxist understanding of history as an inevitable process which “once begun cannot be stopped.” In the film, when the leader of the FLN — played by the actual leader of the FLN — is captured and French paratroopers seem to have broken the back of the secret revolutionary organization, he is paraded before a press conference and asked if the FLN is now defeated. “In my opinion,” he replies, “the NLF [FLN] has more chances of beating the French Army than the French have of stopping history.”

Pontecorvo, a committed Marxist, commented on that line: “Not only did we believe this to be right, but we really liked the idea it was right.” History was moving “in a certain way” and the class struggle would continue in the Third World with the lumpenproletariat of the colonized peoples taking up arms against the colonists. It was Franz Fanon’s psychiatric gloss on Marxism, endorsed by Sartre. The wretched of the earth, the black faces condemned to wear white masks, would assert their identity through acts of violence and rise up against oppression even when it came from “super-civilized France.” The French had been defeated by that march of history in Vietnam and Pontecorvo wanted to depict the last futile stand of the French colonial empire in Algiers. Out of the Casbah would come the Vietcong of Algeria.

Pontecorvo claimed his filmmaking was ruled by the “dictatorship of truth” and his version of truth certainly disturbed the French, who banned the film. Certainly many critics saw in The Battle of Algiers the power of truth revealed. Others — most prominently Pauline Kael — worried that the film took audiences by storm and gave them no chance to think. Kael saw not truth but ultimate propaganda. The Battle of Algiers, she said, “ranks with” Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstal’s deification of Hitler. Whether revealed truth or ultimate propaganda, The Battle of Algiers is a text that might give Americans some perspective on our own situation after September 11 — both through its official message and through its unintended insights.

Pauline Kael was not wrong in describing Pontecorvo as a Marxist poet, but he meant his poetry as a celebration of humanity. He described himself as “someone who approached man and the human condition with a feeling of warmth and compassion.” His film and his poetry were an attempt to connect himself and his Western audiences through their common humanity to Arabs of the Casbah. He embraced what is different about the Arabs, including their Islamic traditions, and made them fully human for us. Yes, revolutionary terror is a tragic necessity, but Pontecorvo’s inspiration is utopian. Revolution, even in the style of Fanon, held for him the promise of community and comradeship which Pontecorvo and perhaps many European Marxists imagined themselves sharing. He made his audience share that feeling of community so that we might accept the possibility of justified terrorism.

Pontecorvo’s film no longer has the immediacy that it had in the late 1960s. What seemed cinematically real then is now old-fashioned, outmoded by new visual technologies that arguably give a more realistic picture than seeing with one’s own eyes. Most of us experienced the enormity of September 11 on television, and we undoubtedly saw more than the eyewitnesses at Ground Zero. The moral imagination of most Americans could not conceive of a Pontecorvo-style justification for such acts of terrorism. President Bush spoke for the passionate convictions of the American public when he promised a terrible and inescapable retribution. Overnight, many leftist doves turned into war hawks. Something had to be done, and it seemed more than reasonable to invade Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban, who were cruel to women, sheltered bin Laden and hated Americans.

Since September 11, we have been following a Pontecorvo script: Threatened by Muslim terrorists as the French were in Algeria, we have been caught up in a spontaneous burst of patriotic solidarity. More than a year later, we congratulate ourselves for doing in months what the Soviet Union failed to accomplish in years in Afghanistan, and the march to war continues as President Bush perseveres in what is now called “Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Pontecorvo’s film is perhaps most ironically instructive on that American rallying cry. Ignoring all legal restraints and using torture to gain the information necessary to destroy the FLN, French paratroopers won the Battle of Algiers, but as we are shown, they lost the war to maintain the French colonial empire. Without warning, two years after the French victory, the entire Arab population swarms out of the Casbah to march on Algiers. The French respond with every brutal technique of riot control at their disposal — gas, machine gun fire and tanks — to drive the Arabs back toward the Casbah. Then, as night and fog fall over the city, a French police authority addresses the invisible mob through a megaphone. “What do you want?” he asks in bewilderment. In response, Arabs emerge from the fog demanding and celebrating their freedom. Pontecorvo had imagined this scene as an ecstatic ballet, the camera focused on an Arab woman pushed down again and again by the French police; each time, she rises up in a dance of freedom. This was the revelation to Western audiences: The Muslims of the Casbah were freedom fighters.

In her 1972 review, Pauline Kael wrote that Pontecorvo’s historical-determinist film showed us how “the Algerian people were spontaneously turned into Marxist revolutionaries by historical events.” But The Battle of Algiers conveys another message that was lost on contemporary audiences, and apparently on Pontecorvo himself. Watching the film recently for the first time in many years, I saw something very different. Pontecorvo had achieved something beyond his conscious artistic and political intentions. Like Tolstoy, who wanted to show the evils of adultery in Anna Karenina but created a character that transcended his moralizing agenda, Pontecorvo’s Algerians transcend Marxist categories. The historical turn is to traditional Islam, not enlightenment progress. If Pontecorvo could now revisit his own film, he might recognize — as we can with the hindsight of September 11 — the essential place of Islam in the film’s setting and how that background context has now become its foreground message.

To appreciate this other mess
age you need to look past the original script (which has been published) and consider what Pontecorvo put into his finished product. Pontecorvo and his writer Pier Franco Solinas had created a screenplay out of a Marxist/Fanonian screed, and that is what the audiences saw at the time. Yet what he filmed shows how important the theme of Arab-Muslim fundamentalist identity was for the mobilization of the people of the Casbah. The very first FLN communiqué to the people of Algiers in the film is not in the published screenplay. The voice of the FLN proclaims “our revolt is against colonialism, our goal to restore independent Algeria within the framework of Islamic principles with respect for the basic freedoms regardless of race or religion.” And throughout The Battle of Algiers Islam, not Marxism, provides the yeast of the revolutionary solidarity that rises in the Casbah. The screenplay is, as Solinas said, “an ideological debate in dramatic form,” but the film portrays a cleansing of the Arab peoples by a return to Islamic principles and to a puritanical Islam that blames the French colonizers for imposing European decadence on Algiers. It is the French who have made the Arabs their prostitutes, undermined the traditional authority of the Muslim family and brought cigarette smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction to their community. Bin Laden, the Taliban, and many Islamic fundamentalists would agree with this.

The FLN begins its campaign not by teaching Marxism but by preaching Islam. The FLN understands that its recruits are marginalized outcasts with every reason to hate the French and with nothing to lose. Both these recruits and the Arabs of the Casbah must be purified before they can undertake guerilla warfare; that purification will come through a return to Islamic traditions, and through violence in the name of Islam. Pontecorvo’s central example of this process is the young Arab, Ali La Pointe, an illiterate juvenile, sometime boxer, grifter and street criminal. He is ready to join the FLN after he witnesses from his prison window the guillotining of a man who goes to his death chanting “Tahia el Djez-air” (Long live Algeria). To join the revolutionary underground, Ali must agree to kill a French policeman. He hates the police with all the resentments of his past criminal life. The FLN trick him with an unloaded gun: this test is only to prove that he is not a French double agent. His real rite of passage into the FLN will come when he kills a friend, an Arab pimp who controls a string of brothels — only after purification can Ali become a revolutionary leader. This purification through violence in the name of Islam is also symbolized unforgettably in Pontecorvo’s scene of a derelict Arab alcoholic set upon by a pack of young boys who symbolize the new Islamic order.

All of this is now so obvious and undeniable, it seems strange that 30 years ago even the clear-eyed Pauline Kael could not see it. What might be even more astonishing is the suggestion that Pontecorvo created all this without appreciating what he was doing. What is prophetic in The Battle of Algiers is Pontecorvo’s backdrop of Islamic fundamentalism; what proved false was Pontecorvo’s foreground depiction of “the world moving in a certain way.”

How did so much Islamic fundamentalism find its way into Pontecorvo’s film? The explanation lies in the way the film was made. Yacef Saadi, who had been the military head of the FLN in Algiers, came to Italy looking for a director to make a movie of the Algerian struggle from the Algerian point of view. Pontecorvo was third on the list, and was chosen only after the first two declined. The Algerians could not provide much money, but they could give the filmmaker access to any site he wanted and put crowds of people at his disposal. And he made good use of what he was given. Crowds were to be the protagonists of the film. Pontecorvo had been a journalist and a still photographer, and he decided — with the one notable exception of Jean Martin — not to use professional actors. His method of casting means that the faces in the film are visually arresting; the actors, at least in appearance, are authentic, and there is no Hollywood or studio gloss. With a photographer’s eye he chose people like Brahim Haggiag, the young man who played Ali La Pointe. But such actors could not be expected to give convincing expression to Marxist slogans. So Pontecorvo gave them lines natural to them, the product of long hours interviewing FLN members and Algerians who had participated in the events the movie depicted. Reading Pontecorvo’s description of his research methods, one could almost say he psychoanalyzed the participants on both sides and distilled their collective memories into his dialogue.

The film’s one professional actor, Jean Martin, played Colonel Mathieu. The story goes that he earned the part for having been blacklisted in France for signing a statement of sympathy with the Algerian liberation movement. As the head of the paratroopers, himself convinced of the truth of Marxist inevitability, he is given all the polemical lines about Marxism, which he explains to his troops and to journalists as he describes unfolding events. His character, a composite of three French commanders in Algeria, had fought in the resistance and in Vietnam. He knows that this is France’s last stand and that victory will be temporary. Martin is a good enough actor to carry this ideological burden, and that frees the Algerians to speak and to act out their own Arab-Islamic identity.

As Pontecorvo began to film and edit, he continually added touches to convey the particulars of Algerian life in the Casbah. His impulse was to convey “the feelings and the emotions shared by a multitude.” What his Algerian actors and extras shared was their Islamic tradition. In the popular press, Muslims are often shown at their prayers with their foreheads pressed to the ground in submission to their God. No such image appears in this film. There is a less familiar prayerful position in which they raise their head and hold out their cupped hands. To Western eyes the latter is the much more acceptable picture of pious humility. It is only in that collective gesture that Pontecorvo’s Muslims respond to the tragedy that befalls them. In the final scene where the Algerians appear out of the night and fog and demand their freedom, Pontecorvo had originally intended to have all the extras chanting political slogans, but decided it did not work artistically. Then he hit on the idea of having the Arab women erupt into their traditional ululation — rhythmic piercing cries. It has a powerful effect, but the effect is of the unifying claim of Arab identity, rather than of the brotherhood of revolution. Pontecorvo thought it worked so well he used it in earlier moment of the film as the rallying cry of the Casbah.

There is another very important moment in the film when Pontecorvo’s artistic imagination idealizes Muslim tradition. One of the most striking contrasts in Algiers was the difference between the appearance of the French and the Muslim women. The French woman wear stylish short dresses, dye and coif their hair, use lipstick and emphasize their sexuality. The Arab women of the Casbah cover their long hair, use no cosmetics and conceal their faces and their sexuality. There comes a moment in the escalating terrorism when the French Police supervisor decides on an unofficial act of counter terrorism. He sets off some dynamite in the Casbah destroying homes and killing innocent men, women and children. An FLN response is justified. Three Arab women are shown cutting their hair, putting on make-up and French-style dress. There can be no doubt that this is a ritual moment of Western degradation as these modest Muslim women are being transformed into sexual objects. And as they deliver their hidden time bombs, some French soldiers and other men hit on them. Pontecorvo fi
lms each of these three women looking around the crowded places their bombs will destroy. One woman’s gaze lingers over a small boy licking his ice cream cone before she leaves her bomb.

Watching those women today it seems clear that what made their terrorist mission sacred was Islamic faith, not revolutionary solidarity. Each woman fully appreciates that there will be innocent victims, but theirs is a holy cause. These women are not suicide bombers: They risk their lives but do not sacrifice themselves. Pontecorvo does film a scene where FLN terrorists hijack an ambulance and drive down a street machine-gunning the French people on the sidewalks. When they run out of ammunition they crash the ambulance into a crowd.

Pontecorvo thought that the French torture of their captives was worse than any Algerian terrorism, but his artistry now also reveals the holy war horror of the Casbah uprising against the decadent west. As America rallies behind President Bush’s crusade against the axis of evil, there is more horror to come. If you have a “doubting intelligence” it is time to look at the lessons of history in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers and think for yourself.

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