Saadi Yacef, the Algerian revolutionary leader who fought for the liberation of his country from French colonial rule, died on September 10, 2021. Yacef is perhaps one of the most famous Algerian resistance fighters for his role. starred in the creation of the movie The Battle. from Algiers, directed by the famous Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo.
The Battle of Algiers was filmed in 1965 as a co-production between an Italian creative team and the new Algerian government of the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale), whose representative Yacef produced the film and plays the character of Jaffar.
One of the most extraordinary films ever made, The Battle of Algiers is an emotionally devastating account of the anti-colonial struggle of the Algerian people and a brutally frank exposition of the French colonial mentality. Many French people were unhappy with the portrayal of their army and their country in the film. It was not officially censored in France, but the general public and all cinemas boycotted it. It was considered anti-French propaganda.
Years later, the film was shown to groups classified as revolutionaries and terrorists, apparently becoming a “documentary guide” on the Palestinian struggle, and for organizations such as the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panthers, who reviewed its detailed depiction of guerrilla tactics. .
It was also shown at the Pentagon in 2003, in the midst of the Iraq war. US counterterrorism experts Richard Clarke and Mike Sheehan suggest the film showed how a country can win militarily, while losing the battle for “hearts and minds.”
How relevant is La Bataille d’Alger today, 55 years after its release?
The film’s message is ultimately a message of hope: the oppressed multitude will eventually triumph because their cause is just. The groundbreaking crowd footage in the film is reminiscent of the jerky, grainy footage that has emerged from a wave of recent protests over the past decade, from the Black Lives Matter movement to Extinction Rebellion. Pontecorvo excitingly captures the power and possibility of large gatherings of citizens, who come together to demand rights, putting their bodies at risk to create social and political change.
Moreover, the film refuses to condemn one of the agents of this conflict. As Pontecorvo said
in a war, even if historically one side is right and the other is wrong, both do horrible things when in combat.
A film of contrasts
Shot in black and white, the film is difficult to categorize in terms of style. Its military action sequences and tactical montages remind us of movies like Zero Dark Thirty and The Eye in the Sky; indeed, it is almost impossible to film a politically motivated torture scene without having The Battle of Algiers as an implicit or explicit point of reference.
The collective aspect of the creation of the film, and the socialist ideals that inspired it, link it to what is called the Third Cinema. It was a kind of revolutionary cinema, a “third world” cinema, designed to overthrow the systems of colonialism and capitalism.
The Battle of Algiers is also an example of Italian neorealism, a major film movement that originated in mid-20th century Italy. The neorealists made films that opposed Mussolini’s fascist regime, and they focused on the hardships of the working class in Italy. Neorealism was a moral and aesthetic system: it brought together art and politics to expose the evils of society and bring about social change.
The Battle of Algiers was filmed entirely on site in Algiers, and Colonel Mathieu was the only professional on the set. Pontocorvo selected the other actors of the local population according to their faces and expressions.
Other elements of the neorealist style were the use of techniques that create a documentary aesthetic such as the hand-held camera. Pontecorvo also uses excerpts from actual FLN and police press releases, letters and business cards. And he used newsreels, which were cheaper, but also added to the film’s sense of reasonableness.
Even though he believed the Algerian cause was fair, Pontecorvo wanted to create a nuanced and fair account of the war. From then on, he sets up a series of contrasts to reflect this opposition between French and Algerians. This is present in Ennio Morricone’s original musical score: while groups of French soldiers go wild in the Casbah to the sound of cheerful military drums and horns, a haunting flute theme accompanies sequences featuring Algerian civilians.
The contrast is also evident in the use of light and shadow: there are strong chiaroscuro effects, perhaps reflecting the themes of good and evil in the film. Pontecorvo also uses shadow to highlight Algerian covert operations: Ali La Pointe’s face is filmed with deep shadows, and Colonel Mathieu’s face is always very bright.
Space provides another important contrast in the film. Frantz Fanon, famous theoretician of the Algerian revolution, describes the colonial world as a world “cut in two” because of the clear divide between the colonizer and the colonized. In The Battle of Algiers, the wide boulevards of the European quarter are juxtaposed with the narrow, winding and labyrinthine streets of the Casbah. The space is also divided vertically and horizontally – the European Quarter is flat, while the Casbah is steep and sloping.
This opposition of space highlights the gap between rich and poor, colonizer and colonized.
The question of bias
The greatest contrast in the film is of course between the French and the Algerians. The embodiment of French and European values ââin the film is Colonel Mathieu. He’s a suave, confident, and controlled character in military outfits, stylish sunglasses, and skillful speech – he has more dialogue than the other characters in the film. A number of critics have argued that Mathieu is far “too cool”, given that he is a practitioner and supporter of torture.
However, Colonel Mathieu is not portrayed as an ogre: above all, he embodies reason. We see this in his statements about the use of torture, when he uses strong rhetorical devices to justify it. He says:
… do you think that France should stay in Algeria? If you do, you must accept the necessary consequences.
It’s a compelling logical argument – if you want French Algeria, you have to accept the actions that lead to that result – torture.
If Mathieu and the French are right, what have the Algerians?
First, they have raw, visceral emotion and group power. The victory at the end of the film is a victory of the masses, embodied by two figures – the martyr Ali La Pointe, the ordinary illiterate man who becomes the hero of the revolution, and the roundabout and anonymous Algerian women, whose gaze turned towards the future closes the film.
This brings me to the last point about what Algerians have on their side – the power of historical law. We see it through Pontecorvo’s use of the timeline – the narrative unfolds like a flashback, until we leap back in time to the euphoria and mania of the end of war and triumph. revolutionaries. Pontecorvo here ignores the fact that the real battle of Algiers was lost by the Algerians and jumps into a future of eventual victory in the war.
This is how he sees the process of history – the masses, with moral rights on their side, will eventually win.
Maria Flood, Senior Lecturer in Film Studies, University of Liverpool