It has been over three years since Sam has presented a film at Cinema 1544. We pretty much hated Tetsuo, The Iron Man, but we figured it was time to give Sam another shot, and we think he did a much better job of it this time. After the short (which we called “Man Struggling With His Laptop”) Sam showed a film that, for some reason, was getting more and more reference in my metaphorical earshot over the past two years or so – The Battle of Algiers. The film is an interesting opus – directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, but the project owes its existence to FLN (National Liberation Front – the Algerian rebels) leader Saadi Yacef, who wrote his memoirs while imprisoned by the French and then approached the Italian director, who agreed to take on the film. Interestingly, although Yacef wrote his own screenplay the producers rejected it as being too biased towards the Algerian rebels, and treated the events in the film in a very even-handed way.
Succumbing to temptation, Pontecorvo starts the film at the end, where post-torture (not the torture scene above) an FLN member gives up the location of one of the leaders of the organization, Ali La Pointe. Following a raid and a standstill with Ali and three other FLN members hidden behind a false wall, we go back to the beginning of the story, as it were.
It’s not really the beginning of the story, of course, as the French had colonially occupied Algeria for about 130 years at that point, but it’s the start of Ali La Pointe’s story, and he’s our agonist (I hesitate to call him the antagonist, because Yacef certainly would have seen him as a martyr, and I can’t call him the protagonist because he’s kind of a nasty dude). The film goes to the length of listing Ali’s pre-1954 rap sheet, a collection of some six or seven petty and not-so-petty crimes, just to point out that he’s not exactly an angel. Then we see him get picked up for running some three-card monte – not exactly the biggest crime, but an important one because on this prison visit he gets recruited by the FLN. After a test-run initiation and infiltrator weeder where he is asked to kill a French policeman with an unbeknownst-to-him unloaded gun (a test he passes with flying colors) he is welcomed into the FLN (by a character based on Yacef himself) and begins to move up the hierarchy of the insurgency due to his commitment and brutality.
Soon, the movement (based in the Casbah quarter of Algiers) hits its stride, with the typical quick-hit targeted assassinations that we like to refer to as “terrorism”, and the French begin to realize that they’ve got a problem.
In come the “paratroopers” (which I am led to believe are the French Foreign Legion) and a Ray-Ban chic Colonel who turns out to be an amalgamation of several real people. He’s charged with tracking down the insurgency, and as he begins to apply questionable techniques (for instance, bombing the home of an insurgency leader) the rebels show that they’re not shy about setting bombs of their own.
This beaut is one of three targeted for a café, a teeny-bopper dance hall, and the airport. But now with the authorities taking aggressive measures to search the Casbah residents when they enter the European quarters, how to deliver them?
The answer? Dress your women up as westernized girls and let them breeze right through the checkpoints. Boom! goes the dynamite! Naturally, this only strengthened the resolve of the Colonel and his forces, and after capturing the Yacef character they finally corner Ali in his hiding place and we return to the beginning of the film. The Colonel offers Ali and his companions the opportunity to come out, but with no response, he blows up the entire house.
This represents a pretty major setback for the FLN, but the film fast-forwards a couple of years from the eponymous Battle and shows another social uprising that marks the beginning of the ultimate triumph of the Algerians.
I was pretty impressed by the even-handed treatment of both sides, especially considering that the film was essentially pushed by the leader of the rebels and the filmmakers were said to have sympathies with the (at that time, already victorious) Algerian side. Though, to be fair, I’m led to understand that at least Ali’s death scene was a bit dramatized – in the film, the Colonel basically tells Ali that he’s going to blow the entire house up if they don’t come out. Apparently, the real situation was a bit different, with the French setting charges intending to blow the false wall, and incidentally setting off a cache of Ali’s explosives they didn’t know were there – it was the power of that cache and not the French charges which allegedly destroyed the house and killed Ali.
Fundamentally, the film doesn’t deliver a whole lot of warm fuzzies. The Colonel has a perfect grip on the situation, and he tells the press straight up:
The problem is: the FLN wants us to leave Algeria and we want to remain…I would now like to ask you a question: Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
That’s exactly the issue. When you have two sides, neither of whom wish to give ground, and both of whom are willing to kill in order not to…well, that’s what you get. And if I learned anything from this film, it wasn’t about urban insurgency tactics, it wasn’t even much about human nature, but it was that this simple fact is why Colonialism ultimately doesn’t work. The colonizers will always lose their will to hold on to their colony before the colonized lose their will to reclaim their home. Even after 130 years of what the film characterized as mostly peaceful occupation, the Algerian population did not forget that Algeria had once been their land. So if you want to take over some territory, you’ve gotta go with conquest.