Gills Pontecorvo, producer
LE JEUDI, 16 NOVEMBRE
Gills Pontecorvo’s famous
film, Battle of Algiers (1966), was recently released in
French army confronts demonstrators for Algerian independence in 1960
The film concerns the
career of one Ali
In the film, the FLN starts off its campaign of national liberation by attempting to purge the Algerian people of what the political organization sees as decadent Western influences. One of the FLN’s communiqués reads:
One can only wonder if the permissiveness and hedonism that is such a prominent aspect of Western democracy will be any more welcome in the Arab world of today than it was in the 1950s.
Then begin the murders of French policemen, who are usually shot in the back. The incidents multiply, and the prefect of police decides to take extra-legal measures that involve the bombing and complete destruction of an inhabited building associated with the FLN in the Arab quarter. Thereafter, the FLN starts it own bombing campaign. In the film’s most famous sequence, three Arab women made up and dressed as Frenchwomen manage to sneak bombs into the European quarter, which has been cut off from the Kasbah by checkpoints. Their targets are a bar, a milk bar, and the Air France office. In one scene, the youthful, carefree French – teenagers and children among them – socialize, drink, and gyrate to the Latin tune "Hasta Manana" in the bar, while one of the women hides her bomb and leaves. What happens next in all three places is as horrific as it is familiar.
On the 11th of September,
2001, we saw another example of this strategy of hitting three targets
simultaneously in order to disorient and demoralize the enemy: The
As the situation
deteriorates, the French send in reinforcements, which arrive marching
applause of the French residents. The narrator informs us that "the
Inspector General of the Administration has taken drastic steps to
and order and to protect people and property. In particular, to bring
Para Division into
Commander Lt. Colonel
Philippe Mathieu tells his men: "The problem, as usual, is: first, the
enemy; second, how to destroy him. There are 400,000 Arabs in
The Lt. Colonel also tells
his men that they need an excuse to go on the offensive, and if the
provide one, he himself will. But the Arabs do give him his excuse in
of a general strike: anyone participating in the strike is considered
member. In an operation code-named "
But even as the FLN is being broken up, the bombings continue. A horse race is interrupted by two explosions, and the French spectators attempt to wreak their vengeance on an Arab boy selling refreshments in the stands. As the mob moves towards him, the boy’s eyes become filled with terror – a terror that is also wary, doubtless because the boy has feared the wrath of the French before and intuitively understands the workings of corporate guilt. The lad, who ironically is wearing a cap with the Coca-Cola logo, is reminiscent of the little Jewish boy with hands raised in the famous WWII photograph – a comparison made almost certainly on purpose by Pontecorvo.
Immediately after the explosions, while the bloody victims are being carried to safety, the French pounce on the child, striking and kicking him, shouting: "Salopard! You’ll pay for the rest! Little rat! Get going! Son of a bitch!" The child is saved by a French policeman, who puts himself between the boy and the mob while shouting, "Take it easy! He’s only a child!" To which someone in the mob responds, "So what? Don’t they kill our children?!" The officer and his colleagues succeed in carrying the boy to safety – an intentional endorsement, possibly, by Pontecorvo of the Western sense of justice and fair play.
This is certainly the most moving scene in the film, and it is the one that stayed with me vividly all during the thirty years after I first saw the movie.
In a following scene, Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force. During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: "Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?" To which the official answers, "And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets."
In a second press
conference, another reporter questions Colonel Matthieu about the use
torture against FLN members. The colonel responds: "I’ll ask you a
question myself: Should
There follows a graphic but at the same time stylized sequence of the torture of suspected terrorists.
The colonel finally
succeeds in destroying the terrorist cells. He is convinced that if the
the organization is taken or killed, the organization itself will die.
does succeed in blowing up Ali
But the peace does not last. The narrator informs us: "It is not known why, but after two years of relative quiet, apart from the guerrilla war in the mountains, trouble has broken out again."
The demonstration scene at
the end of the film, with its Algerian-flag waving, ululating
where Pontecorvo indulges and celebrates his communist convictions –
victory of the people over their imperialistic oppressors – not
where liberation and independence would lead: in 1991, the FLN
Algeria cancelled the results of a free election in which the decidedly
un-communist FSI (Islamic Salvation Front) was poised to win a majority
banned the party. In response, a splinter group of the FSI, the Armed
Group (GIA), set out to purify
Battle of Algiers is
gripping with its scenes that seem to have been shot today in
The question that the film
poses to us present-day Americans is the same, mutatis mutandis, that
Colonel Matthieu poses to the journalists: Should France stay in
If the answer is yes, I’m afraid that, like the French, we’ll have to accept all the necessary consequences.
Gillo Pontecorvo and
In her biography of
Pontecorvo, Memorie Estorte a uno Smemorato (Memories Wrung from a
– a reference to Pontecorvo’s famed absent-mindedness) Irene Bignardi
that the future director of the Battle of Algiers was born into an
Italian-Jewish family of
The director was introduced
to communism in the late ’30s by an older brother, Bruno, who worked as
atomic physicist in
During WWII, Pontecorvo worked as a courier and journalist for the Italian Communist Party. But he became disillusioned with the party in 1956 as a result of its support of the Soviet invasion of Hungary: "For a long time, I had begun to criticize that which I had liked for so long: those [Communist Party] grooves that had given me a great sense of security, the romanticization of the working class...the romanticization of the Soviet Union and the myopia concerning certain facts.... This series of small delusions had brought [me and others] to the truth and had separated us from the religion. When the suppression [of the revolt] in Hungary took place, all these feelings came to a head, and I decided to leave a party in which I had believed blindly, but which had deluded me in many ways."
Bruno’s disillusionment with the
Like many other Italian
communists who left the party in disgust at the Soviet invasion of
Pontecorvo wanted to shoot
his film without using professional actors (in fact, the only
Jean Martin, a French stage actor who plays the part of the French
Matthieu). He found the 138 faces featured in the film while wandering
If one has not seen this
film, one cannot begin to imagine Pontecorvo’s extraordinary
acting is so natural and convincing that many viewers and even some
assumed that the movie was a documentary. Only a master director could
taken this raw acting material and gotten such performances out of it.
despite his leftist viewpoint, Pontecorvo neither ridicules or
French, as does Michael Moore the Americans in his recent putative
Bowling at Columbine – though I do a disservice to Pontecorvo to
work to that of
Although nearly forty years
have passed since its creation, Battle of Algiers is more timely than
especially for Americans, given the American involvement in a
colonial war in the