The human face of terror and torture

The Battle of Algiers

January 16, 2004

There was a time when people believed that political films could influence events. The death of politics put paid to such a notion. That, and the rise of a sedating entertainment industry. But wherever there has been conflict, particularly if it is a bloody and barbarous clash between ethnic groups, combatants have always referred to one particular political film for study and inspiration: Gillo Pontecorvo's masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers , which has now been digitally remastered and released on DVD with previously cut scenes restored. Made in 1966, it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. In the late 1960s, the Black Panthers and the Weathermen used it as a guide to urban warfare, particularly in the setting-up of revolutionary cells (an activist knows only three others: the person who recruits him and the two he recruits). The Palestinians have certainly been inspired by it; in fact, Pontecorvo considered making a film on the first intifada with them. More recently, in the summer of 2003, the Pentagon showed the film to its staff as a primer on the tactics of an insurgent Arab population. One suspects that it is also essential viewing for Iraqis and Israelis.

What is surprising about all this is that this is a film shot through with moral ambiguities and contradictions. Far from being an instruction manual on revolt, every single action is questioned. It is not a hymn to battle but the unfolding of a terrible tragedy.

Pontecorvo and his co-writer, Franco Solinas, tell the story in a complex way, with isolated pre-title and post-title sequences, a flashback that starts off as personal recollection but quickly develops into a collective memory, and a coda that goes back to the "present". Trying to impose dramatic form on real life is always difficult. The familiar solution is to change the facts. Pontecorvo and Solinas freely mould events into a wondrous shape, but in essence stick to the facts. Ironed out, the story traces events from one lone Algerian being dragged to his execution by guillotine, crying out " Tuhya Al Jaza'ir " (Long live Algeria), to the whole of Arab Algeria, the Casbah, taking up that cry. In between, a crescendo of violence engulfs both colonisers and colonised. Each brutal act is topped by yet another.

Of course, what is of particular relevance today is the use of terror against the French by the FLN (National Liberation Front). There is a chilling sequence of Arab women in the Casbah putting on western dress, then infiltrating the European quarter with bombs in their baskets, which they plant in civilian targets. The colonial powers respond with wholesale murder and systematic torture.

However, this is not a story of good and evil or, as it sometimes seems, evil and evil. Although both sides do dreadful things, the Algerians and French are not shown as monsters - which is not to say that Pontecorvo presents both sides as equally culpable. The Algerians are shown as more sinned against than sinning, but he needs to humanise the French to make this point. Colonel Mathieu, who proudly leads the paratroopers and destroys the FLN - a thin disguise for the real French general Massu - is publicly unrepentant about his methods: "Those who call us fascists forget what many of us did in the Resistance. They call us Nazis, but some of us are survivors of Dachau and Buchenwald." So why did those who fought fascism and the Nazis in Europe in 1939-45 adopt their methods in Algeria a decade or so later? At a press conference, Mathieu attempts an explanation:

"Must France stay in Algeria? If the answer is yes, then you must accept what that entails." But the question persists and puzzles the mind. Later, when Mathieu parades a captured FLN leader, Bin M'Hidi, before the press, a journalist challenges him: "Isn't it vile to use women's baskets to attack innocent victims?" Bin M'Hidi replies: "Isn't it even more vile to drop napalm on defenceless villages, killing thousands? Give me the bombers and you can have the baskets."

On the FLN side, Ali La Pointe is a counter to Mathieu, and is also based on a real person. Ali is an illiterate with a record of petty crimes and incarcerations. He is the muscle rather than the brains of the revolution - but a hero nonetheless. Brahim Haggiag, a non-actor, plays Ali in a state of constant pent-up rage, with a physicality that recalls Toshiro Mifune.

Ali and three others - an 11-year-old boy, a newly married 20-year-old man and a woman in her mid-20s - are the last of the FLN leadership to be tracked down by Mathieu and his paratroopers. Holed up behind a false wall, they will not surrender and so the house is dynamited. Mathieu is congratulated by his superiors on killing what he calls the "head of the hydra". In fact, the flame of resistance has been lit in the hearts of the hundreds who witnessed the leader's destruction.

Apart from Mathieu and Ali, most of the characters are composites, but it is generally acknowledged that Pontecorvo did not stray from the truth.

This is the feeling that also emerges from the extra feature on this DVD, an illuminating interview with Pontecorvo. Often, when a director talks about his film, what he says bears only a passing resemblance to the film one has seen; Pontecorvo, however, speaks with charm and modesty about a film that we recognise. He reveals that the genesis of all his films is musical. He has to "hear" the form and structure of a film before he takes it on. (Given his time again, he would choose to become a conductor.) He speaks elsewhere of the dramatis personae as a chorus. In each sequence, a member of this chorus steps out into the limelight or, more accurately, into history. The main characters make a number of appearances, others only once and briefly. The effect is to give us a personal, human engagement with the cold facts that continually bombard us: communiques, press interviews, police reports, United Nations decisions, dates, hours and even minutes.

Pontecorvo, with his Italian neo-realist roots, consciously adopts a documentary style in the shooting and editing, and there is only one professional actor in the whole film (Jean Martin, who plays the astute professional soldier). This approach is most vivid in the newsreel effect of the street scenes. The incursion by the paratroopers into the intestinal alleyways of the Arab quarter achieves an extraordinary veracity, yet it also carries the power of metaphor, like the rape of the body of the Casbah. If Pontecorvo sees dramaturgy as music, then he and fellow composer Ennio Morricone see music as dramaturgy. The score, which is integral to the film's power, is rarely used simply to add emphasis, colour or tone; it supplies a counterpoint and psychological commentary. For instance, Christian liturgical music is used during the French torture of the FLN, partly ironically and partly to help a western audience engage with a Muslim Arab culture. We are alike. Never mind which side is doing the killing, the score captures the primitive excitement of the act, with the pounding beat of a succession of chords as the paratroopers attack Arabs, and sharp, dissonant, jagged glissandi as the Arabs kill lone French policemen. And when there is mass murder, irrespective of whether the victims are Arab or French, there is the same funereal dirge and hymn.

Two years after the killing of Ali and the destruction of the FLN, the Arab Algerians pour out of the Casbah with unforeseen and irrepressible gusto.

The French army, supported by tanks, cannot quell this unarmed demonstration. Whatever is driving the people, events are out of the control of both the FLN and France. "Wars aren't won with terrorism," says one of the FLN leaders. Nor by superior arms. By 1961, when the French met the Algerians to negotiate independence for Algeria, the FLN had dwindled to 15,000 inadequately armed fighters against an occupying army of 500,000 men; but France had lost the will to fight.

At the bitter end, when the Algerians are on the way to freedom, we are left with the image of a single woman waving an Algerian flag at a violent demonstration. We know her. She is part of the chorus. Most of her comrades have been killed in the struggle. She is one of the few terrorist survivors, who carried a bomb in her basket. Pontecorvo makes us understand the cost of that flag.

Mamoun Hassan, former head of editing at the National Film and Television School, is co-writer and producer of a film set during the last days of Allende and the first days of Pinochet, now in post-production.

The Battle of Algiers

Author - Gillo Pontecorvo
Publisher - Argent Films
Price - £19.99

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