Pontecorvo's Ghost: The Lasting Relevance of The Battle of Algiers
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
In September of 2003, as the Iraq War raged, the Pentagon, at the suggestion of Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, held special screenings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers. The film, not often discussed today outside of a classroom setting (either film, political science, or military), finds relevance as once again a foreign military righteously marched into a Middle Eastern nation. Now, over 16 years since the invasion of Iraq, 53 years since the original release of the film, and nearly 190 years since the French invasion of Algeria, is there still reason to look to The Battle of Algiers?
Since the Civil War of the 1990s, Algeria has remained relatively quiet - so it seems, at least, to the outsider. The Arab Spring of 2011 did not have the earth-shaking effect on Algeria that it had on other Middle Eastern nations (think Syria’s ongoing war and Egypt’s seemingly endless cycle of coups and protests). Anticipating trouble, the government raised subsidies and lifted the long-standing state of emergency (a favorite tool of autocrats world over). As a result many Algerian’s seemed satisfied with the nation’s economy and, so, the global media attention gravitated towards the more violent and TV-friendly events in Syria, Egypt and Yemen. However, on April 2nd of 2019, in response to protests, Algeria’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stepped down after 20 years in office. Unplacated, the protests continue, decrying rampant corruption and expressing economic concerns likely connected to the 2014 collapse of oil prices that the recent increases in subsidies were not able to stave off.
Despite Algeria’s absence from CNN headlines, it remains one of the most significant and important countries in the MENA region, not because of its inherent uniqueness but because of the characteristics it shares with its neighbors: a dark and brutal history of European colonialism, a volatile mix of religious and secular political ideology, rich natural resources both exploited and squandered, autocracy, civil war and perfervid, albeit sporadic, calls for democracy.
Taking the dark history of European colonialism as the unfortunate common denominator shared by most, if not all, MENA nations, let's examine the ghosts of Pontecorvo’s film.
The Battle of Algiers takes a hauntingly realistic and gritty approach to portraying a period of the Algerian War of Indepence, which lasted from 1954 to 1962. While the film makes an effort to show the concerns and sympathies of both the French and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), it must be noted that Pontecorvo’s narrative comes down decidedly on the side of the FLN and in favor of Algerian independence. This is done through highlighting the hypocrisy of French colonial policies and the refusal on the part of the French to understand and consider Algerian national sentiment.
The fact that multiple FLN communiques are read aloud throughout the film is one such example. They are, naturally, extremely sympathetic towards the Algerian Nationalists and hostile towards the French, and they are presented as voice-over narration (as opposed to being said by a specific character or broadcast through a radio), denying completely a French response or counter-narrative. In perhaps the film’s most striking scene, an Algerian man is led to his execution by French prison guards. He is walked through the prison and into the courtyard where he, without delay, is executed by means of guillotine. Though there is no one in the courtyard but the French officials and the condemned man, the camera, in three separate shots, reveals the courtyard walls dotted with windows, implying that the execution has been witnessed by a great many of the inmates. Consider for a moment the method of execution: the guillotine, which had become a symbol of the French Revolution and the ideals for which it stood. These ideals are in sharp contrast with the very concept of colonization and the scene presents a dramatic visualization of the clash between French national philosophy (or narrative) and French national policy. Indeed, there are lines spoken during FLN communiques, regarding liberty and self-determination, that could easily have been spoken during the French Revolution.
While Colonel Mathieu’s anti-Nazi French Resistance credentials are mentioned twice, French troops, under the command of Mathieu, gleefully smash Algerian storefront windows and destroy small-businesses, in a scene that bears a clear resemblance to the infamous Kristallnacht (1938). Pontecorvo’s sympathy can be gathered further by the various shots of children in the film: only one French child is seen (in the milk bar), while multiple Algerian children are shown, in shots often displaying them behind barbed-wire fencing, as well as the corpse of a child - the victim of a French bombing.
The lack of understanding on the part of the French authorities is cemented towards the end of film in dialogue spoken between Colonel Mathieu and a general, as well as in a radio broadcast. Mathieu can be heard saying: “They are basically good people. We got on fine for 130 years. Why shouldn’t that continue?” The radio broadcast is later heard explaining the 1960 riots as occurring for some “unknown reason, due to some obscure motive...and no one knows why or how.” These words, that essentially close the entire film, seem shocking to a viewer that has just witnessed the repeated and brutal French infringements on the rights of the Algerian people.
Fast-forward to the flyer that was passed out prior to the 2003 Pentagon screening. It read:
“How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”
The successes and failures of the 2003 invasion are well documented and can be judged by history but the more interesting question is whether or not the Pentagon’s decision to screen the film in the first place presented an inherent misunderstanding of it. I’m not sure if I can answer that but I can recognize that The Battle of Algiers is as poignant a warning now as it was when it first aired. ▲
Ahmed Ragheb is an independent filmmaker from Cairo, Egypt. He is now based in Pittsburgh and, with his partner, Lily, he is working on a series of short films. You can follow along with them on social media at @dogdoorfilms!