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In August 2004, as both Iraqi and "coalition" cadavers piled up in post-"victory" insurgency fighting, the State Department's Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict office sent out an email memo advertising a private Pentagon screening of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 classic The Battle of Algiers. "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas," the flier opined: "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."
We don't know who attended, or what impact upon Pentagon-think this legendary handmade-bomb of a movie might've had. Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, for one, remembered it without being reacquainted - at an October 2003 D.C. conference called New American Strategies for Security and Peace, he told the crowd of feds, politicos and op-ed-men that "[i]f you want to understand what is happening right now in Iraq, I suggest a movie that was quite well-known to a number of people some years ago...It's called The Battle of Algiers. It is a movie that deals with...[a] resistance which used urban violence, bombs, assassinations, and turned Algiers into a continuing battle that eventually wore down the French."
Obviously, this fierce piece of agitprop has seen its moment arrive for a second time. Before 9/11, where and by whom was the film ever remembered, respectfully if at all? Perhaps it's just the natural winds of history that are responsible for Pontecorvo's masterpiece suddenly being reborn via a nationwide revival theater run, a lavish Criterion Collection DVD, and now special cable TV appearances, just as it has been invoked and summoned as an anti-insurrectionary instruction manual in the corridors of federal power. But is it tragic irony, or merely the evolutionary nature of realpolitik, that such a passionate, righteous revolutionary document is now most famous as an ostensible training film for neo-con strategists?
It hardly matters; the movie exudes its own indefatigable legitimacy. Empathize with your enemy, as Robert McNamara says in The Fog of War (2003), and Pontecorvo's film has been long celebrated for its objectivity. Forget it: the harsh reality of Pontecorvo's film only serves to strip down imperialist rationales to their Napoleonic birthday suits. Did the Pentagonians even notice that the film, an Algerian project written and produced by one of the nation's liberation leaders and directed by an Italian ex-communist, sides squarely with the oppressed, bomb-planting Arabs? Has any movie ever made a more concise and reasonable argument for the "low-intensity," low-resource warfare referred to by powerful nations as terrorism? Famously, a reporter in the film asks an Algerian rebel how moral it is to use women's shopping baskets to hide bombs, to which the apprehended man answers, "we do not have planes with which to rain munitions on civilians' homes (which is implicitly, then and now, considered to be the far more moral action). If you'll give us your planes," he says, "we'll hand over our baskets."
Sound familiar? If any movie squeezes you into the shoes of grassroots combatants fighting monstrous colonialist power for the right to their own neighborhoods, this is it. It's also the first film to be seen internationally that portrayed North Africans as people and not just scenery, and in the process it got itself nominated for three Oscars®. Using the genuine locations just as Eisenstein did in October (1928) and Rossellini did in Open City (1945), Pontecorvo shoots, edits and scores his film with a Gatling-gun urgency, mixing and matching faux-doc textures, and cuing martialized action to machine-shop electronica. (His partners in crime were cinematographer Marcello Gatti, composer Ennio Morricone, a handful of Italian crew members and an army of inexperienced Algerians.) There is no subplotting or comedy relief. A prototype of news-footage realism, The Battle of Algiers makes shrewd use of handheld sloppiness, misjudged focus, overexposure and you-are-there camera upset; the payoff is the scent of authentic panic. We follow both sides of the combat - the uprising Casbah natives and the merciless if disconcerted French army - from 1954's initiation of the rebellion to the official French victory, in 1957, over the National Liberation Front. It was a Pyrrhic victory, as the harrowing, riot-mad coda makes clear - the terrorist organization may have been rooted out, but the Algerian people still resisted occupation. Hard-edged he may be, but Pontecorvo cannot be called unromantic: starting with the grifter-turned-assassin-turned-movement leader Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), the actors playing the Arab seditionists were all chosen for their soulful beauty. (Not, it's safe to say, for their chops; nearly all of their dialogue is postdubbed, another factor in the movie's on-the-fly affect.) Lizard-eyed ramrod Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast) is sympathetic insofar as he affects admiration for his antagonists (which include screenwriter/co-producer Saadi Yacef, essentially playing his FLN-leader self) as civilian neighborhoods are obliterated into rubble and a barbed-wire wall with armed checkpoints is erected between Algiers's Muslim and French quarters.
The French government complained that the film's politics are anything but "fair and balanced," and they weren't wrong - it's a revolt anthem, mature enough to document violative extremes on the Algerian side but never surrendering its moral rectitude. The ethical questions implicit in the chaos are maddening, just as they are today - is one side right and the other wrong if they both slaughter civilians? Is it ever justified? If it ever is, then how could anyone condemn the "terrorists" for acting out the same scenario as their oppressors, but on a smaller scale?
The Pentagon boys should, at least, have been daunted by the apparent inevitability of failure in the face of independence. American occupation-quagmires are always more complicated than the European post-colonial conflicts, and The Battle of Algiers is only a movie, of course. But Pontecorvo's film still smells dangerous, particularly as we head toward the war's fifth birthday (if you date from the May 2002 bombings) and toward a new election year.
Producer: Antonio Musu, Yacef Saadi
Director: Gillo Pontecorvo
Screenplay: Gillo Pontecorvo, Franco Solinas
Cinematography: Marcello Gatti
Film Editing: Mario Morra, Mario Serandrei
Art Direction: Sergio Canevari
Music: Ennio Morricone, Gillo Pontecorvo
Cast: Brahim Hadjadj (Ali La Pointe), Jean Martin (Col. Mathieu), Yacef Saadi (Djafar), Ugo Paletti (Captain), Fusia El Kader (Halima).
by Michael Atkinson