The Battle of Algiers is back -- along with The Battle of Algiers scenario. At a time when Gillo Pontecorvo's documentary-style account of a bloody, anti-colonialist urban uprising has been used by commentators from Tariq Ali to Zbigniew Brzezinski to describe the situation in occupied Iraq, and only months after a well-publicized screening at the Pentagon, the movie itself is poised for re-release in January.
"Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it 'the way it was,'" Walter Benjamin wrote in his final essay. "It means appropriating a memory as it flashes by in a moment of danger." Arguably the key political movie of its period, replete with a reception comparable in tumult to that accorded Battleship Potemkin, The Battle of Algiers was produced in the mid-1960s, set a decade earlier and made in the style of a 1940s newsreel. Which memory has been appropriated in 2004?
Authenticity has always been crucial to the movie's authority. If The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece of Third Worldist cinema -- and, per Pauline Kael, "the one great revolutionary 'sell' of modern times" -- it is because it looks like a news bulletin and moves like a thriller. Commissioned by the Algerian government, influenced by The Wretched of the Earth and operating, as Pontecorvo would say, under the "dictatorship of truth," the director and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, projected the post-World War II neorealism of Open City and La Terra Trema into a new arena: the barrio of colonized underdevelopment.
Even today, The Battle of Algiers has astonishing immediacy, anticipating the artfully raw you-are-there vérité of more recent movies like Bloody Sunday and Black Hawk Down. "There are actors, but there is no 'acting,'" Life magazine would marvel; the original American distributor felt compelled to include a boasting disclaimer, "This dramatic re-enactment of The Battle of Algiers contains NOT ONE FOOT of Newsreel or Documentary film."
Pontecorvo, shooting largely with a handheld camera under available light, enjoyed extensive use of Algiers as a movie set, and he cast the Algerian people as a collective protagonist. Like La Terra Trema, The Battle of Algiers was cast almost entirely with nonprofessionals, including the film's Algerian producer, Yacef Saadi, essentially playing himself as one of the revolutionary leaders. The part of the guerrilla-protagonist Ali la Pointe was given to an illiterate farmer who, Pontecorvo recalled, had to be "coached step by step through his lines." European tourists and local prostitutes were recruited for other roles. The film's lone professional actor played the French commander Col. Mathieu, modeled on Gen. Jacques Massu. (Ironically, the lean and martial Jean Martin was a signatory to a manifesto against the war in Algeria and suffered professionally as a result.)
Even more remarkable was Pontecorvo's eschewal of blatant agitprop. Although filled with dramatic close-ups and gut-wrenching action, The Battle of Algiers has an almost Olympian detachment: Watching it one might be watching the impersonal flow of history. The son of a prosperous Italian Jewish manufacturer, Pontecorvo had been a Communist partisan during World War II and a Communist Party functionary thereafter. By the time he left the party, following the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, he had embarked on a career as a photojournalist and filmmaker that would be crowned when The Battle of Algiers won the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival. The French delegation walked out on both the screening and the awards ceremony. (Initially banned, the film would not be released in France until 1971.)
In September 1967, The Battle of Algiers opened the New York Film Festival, only weeks after riots had decimated Newark, N.J., and Detroit and less than a month before -- with the U.S. Army in the streets of Washington for the first time since the Bonus March of 1932 -- 50,000 protesters massed on the National Mall and headed for the Pentagon. It was the same season that brought the martyrdom of Che Guevara and the canonization of Bonnie and Clyde.
The Battle of Algiers was sensationally received, with many reviewers making the connection between Algeria and Vietnam or Algiers and America's inner cities (or both). The movie would be nominated for three Oscars, but Newsweek detected a menacing trend. "At the recent New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and later at a first-run theater on Manhattan's East Side," the magazine observed, "many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French, as if The Battle of Algiers were a textbook and a prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come." Pontecorvo's movie offered invaluable instruction in the language of communiqués, organization of cells, placement of terrorist bombs and use-value of cop-killing -- not to mention inspiration for the ululations employed by the Weathermen during their October 1969 "Days of Rage."
Three years after its release, The New York Times covered the screening of The Battle of Algiers at the Thalia, a small revival theater on Manhattan's Upper West Side, noting the "laughter and applause when bombs planted by Algerian women destroyed restaurants frequented by the French." The Times reported that both the FBI and the Army had screened prints for their intelligence operatives. A few months later, in the course of the trial of 13 Black Panthers charged with a conspiracy to bomb public places and murder police officers in New York, an undercover detective testified that defendant Lumumba Shakur (stepfather of the murdered rapper Tupac Shakur) told him that The Battle of Algiers was required viewing.
Over the course of the lengthy trial, the prosecution introduced the movie as evidence and screened it for the jury (which eventually acquitted all 13 defendants). Juror Edwin Kennebeck later wrote in his book Juror Number Four that The Battle of Algiers "did more to help me see things from the defense point of view than the DA suspected." Could the Pentagon screenings have been organized by a middle-aged soixante-huitard, or a Defense Department lefty mole? What things did the 40 officers and civilian experts invited to that screening by the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict see?
The first half of The Battle of Algiers is the Panther primer. The movie begins in medias res, with the French army having tortured a pitiful Algerian informer to reveal the lair of the last extant urban guerrilla leader, Ali. It then jumps back three years to show Ali's political awakening and recruitment into the National Liberation Front (FLN), usually referred to in the film as "the Organization." As Ali's previously inchoate rage is instrumentalized in revolutionary struggle, so the Organization cleans up vice in the casbah and launches a campaign of assassination carried out largely by women and children against the French police.
The casbah -- occasionally referred to in the subtitles as "the ghetto" -- is sealed from the rest of the city, and elements in the colonial administration set off a devastating explosion within it. Pressed by the enraged Arabs, the Organization takes revenge. In the movie's crucial sequence, three fetching revolutionary women adopt Western clothes. They make their way through the checkpoint, one with a child in tow, to set off simultaneous bombs in the commercial heart of European Algiers. Pontecorvo individualizes both terrorists and victims -- and makes sure that the terrorists acknowledge those whom they are about to vaporize. Where once this sequence might have suggested tragic necessity, it's impossible to watch it now without recalling the images of suicide bus bombings and the Twin Towers collapse. Our moment of danger is September 11, the day The Battle of Algiers came home. The FLN now seems the cradle of Middle Eastern terror. As the Pentagon flier put it: "Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafés. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?"
The movie's last half illustrates the flier's hook: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas." French reaction is personified by the newly arrived Col. Mathieu -- looking not unlike a meaner, cooler Wesley Clark -- who accepts the mission of demolishing the Organization. "There are 80,000 Arabs in the casbah‚" he tells his men. "Are they all against us? We know they are not. In reality, it is only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it." How familiar that must sound!
Mathieu has ideas. He is a theoretician, a Marxist in reverse, even. His campaign is successful but -- as he, more than anyone else in the movie, realizes -- history belongs to the FLN. At one point Mathieu turns on a press conference full of hostile French journalists and forces them to clarify their own privileged positions. "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." A montage of Algerians subject to torture follows.
This, one imagines, is the key moment of the Pentagon's Battle of Algiers. The use of torture to break down prisoners caused an international outcry in 1957, and to this day it remains an issue in France. (As recently as 2000 and shortly before he died, Massu expressed regret.) To succeed, the American occupation must consign such abuses to the Baathist past -- indeed, the rationale for the invasion of Iraq long ago shifted from Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction to his dungeons of horror. But doesn't the invasion itself demonstrate that, in the war against terrorism, all means are available?
From necessary violence to necessary consequences, what goes around comes around. For the Pentagon no less than the Panthers, The Battle of Algiers is distinguished by its verisimilitude. But if the revolutionaries of the '60s saw historical inevitability, the Pentagon seeks a happier ending: In its remake, Mathieu must be hailed as the casbah's liberator -- and not just by the American media. The Battle of Algiers scenario may have been a Black Panther fantasy. For the Bush administration, it is a nightmare, already too real.