Friday, April 06, 2007

La Bataille d'Alger

The Pentagon, demonstrating unusual prescience, screened this movie for its educational value in August 2003 for Americans about to descend into a morass of insurgency, counterinsurgency and civil war in Iraq. The historical parallel between Iraq today and Algeria in the 1950s is far from perfect, but a Western occupying power in a third world country facing violent uprisings was not all that uncommon in the 20th century. It is an enduring tragedy that Western powers continue to delude themselves about occupations.

The Battle of Algiers is a captivating film due to its historical authenticity. It is based on a book by a member of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN), who also acted in the film. [The FLN, in its pre-independence role, was a revolutionary organization fighting the French during the Algerian war of independence from 1954-1962.]

The movie is fair in the sense that it depicts violence both by the insurgents as well as the French, though it seemed clear to me that the sympathies of the script are with the Algerians. The characters are well-etched, despite the shortness of the film. On the Algerian side, there is the organizer of the insurgency Jafar, the common criminal turned revolutionary Ali La Pointe, and the ideologue Ben M'Hidi explaining the goals of terrorism. The French response to the insurgency is articulated through the character of Colonel Mathieu. The scenes of his press conferences for the Parisian press are striking - especially when he tells them that the success of the counterinsurgency depends on the support of the press and the public back in France.

The film is black and white, in conforming to the film-making canon that this somehow makes the narrative more authentic. I first encountered this belief when Schindler's List was released, but I have found it difficult to agree with it. My argument is simply that reality happens in color, so a film aiming to be realistic ought to use color.

In terms of technique, the quality of the film-making is quite good. The performances are controlled, the violence is no more gory than necessary, and the melodrama is kept to a minimum. The film has a very sure-footed script and screenplay and the viewer's interest does not flag.

There are a couple of scenes of torture. The extent of the torture was probably underreported at the time and is consequently underplayed in the film. Despite this, in keeping with the great traditions of Western culture and support for free speech, this movie was banned in France for five years and had its torture scenes deleted before being released in Britain and in the US.

The French have only recently begun to acknowledge some of what went on during the Algerian war of independence. Unfortunately, the Algerians have not covered themselves in glory, either during the war of independence, or in the massacres of collaborators after it, or during the ensuing power struggles, or during the civil war of the 1990s. Adam Shatz covers the historical ground very well in a November 2002 essay in the New York Review of Books, reproduced here.

The French connection with Algeria was extraordinarily brutal, going back to the 1840s, after their involvement in Algeria began with the initial capture of Algiers in 1830. From this article in Le Monde Diplomatique, we learn that Alexis de Tocqueville, he of Democracy in America fame, felt that the French were entitled to "ravage the country" in order to suppress the rebellion in the 1840s. The ravaging is estimated to have killed around 500,000 people out of a population of about 3 million.

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