The Battle for Algiers tells the story of the Algerian people’s eight years of fighting against French colonialist rule in the 1950s. I attended a special screening at the newly re-opened Hackney Empire in London, with an original score played live by Asian Dub Foundation (ADF). The band played in front of a huge screen that filled the back of the stage. Their music, although excellent, seemed to intrude at first, but I soon became immersed in the story, and in the unique performance I was experiencing. The instrumental movements they had created swelled around me like a symphony, and added an affecting accompaniment to what was unfolding on screen.
The Battle for Algiers follows the story of Ali la Pointe, commander of the FLN (National Liberation Front) and his comrades. Its realistic style allows us to experience a guerrilla struggle for freedom from the inside; the oppression, the determination to fight back, the increasing violence, the conflicts amongst the leadership, the involvement of the ordinary people, and the tactics used by the colonisers to destroy the resistance.
Perhaps its authenticity comes from the fact that it was written by and stars Saadi Yasef, an active participant in the original uprising, who helped set up the first post-colonial government. It covers the years 1954-1957, when the rebels retreated into the casbah in Algiers (home to 100,000 Muslims), and the fighting intensified. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, also part of his own country’s resistance against Fascism, presents a drama shot as a documentary and uses many of the original locations of the uprising.
To prevent the ever-increasing attacks by the rebels, the French introduces a curfew in the casbah. The solidarity amongst the Algerians strengthens and new methods of resistance must be found. Young women are enlisted to deliver bombs to their destinations, dressed in Western clothing to slip past the police as they leave the casbah on their violent missions. The brilliant acting, along with the direction, and ADF’s music, conspired to create a feeling of claustrophobia, high-tension and fear. I held my breath willing these brave women to succeed, to avoid capture, to make an impact, to free their people… even knowing the terrible acts that they were about to commit.
Seeing the moment the bombs explode (shot in slow motion), one in a cafe crowded with people, is utterly shocking. How could I have sympathised with the bombers? This screening of the film was uncut, including its controversial torture scenes that had been banned from some prints. Watching the horrific torture of the guerrillas by the colonial forces, and the bombing of the casbah to break a strike by the population, twisted my emotions back the other way.
A testament to the sensitivity of the piece is that it also makes one empathise with the experience of the colonialists. There is a growing sense of fear and tension amongst the Pieds-Noirs (French Settlers) as they come under attack, and the desperation of the political leaders for the army to crush the guerrillas is plain.
Eventually, a crack team of French paratroopers is brought in to identify and capture the guerrilla leaders. General Phillipe (Jean Martin) tells his troops how he fought against the Nazis in World War Two, and how his unique understanding of the psychology of struggle against an occupying force will help him succeed against the Algerians. Again, I was forced by the filmmakers to re-examine my feelings, as ‘cruel occupying soldier’ morphed into ‘brave resistance leader’ on screen.
‘It is not by chance,’ it is noted in publicity for the recent screening of the film, ‘that the Pentagon chose to stage internal screenings of The Battle for Algiers ahead of the invasion of Iraq.’ The IRA, the Sandinistas and the Viet Minh have also reportedly used the film.
The Algerians succeeded in winning their freedom from France in 1962, having lost one million of their nine million people. This is a deeply affecting film, which forces us to examine our own attitudes, prejudices and sympathies. Whatever our political position, The Battle for Algiers has a lot to teach us about the pain and complexity of struggle.