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Watching “The Battle of Algiers”


The Battle of Algiers is a fascinating cinematic achievement. Released in 1966, just a decade after the real-life battle it depicts and four years after Algeria’s independence, it chronicles the guerilla warfare of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) against the colonial French government in brutally realistic style. There are two main characters, although the film only loosely focuses on them: Ali La Pointe, a former criminal who becomes an FLN revolutionary, and Colonel Mathieu, the French soldier tasked with defeating the Algerian independence movement. Both are based on actual historical figures: Ali La Pointe (played by Brahim Haggiag) was a real person, while Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) is based on a composite of several different French officers. Just as in real life, La Pointe is murdered after being trapped by the French and refusing to surrender. But just as the French celebrate, we see what happens five years later: an uprising throughout the city, with tens of thousands marching for Algerian independence, the culmination of the change that the FLN fought for and that the French could not stamp out.


What’s remarkable about The Battle of Algiers is its realism. Director Gillo Pontecorvo shot every scene live and on location in Algiers, using a type of film stock normally used for newsreels to give the film a documentary feel. Additionally, the cast was almost entirely made up of non-professional actors, including several who had actually fought for the FLN—most notably Saadi Yacef, who recruited La Pointe to the FLN and whose memoirs formed the basis of the movie. Jean Martin, who plays Colonel Mathieu and is the sole professional actor in the cast, like his character fought for both the French Resistance during World War II and the colonial French government in Indochina (now Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos).


What purpose do the film's realist techniques serve? The most obvious is documenting and preserving the real-life Algerian resistance and providing an honest account of the effects of colonialism. At a time when few people in Europe wanted to confront the crimes their countries had committed in the name of empire, Pontecorvo was one of the first European directors to tackle the subject head-on. In one of the Battle of Algiers’ most moving scenes, after the house of an FLN member is bombed by French policemen, the community cleans up the rubble and buries the dead. In this scene, the realist techniques in The Battle of Algiers document the real people who were affected by these events, whose voices were completely ignored by those in power.


These filming techniques excel at giving you the feeling of being right there in the movie, transported to Algiers in 1957. But even as the realism brings the audience into the action, it also brings us out. The newsreel-style footage in The Battle of Algiers creates a distance—it brings attention to the fact that the film is a document, a reflection of reality created for a mostly non-Algerian audience rather than reality itself. And as the film’s non-Algerian audience observes the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, they remain bound up in anti-colonial struggles at home, whether the audience knows it or not. When a French journalist asks Colonel Mathieu for “more precise answers” to questions about his army’s routine torture of FLN members, Colonel Mathieu responds:


The problem is this: the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay. Even with slight shades of opinion, you all agree that we must stay. When the FLN rebellion began there were no shades at all. Every paper, the communist press included, wanted it crushed. We’re here for that reason alone. We’re neither madmen nor sadists . . . We are soldiers. Our duty is to win. Therefore, to be precise, it’s my turn to ask a question: should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.


How much does this justification of violence and colonialism differ from the justification our government gives for the continued oppression of Indigenous people? The French occupation of Algeria bears a terrible similarity to the current Canadian government. In Algeria and Canada, colonizers committed genocide against the Indigenous population, then created a two-tier society with settler citizens who had full rights under the law and Indigenous non-citizens who did not. Their economies, fuelled by the theft of land and resources, were dominated by large, settler-owned firms. Today in Canada, forced sterilization, mass incarceration, and the crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit People (MMIWG2S) are ongoing, and the settler government retains exclusive control over a massive amount of land and natural resources stolen from Indigenous peoples. All of it is based on the same bargain laid out so clearly by Colonel Mathieu: Do you want to stay in control? If so, these are the consequences.


To say The Battle of Algiers has a definitive lesson wouldn’t be entirely right. It excels as a frank depiction of colonialism, and clearly encourages the audience to empathize with the Algerian struggle. However, the film does not spell out a clear moral or lesson. Rather, the film allows the viewer to come to the obvious moral conclusion on their own by faithfully portraying the horrific everyday realities of colonialism. However, by creating distance through its use of newsreel-style film stock and footage, it also encourages the viewer to think about their own lives. Part of the film’s tragedy is that Colonel Mathieu was unwilling or unable to make the connection between the Nazi occupation he fought against at home and the colonial occupation he fights for abroad. The genius of The Battle of Algiers is not just its furious condemnation of colonialism—it forces the audience to make the connection that Colonel Mathieu never did.


Daniel Grushcow, August 9, 2022


For further consideration:


The Dictatorship of Truth — a fascinating 37-minute interview between Edward Said and The Battle of Algiers director Gillo Pontecorvo. The film is available to watch on the Criterion Channel where you can start a free trial.


Outside the Law — this film, directed by Algerian-French director Rachid Bouchareb, follows three brothers from the end of World War II through to Algerian independence in 1962, and was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 2010 Oscars. You can watch the trailer here. The full film is available to rent on Apple TV.


Note: you can watch The Battle of Algiers through the Toronto Public Library (you will need a library card/account) via Kanopy.

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