Judge Bill Gibron delves into the fine distinction between revolution and terrorism as portrayed in Gillo Pontecorvo's seminal war drama.
Our review of The Battle of Algiers (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published August 17th, 2011, is also available.
"Two swords clashing at each other
"A reform is a correction of abuses. A revolution is a transfer of power."—Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton
"Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind it only the slime of bureaucracy"—Franz Kafka
There is a fine line between revolution and terrorism. For both, ideologies must be drafted and determined. In both, innocent life is threatened and lost for the sake of the cause. While revolt claims a moral high ground based in history and hardship, terrorism takes the strident, determined route: Redress must be made, and it must be made in blood. Such philosophies are usually affected by the way they are viewed. For revolution, there always seems to be a clear target (a government or regime), while in terrorism, the goal appears ephemeral and indistinct (payback for ancient persecution, or combating the "Great Satan"). And of course, revolution is coached in freedom or change, while terrorism is intended to instill fear and evoke dread. When investigated from the inside, neither is flawed, and both strive to defeat their perceived enemy. On the outside, revolution is seen as a necessary evil aided by a sense of ethical imperative, while terrorism reeks of corruption and cruelty. Or is it the other way around?
So in 1954, when the FLN (National Liberation Front) went to war with the colonial government of France for the people of Algiers, were they rebels, or terrorists? Was their eight-year struggle—which saw hundreds of lives lost and even more placed in peril—a justifiable good, or the wanton acts of a criminal camarilla? Were the cries of "Allah is Good! Long Live Algeria!" an acceptable premise upon which to confront 130 years of French occupation and control? And frankly, are those wails any different than the fundamentalist dogma spewing out of the mouths of the residents of the modern Middle East, the most volatile and violent area on earth? Isn't all political struggle the same, on either side of the coin?
These are the questions that Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo faces in his powerful masterpiece of historical hyper-reality, The Battle of Algiers. What we learn, of course, is that there are no easy answers in the altercation between the tyrant and the subjugated, especially when both will resort to butchery to solve the stalemate.
Facts of the Case
Algeria. The late 1950s. The French have just been driven out of Vietnam and sense a similar unrest in their governmental province of Algeria. There has been an ongoing insurgency in the mountains, and the violence threatens to spill out into the city streets. In the Casbah—the Arab urban territory—instability is growing, and word of the revolution in the countryside is inspiring revolt. An underground terrorist faction, the FLN, is organizing the population, and the State will not tolerate such treason. They arrest and execute several members of the group, and this in turn inspires retaliation from the rebels. They target and kill several police officers. Pro-European vigilantes begin a bombing campaign in the Casbah, killing innocent women and children. The FLN responds with its own series of well-placed explosions.
The government realizes it can no longer control the situation and calls in the French military. Under the guidance of Col. Mathieu, there is hope that his paratroopers will regain order and repress the uprising. But before long, it's all-out urban guerrilla warfare. FLN sympathizers are captured and tortured, providing valuable information to the French. The Algerians keep up their reign of terror, breaking down the resolve of the non-native citizenry. There is a final standoff in the Casbah, with several of the FLN faithful trapped in a house. A single bomb blast later, it appears that the military has won. But soon, the people start to protest, rising up from their malaise and taking to the streets. Unable to control nearly half a million people in vocal, near-violent resistance, the end of French colonialism in Algeria is all but assured.
There is only one certainty in war or rebellion, a given that trumps triumph and defeat. No matter how well prepared or ill considered, no matter how quickly resolved or potentially prolonged, death and destruction are ever-present probabilities whenever two swords clash against each other. Such a significant factor—the ultimate sacrifice for self or state—marks every act of insurgency, terrorism, and aggression with a stigma that's both sharp and shapeless. The willingness to die for one's ideals is at once seen as noble and as fanatical, the thoughts of the zealot and the patriot alike. There are always two sides to every situation, be it a celebration or an execution, and a failure to understand why such skirmishes happen only guarantees that they will raise their ugly, misshapen heads somewhere else, some other time.
We tend to ignore the obvious truths when they stare back at us, believing in something far more sinister than "out of sight, out of mind." We often extrapolate and argue that if it's not known, it never happened. There are no lessons to learn from it, no insight to be gained by replaying those parts of the past. Of course, such a mindset is so fatally flawed that it could only be called by one name: foreign policy. As long as there are people who believe that they know better than others, there will be individuals willing to take umbrage with said statement. And they will correct you by any means necessary, including the Grim Reaper's favorite given. These are the real reasons why we fight. This is the reason for the battle of Algiers.
The Battle of Algiers is a primer of sorts, the motion picture equivalent of an agitator's self-published pamphlet. Systematically, layer-by-layer, director Gillo Pontecorvo positions his requirements for revolution, like a cinematic how-to manual for the mistreated. Though he claims a dispassionate eye for both sides of the Algerian issue (admittedly, the film is far more balanced than one would imagine), this is obviously a movie that agrees with the casting off of shackles and the establishment of autonomy and self-rule. For Pontecorvo, revolution is not about dogma or the struggle for power. Instead, it is about people. It is about the faces filled with hopelessness and hardship, the façades stricken with the knowledge that they do not control their fate.
Throughout the visual spectrum in the film, the director gives us close-ups and profiles, snapshots of the individuals involved in the struggle. Through their personas we witness the pain and despair, defiance, and determination that will lead to so many casualties and so much unbearable loss and grief. Such a simple gesture of competing imagery also keeps the parameters of the struggle in perspective. The Arabic faces of the Algerians are always matched against the cultured Caucasian fronts of the foolhardy French, and the dichotomy is one of The Battle of Algiers's key thematic symbols. In a revolution, there is always a clash between comfort and cruelty. The Muslim people of Algeria wear their disenfranchisement like shrouds of sorrow. The colonialist has a smug, secure sneer on his face, like a dire dare to retaliate.
Pontecorvo also wants to clarify the concept of rebellion, to make sure the audience fully understands what it is. The Battle of Algiers argues that revolution is not a reaction to a single aspect or situation. That would be a riot. Certainly a magic moment or miscreant deed can function as the catalyst, a call to arms. But the preparations for revolt are almost always in place long beforehand. They need not be obvious or organized, but as Pontecorvo tells it, they must make up part of the atmosphere, like the air that is breathed or the water that is drunk. Once the magma of unrest is stirred, and begins to bubble and boil, it is never too long before the volcano of upheaval erupts in acts of vile aggression. As presented in The Battle of Algiers, the struggle is seen as a wave, a never-quite-cresting tide that rises, recedes, then rears up again. Pontecorvo is sure to explain that, once such a grassroots groundswell is undertaken, there is no stopping it, save for outright annihilation. Rebellion is a given in the clamor between religion and race, economics and ethnicity. Why it doesn't occur more often, and what keeps it from happening with more frequency, are issues that The Battle of Algiers addresses. Indeed, it makes a strong case that without several distinct factors, there will never be an opportunity or desire for a people to rise up against authority, no matter how domineering or unfair.
Among the list of elements that must be present before a call to internal arms is made is the notion that everyone must be fighting for a common, completely understandable cause. Something like the right to vote or relief from poverty seem cogent enough, but The Battle of Algiers pushes the dynamic even further back to its basics. The spark that starts the fires of instability needs to live inside each and every individual to be affected by the confrontation. For the people of Algeria, the need for liberty, both religious and realistic, makes up part of the policy. But the true fuel for fundamental change comes in the simple guise of race. Indeed, one of the reasons why The Battle of Algiers is so powerful a political statement in 2004 (aside from the obvious link to the US occupation of Iraq—more on this later) is the accuracy with which it reflects the civil rights movement of the mid-to-late '60s. In Pontecorvo's prophesizing, he anticipated the Black Panther/Power Movement down to its militant machinations and reign of terror tendencies. The war for human recognition waged on the urban streets of America in the latter part of the 20th century is a perfect, prescient example of race as a basis for radicalizing and supreme social fallout. The policies of the government could change. The laws could be remanded to redress all the wrongs. But one facet will always remain the same. Algeria would be run by Europeans and transplanted peoples. Algerians, the true native ethnicity, would have no say in their own destiny.
Hand in hand with the ethnic angle for commonality, a revolution needs a sense of social injustice. Just being different in skin color or cultural heritage is not enough to warrant reprisal (unless you are a terrorist…and remember, what's the true difference?); said factor must foster mistreatment and inequality. Disparity is obvious in every frame of The Battle of Algiers, from the ghetto-like province of the Casbah and the cosmopolitan swank of the inner city with its coffee houses, upscale mercantile district, and nightclubs. Like South Africa in the '80s, where apartheid created zones of class and status, the Algiers of Pontecorvo's narrative is a realm divided between power and the lack thereof, of providence and the refusal to acknowledge same. Indeed, the vast majority of the movie is set up as a series of "versus," of clearly defined lines between the natives and the conquering antiheroes.
Finally, we understand that revolutions are founded in steps, each one progressively worse until the sense of dread and terror overwhelms and defeats the occupiers, or at least brings them to their knees, with a desperate desire to negotiate on their minds. The Biblical adage of "an eye for an eye" is how many of these communal mutinies begin. FLN leaders are killed while in prison. The Algerian rebels murder some police officers. The government targets and bombs FLN headquarters. The rebels begin their own wave of explosive destruction, which in turn leads to the government calling out the army. Before long, the battle is being waged on several fronts: in the streets, in the secret torture chambers of the military, in the prisons, and in the marketplace.
Like a callous chess game with people as pawns, and life the ultimate move toward checkmate, revolution continues onward and outward, encompassing all avenues of existence until reality and the rebellion are one in the same. One of the reasons why ongoing confrontational campaigns like the ones in Northern Ireland and Israel can continue for so long—aside from the obvious lack of a face-saving exit strategy for either side—is the notion that, if carried on for long enough, the commingling of the uprising and the real world will lead to an existential truce of sorts. Only the major components, desperate for power or perceived victory, continue on as the rest of the population goes about their routines, merely modifying their mannerisms to encompass their current circumstances. Such a situation can be deadlier that than conflict itself.
Indeed, individuals are always the fuel in a revolution. Any clash needs a constant supply of people willing to sacrifice, even die, for the common cause to continue functioning. The Battle of Algiers explains that, when the government plotted its undermining of the FLN, it started not with the existing laws or the availability of weaponry or explosives. It set up pyramids of power and influence, and then systematically went about removing the keystones—i.e., human beings—inserted into the institution of rebellion. The film also plays perfectly into the maxim that "power corrupts, while absolute power corrupts absolutely." In sly, subtle ways, we see how the FLN leaders are ready to sell out their comrades for assurances and immunity. They will play the puppet for the State, put on the brave face of defeat, and answer the piercing press conference questions with adeptness and a sly sense of self-deprecation. They may argue that this is all part of the plan, but any time the government or military is perceived to be winning, the forward momentum of a revolution hangs in the balance. Pontecorvo understands that the only way insurgency can survive is if the State continues its recreant response to the uprising. The government must continue with the executions and assassination; the stories of torture and torment must flood from the prison walls to the city streets. The people need to know that behind the façade of friendship and faith, there is a nasty cabal of cruelty waiting to greet anyone who steps out of line.
Part of the brilliance of The Battle of Algiers is the experimental cinematic conceits used by Pontecorvo to amplify the reality and tragedy in his film. This movie is really a documentary posing as fiction, or a pretend political drama offered up as fact. Using handheld cameras, non-professional actors, and a recreationist's mentality, Pontecorvo steps back into the areas that just a few years before saw bombing and bloodshed, and restages his sequences to mirror the truth of the times. There are moments of amazing visual flair in this film, and anyone who's seen Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List will instantly recognize the horrifying homage paid to Pontecorvo during the purging of the ghetto sequences in the award-winning Holocaust drama. Indeed, while watching the French forces raid the Casbah, you'll have flashbacks to the terrified Jews, huddled in their hiding places, waiting for the Nazis to discover them and open fire.
Pontecorvo's superb set piece has equal power, and is just one such amazing moment of many in the film. Indeed, the most memorable sequence occurs when the FLN decides to fight fire with fire, and target three people-heavy areas in town for immediate bombing. From the moment the women are chosen (for their nondescript, non-ethnic looks and attitude) to the rendezvous with the explosives expert at the port, Pontecorvo sends us on a roller coaster ride of suspense, taunting and teasing all the way with hints of capture, or even self-destruction. By the end of the vignette, when the bombs are placed and we are waiting for detonation, the tension is almost unbearable. We are so wound up in the narrative drive of the film and the philosophical issues at hand that we don't know whether to root for destruction or pray for a dud.
Pontecorvo does this a great deal in The Battle of Algiers. He makes us confront our own feelings and impose our own agendas into the film, demanding we take sides and live with the oncoming consequences. Victims are viewed on both sides with the same dispassionate eye, and the director even amplifies the angst by providing the same, somber musical cue for any scene of destruction (the music by Italian genius Ennio Morricone is one of his best overall scores ever). The brutality of torture is juxtaposed against the insanity of murder, the death of innocents equally matched by the slaughter of those thought responsible. Like those haunting images from the Abu Ghraib Detention Center in Iraq, The Battle of Algiers asks us to weigh the damage inflicted against the dogma influencing it, and use our own set of values and variables to figure out who's right…or if there is a "right" side at all. Indeed, one of the main messages in this film is the fact that no change comes without a heavy, unimaginable price, and no nation—big or small, powerful or paltry—may be able to afford the final bill.
The use of black and white film and a reporter's POV for the film also keeps us locked in the authenticity of what is basically a full-out fallacy. Pontecorvo was not in Algiers when the revolution took place, nor does he offer up his own firsthand knowledge. Instead, he is interpreting the truth, presenting the pieces of it that he sees fit with a minimum of affectation and a maximum of naturalism. By using a non-professional cast (a constant in the Pontecorvo canon), the director draws out the internal fire within his "actors," allowing each to merely be his or her own individual person, complete with their own prejudices and politics. By shooting his film in a matter-of-fact manner, and presenting the scenes like snippets from history (a narrator tells us of the ongoing events while dates and locations are flashed across the screen) without over-dramatization or sentimental sloppiness, we are left to ponder the ultimate query: Is it revolution, or terrorism? And frankly, is there really a difference? The Battle of Algiers may believe there is, but it is not offering up any concrete position. As with any issue in rebellion, it is up to the people to decide.
This is why The Battle of Algiers is one of the timeless classics of cinema. With the United States currently playing occupier to a deeply divided Iraq, with insurgents mounting anti-American campaigns to great success—and loss of US military life—the parallels to Pontecorvo's panoramas are quite prophetic right now…and the outlook is not good. The Battle of Algiers argues that the only true, concrete change comes from the inside out, from the people to the powers that be, not the other way around. You can read the temperament tea leaves until the right combination of omens provide the vehicle for violence, or argue for a principle greater than the individual needs of the populace, but in the end, the idea that you know better than the native inhabitants of a place will only lead to defeat. Indeed, as the French up the campaign against the radicals, as they bomb their women and children in retaliation for the FNL doing the same, and torture the underlings within the rebel organization to gain information, the seeds of their eventual undoing are planted and germinating. By the time they wipe out the first wave, the need for insurrection is cemented in the mind of the populace, and it's only a matter of time before the entire exercise in violent exchange will end up a metaphysical draw. One side will win, the other will be defeated. But the reality is far fuzzier. Indeed, in any act of brutality, either for nationalistic or fundamental ideals, there are no victors. The parameters are merely replaced, and a new regime enters, beginning its own journey toward revolt. This is perhaps the second guarantee in any uprising. And this is The Battle of Algiers's ultimate message.
From a visual standpoint, Criterion does yet another outstanding job with a title that must have been tough to salvage. Though the monochrome stock seems intact and defect free, foreign films from the 1950s and '60s are notorious for their poor preservation techniques and abysmal print quality. In the hands of the experts, though, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is gorgeous to look at. The contrasts are carefully controlled and maintained, and the visual duality between the lighter Europeans and the darker Arabs is beautifully realized. While there are moments that suffer from a small amount of fading, such slight impairments actually add to the film's feeling of authenticity. As with most of their black and white presentations, Criterion understands the inherent drama in the restricted palette and maintains its potent properties flawlessly. On the sonic side, there is not much Criterion could do with a flat, tinny mono soundscape, but even with its occasional distortion and lack of atmosphere, the Dolby Digital modification of The Battle of Algiers is excellent. Just the chance to hear the legendary Ennio Morricone work his aural magic on the movie is worth all the other minor irritants. In a career filled with landmarks, his score for The Battle of Algiers is remarkable in its simplicity and depth. Coupled with Pontecorvo's evocative direction, it is a one-two combination that is hard to top.
However, Criterion does try. Indeed, this DVD presentation really shines in the bonus feature department. The Battle of Algiers is a three-disc set, spanning both the production of the film and the history of the revolution in Algiers. The enclosed booklet is also a wealth of additional information, moving from the chronicling of the actual insurrection to the mythology of the movie. Disc Two focuses on Pontecorvo and the film, while Disc Three provides the lessons in logistics and sovereignty. Disc One does provide some minor contextual material, including production stills and trailers, but the real meat of this release arrives with our second DVD of added extras.
First up, we have Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth, a 37-minute documentary by film critic Edward Said that looks at the reclusive director's life and times. Immensely entertaining and insightful, the main focus appears to be the erratic filmmaking output of the famously self-conscious auteur. Arguing that he will only make movies that interest him, and that he can exercise complete creative control over, Pontecorvo explains that something like The Battle of Algiers would be impossible to helm in today's global market mindset. His only regret? A movie about Christ, which almost came to fruition but was eventually abandoned.
Next is the brand new 51-minute documentary on the making of the movie. With something as special as this film, the story of how it was created (so soon after the end of the actual revolution and using several of the key players in the conflict) makes for an interesting, arresting narrative. Naturally, this behind-the-scenes story incorporates a brief history of Italian cinema and Pontecorvo's place within it for a very eye-opening look at the art of cinema. Finally, Five Directors—Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Mira Nair, Steven Soderbergh, and Julian Schnabel—all discuss the impact that The Battle of Algiers had on them as filmmakers, and surprisingly, as world citizens. While Stone seems the most evasive, putting his patented spin-doctoring on the movie's politics, Nair and Lee seem genuinely moved by Pontecorvo's narrative, and both Soderbergh and Schnabel laugh at how much of the movie they've "cribbed" for their own films. Criterion should actually do more of these interviews, since it gives fans a chance to see how these occasionally elusive and arcane "classics" are revered by the modern generation of moviemakers.
Disc Three begins us on the path to understanding the political, as well as the factual, aspects of the Algerian situation. Anyone interested in comparing and contrasting Pontecorvo's version of the story with the real event will love Remembering History. Interviewing some of the participants in the rebellion—including Yacef Saadi, who starred in the film—as well as several fascinating historians, we get the full picture of what went on in the African nation between 1954 and 1966. Etats d'annes, part three of a triptych by French television on the real battle of Algiers, focuses mainly on the use of "aggressive interrogation," or as it is otherwise known, torture. It is disheartening, and very cynical stuff.
Equally aggravating is The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, which offers up a couple of US government officials who systematically denounce the issues in Pontecorvo's movie as sympathizing with and supporting terrorism. While many of the points are well taken, the constant reliance on current administration dumb-speak in describing violent rebellion is somewhat insidious. Pontecorvo would probably agree, judging from the final DVD bonus, the amazing Italian TV special Gillo Pontecorvo's Return to Algiers. Going back to the scene of the crime—so to speak—almost 30 years after he made his famous film is a scary, saddening experience for the director. At first he is reviled by the fundamentalist Islamic factions, claiming that he is a pawn of the current ruling party. Once his notoriety and celebrity is spread throughout the city though, he is welcomed as a trusted communicator of the truth. The current situation—this Italian TV special was made in 1992, after the Gulf War—as Pontecorvo sees it is a battle between theocracy and democracy. He argues that religious fundamentalism is the greatest threat to Western freedom currently on the political radar. He couldn't have been more prophetic.
So, when a group of Islamic extremists hijack three airplanes, force two of them to fly into the tallest buildings in New York City and the other to crash into the headquarters of the US military, how do we categorize the actions? Certainly, there is no denying that these cruel and callous acts were terrorism. But are they part of some bigger picture, or just the result of the world's bully getting some rather substantial sand kicked in its face? There are those who would justify the atrocities of September 11, arguing that the response by Al-Qaeda was minimal compared to the overwhelming offenses committed by the West in the name of capitalism, freedom, and democracy. And there are those who would argue, rightfully so, that such a response is so disproportional to the supposed sins of the US that there is no possible way to compare them. Thus the paradigm is created and the positioning for blame begins. The Battle of Algiers offers up a similar statement of culpability. It argues about the value of violence and extends difficult rationales for inexcusable acts.
Toward the end of the Remembering History documentary, one of the female bombers, responsible for the death of so many Europeans during the FLN's caustic campaign, makes a blank, bold statement. You may think she killed innocent people, she says, and you'd be wrong. They were part of the State, and guilty by association. They were not blameless. They were the reason the government was fighting so hard. Were not the Arab lives equally valuable? And wasn't someone allowed to fight for them, in the same way? Those words are hard to accept. They are also hard to deny. That is the problem with revolution/terrorism. There are two sides to every story. Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers knows this all to well. And it's not taking sides. It's up to us to decide.
As one of the greatest political films of all time, The Battle of Algiers is found not guilty and is free to go. The Criterion Collection has all charges against it dropped, and is commended by the court for its exhaustive, illuminating work on this title.
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