North Africa’s History of Struggle:
The Battle of Algiers
Bill Scott looks at a classic of world cinema and what it can tell us about struggles in North Africa.
Socialists and radicals throughout the world have been inspired by recent events in North Africa and the Middle East. The peoples of Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt and Libya have demonstrated that, no matter how brutal the repression, tyranny will not go unchallenged forever.
By a very happy coincidence one of the greatest films about North African resistance to dictatorial oppression is currently on re-release around the art-house cinema circuit. Gillo Pontocervo’s, “The Battle of Algiers”(1966), is a masterpiece of left film making that has been studied by groups as diverse as the Black Panthers, the Provisionals and Fatah as an instruction manual on urban guerrilla warfare.
Anyone viewing the film for the first time might easily believe it to be a factual documentary. That is because Pontecorvo, its Italian Marxist director, purposefully chose to make the film in a cinema verite style with a cast of non-professional actors - some of whom had been active participants in the revolutionary struggle against imperialism. Pontecorvo even had the film shot (brilliantly) by Italian cinematographer Marcello Gatti on grainy black and white film to lend it authenticity. The film thus manages to draw in its audience and convince them that they are witnesses to real events filmed as they actually happened when in fact the film uses composite characters and changes the order or detail of certain historical events in order to better convey its message.
The Battle of Algiers depicts the Algerian National Liberation Front’s (FLN) 1950s campaign against French colonial occupation in Algiers, the capital city. The story is initially told from the perspective of Ali la Pointe, a petty criminal radicalized whilst in prison, and recruited to the FLN, by El-hadi Jafar. Jafar is played by Saadi Yacef, a genuine FLN commander, whose book on the military campaign served as the base on which Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas built their script.
The film follows both sides as they conduct and react to the armed struggle. We are shown the internal discussions as the FLN plan their campaign to overthrow the repressive rule of the pied noir (French colonists). The FLN’s guerrilla tactics are so successful that the French state sends in its elite paratrooper regiment, returning from defeat in Indochina and determined not to give up any more “French” territory. They are led by an urbane, seemingly civilised commander (played by French actor, Jean Martin, the only professional in the cast, an ex-paratrooper who had faced death threats for his earlier outspoken opposition to the Algerian War) who deprecates the idiocy of the pied noir being unprepared to make concessions but is nevertheless prepared to carry out any brutality to maintain French rule.
Both sides are shown to commit “atrocities” – the FLN women comrades disguise themselves as white colonists and carry out “suicide” bombings of pied noir civilians; the paratroops casually kill innocent Algerians and torture FLN members. But the FLN’s violence is rightfully portrayed as a reaction to the historic and ongoing violence of the French colonists, and their denial of basic human and democratic rights to native Algerians. However the violence meted out by the French forces is shown to be racist and an affront to the supposed democratic values on which the French state was founded. The French as colonialists were every bit as despotic as today’s anti-democratic regimes.
The action in the film is involving and intense. Tension mounts as the French tactics of repression slowly begin to achieve success. The French commander targets the lower members of the FLN including their child messengers and tortures information out of them about their comrades. The French then work their way up through the membership from the lowest tiers, up to the local leadership until they have eventually identified and imprisoned or killed the FLN’s national leadership.
This exposes both the strength and weakness of the FLN’s communist cell structure. Each ordinary member only knew the other members of their own cell but each cell leader had a contact in the next cell up the chain. The FLN thus lose the Battle of Algiers as their organisation of professional revolutionaries - though popular with the Algerian people – is ultimately too small to overcome French rule on its own.
Struggle of the Masses
So you might ask – “Why should I go and see a film about a failed struggle against imperialism? Isn’t that a bit of a downer?”. Well no, because Pontecorvo’s film doesn’t end on the defeat of the FLN in Algiers in 1957. Because, just when the French think that they have defeated the revolution, the masses, literally, begin to march out of the Kasbah. The film then finishes on an uplifting note with genuine footage of the Algerian masses rioting and challenging French rule in 1960. The battle was lost but the war had carried on and the masses succeeded where the FLN on their own had failed.
After 1957 the FLN had regrouped in Algeria’s mountainous rural hinterland but had also widened its political appeal to the urban masses. With the masses no longer passive if supportive onlookers but active participants in the struggle, military repression, however brutal, could not succeed in maintaining control.
Even General De Gaulle, the then French President, elected on a pledge to maintain French rule in Algeria, was forced to acknowledge that you cannot torture and execute an entire population. Even if you did who would be left to work in the fields and factories? Algeria was granted full independence in 1962.
No film has better depicted the dedication and courage of those involved in armed struggle against despotism, nor better captured how even in seeming defeat they can inspire far greater numbers to take up the struggle. See this film if you can. Better still if you’re in a position to get a copy, screen it. Be inspired.
(Pontecorvo went on to direct Quiemada/Burn, (starring Marlon Brando) about British colonialism in the Caribbean. In that film also seeming total defeat is but a precursor to eventual victory by those struggling for liberation).