Bright Lights Film Journal

Punishment Parks: The Battle of Algiers on DVD

Look familiar?

The Battle of Algiers‘ meticulously calibrated brand of neorealism has been put back on display after 40 years, thanks to a re-release in a new print, solidifying the film’s place in cinema history. While the aesthetic argument hardly needed making, the story’s contemporary resonance is eerie and troubling. The 1965 film by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo retells the violent conflict between French paratroopers and Algerian FLN rebels that ultimately liberated Algeria from colonial rule. The film is rendered with overwhelming detail and immediacy through an ambitious mixture of techniques. The unevenness and prevailing tension perfectly matching the subject matter that one can only hope will not continue to prove so timeless.

The film has an almost-documentary relationship with the events it depicts. Saadi Yacef, a previously imprisoned FLN leader, produced, acted and wrote the original script that was then scrupulously redeveloped by Pontecorvo and writer Franco Solinas and then shot on location in Algiers. The cast was entirely non-professional, including Brahim Haggiag, a real life petty criminal, playing Ali-La-Pointe. The only exception being Jean Martin who plays the French Colonel Mathieu. The result is a bewilderingly dense treatment of the conflict that has been variously used as an instruction manual by resistance groups and, more recently, as a thought piece by the Pentagon.

The continuous collision of documentary realism with fiction filmmaking is breathtaking. Pseudo-documentary sequences using long lenses and awkward shooting angles, like the numerous paratrooper raids or the establishing shots of the Algiers streets are recklessly combined with more typically covered scenes. The distinction between the two modes is underlined in a scene where Colonel Mathieu conducts an analysis of film taken at a checkpoint prior to an FLN triple bombing. These images, in long shot and single take, have nothing to do with the more conventional reverse close-ups used when the episode is first shown. The look of the film consistently emulates the high-contrast, grainy, black and white imagery of period newsreel footage. Subsequently, even the more conventionally blocked scenes, like La-Pointe’s recruitment feel as vivid as an actual event caught on camera. The script simultaneously reinforces this notion as in the accurate explanations of military tactics and confronts it by using a stylized flashback structure and a sudden two-year ellipsis. The camera work occasionally further undercuts the realism on display elsewhere as in the scenes of La-Pointe’s capture which offer several “impossible” views of him and his companions inside a hidden compartment behind a false wall. An obviously contrived camera position that is pure make-believe. So while it is impossible to mistake the film for a documentary outright it is equally impossible not to be dazzled by how realistic the depiction feels. There is an awareness of the film’s attempts to incite through its technique that haunts our experience of it.

The casting and performances follow suit to interesting effect. The non-professional performances are uneven but sincere. Chosen principally for his look we never really doubt that Haggiag has walked these streets and knows the smell of this place. His passion and despair are somehow palpable but on account of everything except his acting which is often stiff and awkward. This contradiction becomes an extension of the film’s unlikely brand of authenticity that tersely mixes the blatantly contrived with the uncannily realistic. This is in marked contrast to more organic pseudo-documentary films. Peter Watkins’ The War Game is an example. In that film Watkins “pre-creates” a nuclear scenario in Britain complete with gruesome imagery of the ensuing fallout and has non-professionals reacting as themselves in mock interview segments. The performances are in an entirely different register than those of The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo’s film works because we know, despite appearances, that it is not a documentary whereas the authenticity Watkins generates is because we cannot believe the film is a fiction.

As the only professional in the cast Jean Martin gives Colonel Mathieu an eerie commanding presence. His is the most fully realized characterization suggesting unwavering conviction as well as grudging respect and awareness of the legitimacy of the FLN cause. His systematic dismantling of the resistance, conducted almost in spite of himself, is consequently grim and mesmerising. The disparate “production value” of the performances echoes each side’s methods. The paratroopers with their formal organization are embodied by Mathieu’s polished presentation while the more unconventional procedures of the FLN fighters’ jives perfectly with the sketchy feel of the amateur Haggiag.

If the film’s treatment of the two sides is balanced it is not always nuanced. Any dissension amongst the paratroopers is at best implicit, as in Mathieu’s facial expressions during the FLN leaders’ captures. Conversely, any fracture amongst the rebellion or within the FLN is left untreated or resolved in an almost automatic fashion. When LaPointe disagrees with the plan to strike, he is convinced in a few short sentences and when a raging crowd storms the streets for revenge after a police bombing a single assurance that “the organization will avenge you’ sways them. This can feel a little schematic offering only the “dominant idea” of what each of these two sides were.

Where the film excels is in comparing and contrasting the two ostensibly polar opposite schemes. From the very opening scene, the film’s ambiguous attitude towards the lines that separate each side are signaled. It is initially unclear if the Arab being spoken to in the pre-credits scene is a double agent anxious about his contribution to an impending paratrooper attack or, as is the case, a prisoner who has been made to confess. The car ride that Mathieu and Jaffar share after the latter’s capture is another example. Mathieu claims relief at having avoided Jaffar’s murder, a gesture that he suggests would have been futile, and seems no happier than Jaffar at the prospect, seemingly inevitable by this point in the film, of a French military victory. Is it smug detachment or genuine ambivalence that gives the scene its almost collusive feel?

The comparisons are extended to each side’s tactics raising a host of difficult questions related to terrorism. If the FLN attacks are gruesome and vicious they are matched by the undaunted brutality of the paratroopers and police. A bombing perpetrated by French police early in the film is distinguishable from an FLN attack only by the relative ease with which the police are able to perpetrate it. The presentation of subsequent attacks dissects the tactics and inherent stakes at play for each side. The time-dependent detonation of the FLN bombs leaving the individual bomber at a certain risk are contrasted to the more controlled fuse detonated bombs of the paratroopers that allow for a much more commanding use of the weaponry. The film’s foregrounding of this through the main triple bombing scene by FLN women operatives and the various paratrooper raids is masterful. Tragically, both are equally effective. With each new raid Mathieu is at pains to draw a distinction between his methods and those of the FLN; sometimes clearing areas out before bombing them and offering ample opportunity for La-Pointe and those with him to surrender alive. The film skillfully asks whether this is simply a luxury that the more dominant side can afford as opposed to a question of moral character, as FLN leader Ben M’Hidi’s response to the media on being accused of cowardice suggests. M’Hidi affirms that the FLN would gladly trade tactics if it were able to. The film absolves neither state terrorism nor guerilla terrorism and reasonably interrogates the monopoly on morality that official armies or institutional bodies tend to receive.

The film’s resonance with the current moment is undeniable. The suffocating military occupation, the resounding imbalance of power and the clampdown through checkpoints all call to mind the Israel/Palestine conflict. Mathieu’s whimsical choice of “champagne” to name his operation anticipates the Israeli’s more cynical use of “rainbow” in conjunction with their recent genocidal actions in the Gaza strip town of Rafah. The planet’s last colonial circumstance echoing the film’s delineation of one of history’s most notorious. It is a circumstance where every choice, the method of marriage for example, becomes a political act, a potential act of resistance and even war, as stated in an early wedding scene of two Algerians. Interestingly, it was then Israeli Prime-Minister Ben-Gurion who at one point lobbied for a two-state solution in Algeria much like the final status currently being sought for Israel/Palestine. As described, the film understands the very real dilemmas that engage colonized perpetrators of violence. The rooftop discussion between LaPointe and Ben M’Hidi in which the latter insists that terrorism alone will neither bring victory nor sustain the revolution is a case in point. The evenhanded look at these issues deserves a place within the current discussion of the Israel/Palestine conflict today.

The veritable obsession the film seems to have with both media and Media also resonates strongly. Countless references to the importance of communication are included such as the recruiting of La-Pointe through a handwritten note and the use of FLN and French paratrooper declarations as voiceover. La Pointe’s illiteracy as well as his ignoring the note’s specific instructions are telling details in this light. Later during a crucial moment in the FLN general strike a young boy gains command of a microphone and manages a sentence of encouragement that rouses the disenchanted crowd passing through a checkpoint.

The scenes involving the official media are positioned as simply one more aspect of military tactics. As Colonel Mathieu essentially says outright “if you write and write well, then we will win.” His imposing media control eclipses the “take-it-where-we-can-get-it” coverage the rebels are afforded. The FLN voice finds it’s way to the media only very briefly whereas when Mathieu is confronted with charges of torture the exchange lasts long enough for Mathieu to make his point, no more and certainly no less. The hyper-awareness of the “propaganda war” has parallels to the current conflict in Iraq although the media landscape today is infinitely more technological, varied and malleable. Unlike the film however, today that awareness extends to the journalists themselves. At an early discussion with the press one journalist asks Mathieu, with surprise, if he intends to “recruit them” and in other scenes the reporters are shown to be fair-minded in their probing of leaders on both sides. Compare this to the disquieting self-consciousness and near resignation to bias of the journalists we meet in Jehane Noujaim’s Control Room (2004). Noujaim’s film watches journalists from Al-Jazeera and other networks as they cover the conflict in Iraq; the reality shown is in many ways the unsettling conclusion to a tendency still only germinating in Battle of Algiers.

Pontecorvo himself pointed out the limits of such comparisons naming the “smell” of the film’s situation as the most relevant point of similarity. In the director’s view it is the underlying fact that irrespective of ideology it is the “flow of history” that ultimately counts for the most. This is what spills out onto the streets at the film’s conclusion propelling the thousands of extras that adorn the film’s remarkable crowd scenes; the will of the people manifesting itself against all odds confounding a superiorly armed and ostensibly victorious army. The course of this flow within the unique contexts of current conflicts that the film seems to speak to remains to be seen. What is certain is the urgency and impact of the reminder that The Battle of Algiers conveys.