The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)

The Battle of Algiers

Another “from real events” film involving the question of torture and this one was also made very close in time to the events described but this is a very different film to Zero Dark Thirty, with an almost documentary feel to it throughout.

As the film opens, we are near the end of the story, as terrorist / freedom fighter (delete as appropriate) Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) is about to be captured following the torture of one of his fellows. He is the last of the FLN terrorist network and has been in hiding. We then move back a few years to Ali as a non-political young man on the edges of society, illegally running simple card swindles and constantly in trouble with the authorities. We see him beaten by white colonial settlers and we see that he doesn’t take this quietly. Arrested, he sees a guillotine execustion of a rebel and becomes politicised, finding a vocation in the Islamic resistance to the French authorities.

A tit-for-tat exchange of atrocities quickly escalates. The FLN repeatedly attack police and army; an (off-duty) officer bombs the Kasbah, and the FLN widens its attacks, with civilians now targeted. What is impressive is that we see the motivations of each side and how they regard their actions as justifiable and necessary, all the while seeing how wrong and brutal they are and how inevitable the retaliation each time.

In a sign of the scale of the problem, the French bring in Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin) a hero of the resistance, to take whatever measures necessary to stop the FLN. Fully conversant with guerilla warfare and how a very small force of committed terrorists can wreak carnage if not actively opposed by everyone, he takes on the role of his erstwhile opponents in making warfare effectively on a whole community in order to defeat just a few individuals, and is fully aware of the irony of his situation. Just as in asymmetric conflicts throughout the world, an initially indifferent population can be radicalised by a small number of activists if the means of defeating them involve excessive force by the authorities, playing into the wider narrative of oppressor versus oppressed.

If there is a “villain” in this, it is the French colonial settler, casually and thoughtlessly racist, dismissive of the african Algerians as sub-human and all too quick to attack any africans who were unfortunate to be in the vicinity when the FLN attacked. It is hard to see how Mathieu or anyone else could ever convince the Algerians that Ali and his fellows were the real enemy when every day, they could see how ordinary white Europeans viewed them.

An extraordinary film.

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