Tuesday, March 24, 2015

1776. Film Review: The Battle of Algiers

By Kamran Nayeri, March 24, 2015
A scene from the film.

The Battle of Algiers (Italy, 1966) is a must-see classic if you have not seen it yet or have not seen it in light of the post 9/11 events.  In a cinematic sense, it is artfully done in a Rossellini-inspired newsreel style—in black and white with documentary-type editing—is often associated with Italian neorealism cinema.  The film was banned in France for five years until it was shown in 1971. 

French Algeria—as it was called from 1830 to 1962—was a colony that from 1848 to independence in 1962 was administrated as part of France much like much like Corsica and Réunion are to this day.

One of France's longest-held overseas territories, Algeria became a destination for hundreds of thousands of European immigrants, known as colons and later, as pieds-noirs. However, indigenous Muslims remained a majority of the territory's population throughout its history. Gradually, dissatisfaction among the Muslim population with its lack of political and economic status fueled calls for greater political autonomy, and eventually independence, from France. Tensions between the two population groups came to a head in 1954, when the first violent events of what was later called the Algerian War began. The war concluded in 1962, when Algeria gained complete independence following the March 1962 Evian agreements and the July 1962 self-determination referendum.

The Battle of Algiers reconstructs the events that occurred in the capital city of French Algeria between November 1954 and December 1957, during the Algerian War of Independence. The narrative begins with the organization of revolutionary cells in the Casbah

The film depicts rising levels of violence between the colonizing army and the Algerian resistance fighters.  The National Liberation Front of Algeria issues summary execution of criminals and collaborators and bombs French population centers while the French occupation forces routinely torture Algerian suspects and commit murder.  The French colonizers are seen as racists—they live in separate quarters of the town and refer to the natives as “dirty Arabs.”  

When under the increasing international public pressure, Lieutenant-Colonel Mathieu, the paratroop commander, the principal French character in the film, is asked whether he employs torture, he responds with a question: do the French want to maintain Algeria as a colony or not?  He adds that almost all French, including the pro-Moscow Communist Party, support colonization. He then adds: to maintain the colony the occupying army has to torture suspected “terrorists” in order to destroy their underground organization.  As he puts it: “To kill a tapeworm you need to cut off its head!”  

The film also depicts how popular resistance to the French was. A boy who is a street-peddler turns into a resistance fighter and a growing layer of women join the resistance using traditional Islamic Hijab or wearing French clothing and make-up to carry out armed assignments. 

Although the movie is about events of some 70 years ago the viewer cannot help to notice similarities with today’s Western colonial and imperialist campaigns in the Middle East and North Africa.  Just as the French were losing their colony in Algeria the Zionists with help from American and European imperialisms were carving slices of Palestine as a “Jewish State.” The viewer is bound to ask: The French colony in Algeria lasted 132 years.  How long will the Zionist colony last?  The viewer also learns that even the types of torture used by the Bush administration in its “war on terror” had been already used by the French in Algeria; the French imperialists lost that war.  There is a growing consensus even in the ruling circles in the U.S. that America had already lost its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and in its broader  “war on terror.” 

The Battle of Algiers depicts a piece of history that resonates with our world today although it seems it belongs to the age of human savagery perpetrated by those who claim the mantle of Western civilization.  Alas, the imperialist nations are slow to learn. 

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