Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Day 26: The Battle of Algiers

Note: This review has not been thoroughly edited or proofread.

It’s impossible for me to watch this movie without thinking of the current American campaign in Iraq. Of course, it’s also a relevant film if you want to talk about Vietnam or the American Revolution, or any case of asymmetrical warfare. But yesterday, when I watched this film, the 2000th soldier was killed in Iraq and new details about the whole Valerie Plame investigation leaked out. This film depicts a struggle between a powerful Western force, in this case the French (insert joke about the French and war here if you like and then shut the fuck up), and a growing Islamic insurgency, screaming for independence. The location is Algiers, capital of Algeria where the French have established a prosperous colony. The movie is a prescient, patchwork look at the future of warfare, switching perspectives from the revolutionary Islamic side to the French side. The movie is fairly even handed, giving credence to both perspectives, though it’s weighted toward the revolutionaries.

But, sociopolitical concerns aside, the movie is a feat of faux-documentary style. A lot of the movie is shot on the streets with a shaky, handheld camera. The movie has some spectacular set pieces involving large crowds on the verge of rioting and some footage of terrorist attacks with large-scale explosions. Like <i>My Dinner with Andre</i>, the aesthetic of the film is pulled off with such skill and accuracy that, had I not known differently when I sat down to watch it, I would have been convinced that there was some true documentary footage mixed in with the narrative.

The movie is commendable for showing both sides of the conflict with equal compassion. As the terrorist attacks in Algiers increase, the French send in Colonel Mathieu to be in charge of the armed forces there. Mathieu has respect for the revolutionaries, but he knows the job he has to do and endeavors to complete it. He tells his men, quite plainly, that they will need to torture people to get the information they need in order to find the members of the insurgency. Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, we see the effect of bombings on the Islamic population and the cathartic sway of violence on a young Arabic man named Ali La Pointe. Ali is exposed to revolutionaries in prison and, once out, joins up with them. As he rises in power in this organization, he gleefully avenges the mistreatment he’s had at the hands of Europeans, gunning down enemies with abandon.

But herein lies another wrinkle presented matter-of-factly by the film. Due to the asymmetry of the battle being fought, my cultural and personal inclination is to side with the underdog (Americans being the descendents of dissidents and terrorists, after all). Yet there is a fantastic scene in which we’re shown exactly what the revolutionaries are fighting for. The revolutionaries ban drinking and prostitution among their people and, shortly thereafter, a drunken man is attacked by a throng of children who identify him as a wino and, thus, an enemy. This is followed by Ali ruthlessly gunning down a pimp in the name of the revolution. Now, my cultural and personal inclination is to not side with them since I loves me some hookers and beer. Or at least the option thereof. And then there’s the fantastic... excuse me, FANTASTIC... sequence in which three women take off their shawls, cut and dye their hair, carry timebombs in their handbags, and place them at strategic locations. The bombs are timed in such a way that after the first bomb explodes, the citizens nearby have enough time to dismiss it as a propane tank explosion before being caught up in the second. And yet, who are our sympathies with here? The civilians or the women who planted the bombs? For me: both.

The movie achieves this straddling of sympathies by presenting honest and coherent motivations for everyone involved. It’s as matter-of-fact as most documentaries, brilliantly shot and edited. I have a few quibbles. The score (otherwise wonderful) does fall prey to sentimentality a couple of times. I was also not pleased by the ending of this film: it presents documentary-style riots long after the characters we’ve been following are gone from the scene, depicting an event that could have been properly explained by a final title card. It seemed a bit show-offy and tipped the hand of sympathy squarely to the side of the revolutionaries. The way Ali’s backstory was placed in the movie felt a bit more arch than necessary. But these are all minor issues, nothing that detracts from the fundamental core of the film. This is a fantastic film.

(Author’s note 2: I’m going to make the controversial statement that I’m against torturing people, but the candidness of the commander’s plan to commit torture was refreshing in light of current events. So was his intelligence. He studies the enemy, analyzes the structure of their cells, and works to understand them better so that he can defeat them. When word of the torture leaks out, the press questions him on the subject. And, while he’s very coy about the whole deal with the press, he also asks the press (and, thus, the world) if France should even stay in Algeria anymore. His message is that France should withdraw from Algeria if the people are going to be too concerned with the humane treatment of the enemy. Additionally, he never, ever engages in any dehumanization of the people he’s fighting and speaks of his respect for the leaders of the revolution often. This is so starkly contrasted with the bumbling, overzealous, and ultra patriotic rhetoric coming from certain portions of the government [and the news media] as to make me wish for the umpteenth time that I were a sissy Frenchman with an understanding of nuance and subtleties. End of line)

1 comment:

Indigo Red said...

Although an excellent film that I whole heartedly endorse, it is imperative to see the film in its historical context. The history surrounding the events depicted film is not as clean as Pontecorvo wants it to appear.

French nationalism and imperialism were in the waning days. The French Empire (a real empire with real colonies and real subjugated people) was crumbling rapidly. French troops were removed from Mandate Lebanon in 1946, French Indo-China (Vietnam) was lost in 1954, the Suez Crisis ended French control and influence in the ME for many decades. French pride was taking a terrible beating.

On Oct 17, 1961 Algerian anti-war demonstrators were attacked and killed on the streets of Paris. Many of the bodies were fished from the Seine in the following days. The official body count of the de Gaulle government is 40, but unofficial counts of cemetary records indicate closer to 400 dead. And this doesn't count the hundreds of Algerians killed throughout France in the preceeding year.

"The Battle of Algiers" directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and shown in 1965/66 was banned in France because it did not comport with the accepted version of events. Even today, France denies the actions taken by police and military forces during the Algierian War of Independence. The official version is still taught in schools throughout France and little is known of the war as large quantities of records have been destroyed in a deliberate attempt to sanitize the French image. The Algerians, I'll wager, have not been duped.

The film itself is very clean in the sense that the black and white film has a platinum patina that is mezmerizing all by itself. The scenes shot in the tight streets with French soldiers and Algerian rebels within hands reach of one another is very affecting; one can feel the tension of not knowing what will happen.