If The Battle of Algiers premiered in today's War on Terror world—with its unsparing scenes of café bombings, checkpoints and home raids—Sean Hannity would probably reach out of your TV screen, Poltergeist-like, and punch you in the face for sedition. But back in 1966, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo's epic depiction of the Algerian War (1954-1962) against the French mastered the political realism that came to define the Third Cinema movement, and audiences identified with the Arab Muslim resistance it captured, making it a masterpiece of world cinema that hasn't been replicated since.
So for UC Irvine professor Sohail Daulatzai, watching The Battle of Algiers and declaring, “Je suis Ali La Pionte,” (“I am Ali La Pionte,” the legendary Algerian rebel leader who's portrayed in the film in all his smoldering essence) becomes a modern-day act of rebellion. In his latest book, Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue, Daulatzai doesn't simply celebrate the film's milestone, but rather he explores its many political meanings throughout history. For him, the classic is not only “a relic of the past,” but also a “prescient and telling testament to the present.”
The Battle of Algiers is very much a product of its time, when the world bristled with rebellion against colonial rule. In 1966, Namibian nationalists launched a guerrilla war for independence against the apartheid government of South Africa, which banned the movie. That same year, in Latin America, Che Guevara sough to export guerrilla warfare from the mountains of Cuba to Bolivia's highlands. In the United States, militants founded the Black Panthers in Oakland and identified their popular struggle with Third World liberation movements, even opening its sole international office in Algeria.
Much like the iconic image of Che could be found throughout the Third World, The Battle of Algiers became an artistic triumph with international appeal wherever unrest unfolded. But as Daulatzai's book shows, it was psychiatrist and author Frantz Fanon, not Che, whose deep imprint is felt in the film without his ever being explicitly mentioned. Fanon lived as a colonial subject in Martinique before fighting with the French in World War II. The racism he experienced in France eventually led him to Algeria, where he joined the National Liberation Front (better known by its French acronym, FLN). He wrote his masterpiece, The Wretched of the Earth, in 1961, a work not lost on the film's director nor on FLN leader Saadi Yacef, whose own memoirs formed the basis of the film.
“Yacef knew Fanon, and they worked together,” Daulatzai says. “When it came to making the film, Pontecorvo was aware of Fanon's work, and in many ways, the film is a cinematic blueprint for The Wretched of the Earth. Pressing questions of armed struggle, torture and life after independence all figured prominently in Fanon's work and the film. The poignant rooftop scene in which FLN leader Larbi Ben M'Hidi talks about all the hardships of revolution to La Pointe, telling him, “It's only afterward, once we've won, that the real difficulties begin,” runs parallel with Fanon's own cautionary tales.
Fanon's writings on political violence are also echoed in The Battle of Algiers' depictions of urban guerrilla warfare and terror tactics. The most suspenseful moment of the film famously comes when three Muslim women adopt a Western look in order to pass through Arab Casbah checkpoints on their way to discard purse bombs at civilian sites in the French quarter of Algeria. When H'midi is later captured by French paratroopers, he's paraded in front of Western reporters, one of whom presses him on the FLN's tactics. “Let us have your bombers, and you can have our women's baskets,” Ben M'Hidi calmly replies.
Before the bombing, Algerians are shown pulling dead bodies from concrete rubble. An impromptu march heads toward the French quarter, but FLN members stop it, promising that the deaths at the hands of the French would be avenged. “The tension between documentary and fiction is what's really gripping about the film,” Daulatzai says. “The viewer isn't ever sure what they are watching is real or not.”
The professor's young students at UCI who watch the film in his classes are products of their time. “The post-9/11 context has sought to rewrite the past,” he says. For example, the Setif and Paris Massacre of Algerians by the French in 1945 and 1961 don't factor in the public consciousness of the West. “I don't think the film does enough to show how systemic French colonial violence was whether during the war with Algeria or the 130 years they were colonizing them,” Daulatzai adds.
His book also touches on how the Pentagon infamously screened The Battle of Algiers months after the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. “It became no longer a film about how people resist oppressive forces, but one on how to crush them,” Daulatzai says. There are also passages documenting its use as a teaching tool for counterinsurgents in places such as South America, where dirty wars raged against leftists in the 1970s.
But the ultimate lesson of The Battle of Algiers comes in the form of its continued relevancy despite naysayer retrospectives that describe the film's continued popularity as a mere exercise in leftist nostalgia. Though the world has changed much since it debuted, the folly of the French remains true. Daulatzai's tome drops at the same time Pontecorvo's film gets a limited release and when Washington is telling the world ISIS is on the run and the Syrian government has been contained. But as the movie's legendary ending shows, The Battle of Algiers will always resonate so long as the wretched of the world remain wretched.
The Battle of Algiers was directed by Gillo Pontecorvo; written by Franco Solinas; and stars Brahim Hadjadj, Jean Martin and Yacef Saadi. Opens at the Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, (310) 473-8530; www.landmarktheatres.com/los-angeles/nuart-theatre. Fri. Call for show times and ticket prices.
Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue by Sohail Daulatzai; University of Minnesota Press. Paperback, 104 pages, $7.95.