Wednesday, 21 November 2007


The Battle of Algiers and the Battle of Algiers

Author: Nicholas Harrison
Affiliation: King's College London, UK
Published in: Interventions, Volume 9, Issue 3 November 2007 '


Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers has often been approached as pseudo-
or quasi-documentary, or as akin to newsreel. This article aims to
show that the film's relation to historical reality is more
complicated and more interesting, both historically and
aesthetically, than such an approach would imply. I argue that,
through its sophisticated aestheticization of its historical
material, the film could be said to raise disconcerting questions
that, in a sense, it refuses to answer. It is deeply non-committal,
I argue, about the importance of the actual 'Battle of Algiers' and
the place of torture within it - issues 'decided', and still
debated, in a sphere of representations and a history of which, as
the article shows, the film itself quickly became an important part.
This process, I suggest finally, reveals something about the
peculiar relations between history and its representations in this
particular case, and raises more general issues about the relations
between aesthetics, history and the work of the critic.


The first US print of Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers included at its
start an announcement: not even one foot of newsreel or documentary
film is included in this picture. That odd disclaimer was repeated
when the film came out again in 2004 in the USA1 and I suppose its
most banal function was to remind viewers that Pontecorvo deserved
credit for his tremendous skill in creating 'documentary'
or 'newsreel' effects. But more fundamentally it was a double-edged
gesture that seemed at once to invite audiences to view the film in
terms of what I will call 'documentary realism' - as a reliable or
even definitive account of historical events - and to warn them
against doing so. In this way it posed questions that will form the
focus of this essay, questions about the relation between The Battle
of Algiers and the 'Battle of Algiers', and about convergences and
interferences between history and aesthetics, in this particular
case and in general.

There is no doubt that The Battle of Algiers offers a careful
reconstruction of particular moments in the Algerian War, whose
truth-to-life is created and connoted in various ways. The action is
framed by voice-over texts taken from FLN and French communiqués and
by precise dates and times in subtitles; the locations and costumes
are authentic; and the film employs an enormous cast of non-
professionals, deployed both in vast crowd scenes and in central
roles (Bignardi 2000). Using non-professionals may have been 'a
naïve way of "being true to life"', as one critic puts it,
patronizingly (Giavarini 2004: 74), but the spectator sees physical
types and hears voices that are rarely encountered in mainstream
cinema; and the soundtrack's authentic mixture of spoken Arabic and
French meant the film could reach, and ring true for, those audience
members in Algeria who were illiterate, including some of the cast.
For some of the actors, moreover, the acting must have been
unusually and uncomfortably close to the historical action of a few
years before, for example in the early scene with the guillotine
(see Figure 1; see also Interview with Yacef, below), or in
situations where 'acting' was involved in the first place - at
checkpoints, for example, as we will see.

On a more technical level, Pontecorvo went to great lengths to mimic
the look of newsreel: he used black-and-white stock, the norm for
newsreel at the time; he used natural light on location, albeit
often filtered; he worked with telephoto lenses and hand-held
cameras for various sequences (a 600 mm lens for the arrival of the
paratroopers, for instance); and he achieved a high level of
graininess and contrast in the image through a process whereby he
made new negatives from the positive images then made new, rougher
positive prints from those (Mellen 1973; Michalczyk 1986; Solinas
1973). In documentary and newsreel of the period and subsequently,
the 'look' in question was often dictated by circumstances - the
cost of cinematographic materials, and the situations in which news
crews found themselves. Camera shake and poor resolution or focus
may be characteristic, for obvious reasons, of footage shot by
someone staying away, or running away, from trouble. It is clear
enough that Pontecorvo, by contrast, reproduced these aesthetics as
a matter of choice. But he did not do so uniformly; and, as I will
try to show in this essay, to think of the film as quasi-documentary
is to underestimate the complexity of its relation to historical

The essay will fall into two main parts. In the first, I will look
at various ways in which the film diverges from documentary realism,
particularly in aesthetic terms, and particularly in terms of the
film's self-reflexive aspects.2 In the second part I will be more
concerned initially with the film's historical relation to
broader 'memories' or perceptions of the war in the postcolonial
period, particularly with regard to the significance accorded to
torture and to the so-called 'battle' itself, though I will end the
section by again focusing on the complexities of the film's
aesthetics. My concluding section, rather than integrating the
essay's historical and aesthetic strands, will draw attention to the
difficulty of doing so; as we will see, there is a startling
disparity between, on the one hand, the aesthetic sophistication and
narrative hesitancy that emerge from the film through a certain sort
of 'close reading', and, on the other hand, the empirical history of
responses to and appropriations of the film.

Some of the indications that Pontecorvo's representation of the war
relies on procedures more complex than the 'dictatorship of truth'
(a phrase Pontecorvo used repeatedly to describe his approach) are
partly or fully extradiegetic and can be perceived only when the
film is measured against (other) historical sources. This is a
sizeable task, especially if one begins to consider not just
inaccuracies or fictionalizations but 'omissions'. The fullest
consideration of this issue (though it remains relatively brief) is
probably still that offered by Mellen, who raises questions about
the lack of insight the film offers into various aspects of the war
including the place of the rival nationalist organization, the MNA
(Mouvement National Algérien); the political/ideological background
of the war; the divisions among Europeans and among Algerians,
including members of the FLN; and the role played by supporters
abroad, including Algerian workers in France and Nasser (Mellen
1973: 62-5; see also Forgacs's article above, pp 357-8). Donald Reid
(2005) considers the 'absence' of Germaine Tillion from the film,
and other critics have raised questions about Saadi Yacef's self-
representation. The Algerian critic Mostefa Lacheraf for instance
attacked Yacef implicitly when he wrote:

To play with ideas of heroism is to play with fire; one is likely to
sound grandiloquent - or ridiculous. But the most serious issue is
that this film, the work of an 'auteur' (and I do not mean
Pontecorvo) clearly has its personal, rehabilitative side, which
obscures the essential truth about certain characters.
So it is that a war criminal [by which Lacheraf must mean Mathieu or
his historical counterparts (see below)] takes on the air and the
behaviour of a nobleman, a fearless, blameless, knight-like figure.
(Lacheraf 1981: 35)

Lacheraf, who also criticized the film for not representing Algeria
as a whole, went on to remark: 'Nevertheless, despite its
distortions and omissions, the film is full of life and remains an
important document on a key period of Algerian resistance' (ibid.).

The film's possible historical distortions are an important subject
but I will be more concerned here with those non-documentary 'cues'
to the spectator that are wholly internal to the film. As marginal
examples, in the sense that they could be found in certain versions
of documentary, one might include devices that could be said to draw
attention to the film's 'constructedness', the role of the director
and the camera, such as the freeze-frames Pontecorvo uses on several
occasions, or the moment representing Mathieu's view through
binoculars, when an iris shot is used. The film's use of music (one
of its remarkable qualities, to which I cannot do justice in this
essay) also enriches and arguably complicates its 'documentary'
aspects. Pontecorvo, who was closely involved in composing the
score, remarked in 1973 that music can 'help pierce the haze of
indifference through which we usually regard other people' (cited in
Ghirelli 1974: 6; see also Mellen 1973: 24-37).3 The music in The
Battle of Algiers certainly distances it from newsreel, lending to
the action a wider resonance and perhaps (as I will note later) a
symbolic dimension.

A less equivocal sign of the film's distance from newsreel, and from
the sort of documentary constructed from newsreel, is that
Pontecorvo's hand-held camera could go into situations where no
newsreel crew could go. The chiaroscuro image we are given of the
inside of the final hiding place of Ali la Pointe and his associates
provides an obvious example. Another comes in the elaborate sequence
where some FLN men have dressed in women's clothes in order to walk
across the casbah. When a passing French patrol pierces their
disguise a machine-gun fight ensues (see Figure 1, p. 345). The FLN
men flee and two end up hiding down a well. The camera captures all
of this from close range, often from positions where the camera
operator would have been sprayed with bullets, if the bullets had
been real. There is a brief overhead shot, which, like the stately
establishing shots used elsewhere in the film, must have taken time
to set up and direct. The sequence closes with a point-of-view shot
from the bottom of the well. Much of this, clearly, would have been
beyond even the most intrepid newsreel crew. This is not to say that
the events are implausible or that the spectator is likely to
perceive them as such; when asked about the sequence, one spectator
commented to me recently that it reminded her more of a gangster
film than a documentary, but the familiarity of certain cinematic
topoi will be among the factors that carry the audience along as
they watch the film.

Arguably the single most striking departure from historical facts
arrives in the shape of Mathieu, who straddles the intradiegetic and
extradiegetic aspects of the film's departures from historical
documentary. We see him at the start of the film, when he appears
relatively humane in his behaviour towards an Algerian whom his
soldiers have just tortured. In reality there was no senior
paratrooper called Mathieu; the character seems to be a composite of
a number of real officers including General Jacques Massu, Colonel
Marcel Bigeard, Colonel Yves Godard and Colonel Roger Trinquier. One
could argue that measured against these men, the character is
substantially fictitious in personality; and certainly no other
character in the film is fictionalized in this way. One possible aim
or effect of 'inventing' Mathieu was to avoid pinning responsibility
for the army's actions on a particular historical individual; but
the character is quite highly individuated within the film, and,
controversially (as we have already seen), the film made him an
impressive figure. In an interview, the screenwriter Franco Solinas
stated that Mathieu 'was not a realistic character in the
traditional sense' but an embodiment of rationality (Solinas 2004:
32). More importantly for my present purposes, one could also argue
that Mathieu's narrative functions include the prefiguration of
issues around the film's own reception, and around issues of
representation at the time of the war.

Mathieu's chronological entry into the action comes during the
flashback, following the sequence where Algerian women disguise
themselves in 'Western' clothes in order to pass checkpoints
unchallenged and to plant bombs in the European quarter. Just after
this the paratroopers arrive, led by Mathieu, as a voice-over runs
through his record of distinguished service in the resistance and
the army (see Figure 2). In the next sequence he delivers a lecture
to his men; he gives a rational account of the shortcomings of the
current police tactics, illustrated with footage of a checkpoint on
the edge of the casbah - his argument being both that the
checkpoints are not doing their job, and that filming them is not
helping. This produces a remarkable mise-en-abyme when, among the
footage Mathieu is screening to illustrate his lecture, we see
something we have already seen: a particular checkpoint in the
casbah, just at the moment before one of the women bombers passed
through. The camera angles are slightly different and on a first
viewing you would need to be very sharp to spot the precise overlap
involving otherwise anonymous inhabitants of the casbah; but the
next part of Mathieu's film includes, quite unmistakeably, a
familiar profilmic scene showing another of the women bombers. The
latter images are accompanied by Mathieu's remark that the guilty
parties must have crossed the checkpoint at about this time; as
Mathieu asks 'How are we to recognize them?', a woman wearing a veil
appears in the foreground of the projected footage,
connoting 'illegibility', while in the background, the soldiers
flirt with the bomber with the beach bag as she passes through.

This 'coincidence' is 'motivated' realistically within the film in
that Mathieu explains that the images he is showing were shot
shortly before bombs went off, and so may well show bombers passing
the checkpoints. Nevertheless, I think this sequence stands out; and
the classic way to 'read' a mise-en-abyme such as this, in film or
fiction, is to argue that it disrupts an illusory reality. Certainly
I am tempted to suggest that the sequence is disruptive of
the 'newsreel' paradigm; the coincidence seems disconcerting,
especially in so far as it has been created or 'directed' by
Mathieu. His clear-sightedness, I would say, appears almost uncanny,
perhaps because it becomes associated with his access, as it were,
to the dimension of the film itself; or, to put it another way,
becomes associated with our discovery that some of the images we
have been watching are uncannily close to those filmed by the army.
Having said this, I must note that in both 'screenings', the
spectator's relationship to the footage is different from the
soldiers'; only because we know more than Mathieu, on the second
occasion, can we be sure that he is right. In different ways in this
sequence, Mathieu appears almost omnipotent, and almost powerless.
To look at it all another way again, the film could be said to stage
a self-conscious blending of the (fictionally) documentary and the
fictional, so raising questions of spectatorship, visibility and
interpretation; and one of the 'lessons' of this, I suppose, might
be that no footage, and so no film, can itself 'tell' you with
complete reliability, whatever its aesthetics, whether it is truly
documentary or not.

I will return later to what I see as the problems with this sort
of 'reading', but want to end this section with one further point
about a possible self-reflexive dimension to the film, again arising
via Mathieu. He is cautious, if direct, in his press conferences,
notably when parading the FLN leader Larbi Ben M'Hidi, whose capture
will serve, he hopes, as morale-boosting propaganda. On that
occasion, as Ben M'Hidi proves as eloquent and implacable as Mathieu
himself, Mathieu decides to end the event suddenly: Ben M'Hidi
asks 'Is the show over?', and Mathieu answers (implausibly, perhaps,
given that the journalists are still present), 'Yes, it's over.
Before it becomes counterproductive'. On another occasion Mathieu is
drawn into an impromptu discussion with a group of journalists, and
he asks them about Paris's reaction to events in Algiers. When told
that Sartre has written another article, he asks: 'Who can tell me
why the Sartres of this world always come from the same side?' A
journalist responds, 'So, you like Sartre, mon colonel?', and
Mathieu answers, 'No, but I like it even less having him as an
adversary.' Later, the second the dust starts to settle after Ali's
final hiding place has been blown up, Mathieu orders a couple of his
men to accompany cameramen who are on hand to record his victory.
All of this suggests that Mathieu sees himself not only as fighting
the FLN on the ground, but as fighting the FLN and their supporters
in the sphere of representations and opinions; consequently he
strives to shape the representation and reception of his own
actions, especially the use of torture. Clearly, one can again read
this as self-reflexive: the sequence showing Mathieu's impromptu
discussion of Sartre, for instance, can be considered to prefigure
the relation of the film itself, as well as the battle itself and
the torture used within it, to the so-called 'war of opinion'.

I now want to think more concretely about that last issue, the
relation of the film to the 'war of opinion'. In practice, that
relation has proved peculiarly influential and complex in ways that
I will now begin to explore, and that have little apparent
connection with the questions raised so far.

My first point concerns the very notion of the 'Battle of Algiers'.
The phrase 'Battle of Algiers' was in use - and in question - from
around the time of the events themselves: Jacques Le Prévost's La
Bataille d'Alger (janvier-février 1957), published in Algiers in
April 1957, began with the words:

As this book is published, the 'battle of Algiers' is still not
over. It continues not only in Algeria but on the banks of the
Seine. The battle of Algiers is also the battle of Algeria, and in
this conflict certain politicians, unthinking intellectuals, and
idealists, who may sometimes be sincere but are too often inept,
have taken up the baton from the exhausted terrorists. (Le Prévost
1957: 7)

Subsequent works included Saadi Yacef's Souvenirs de la Bataille
d'Alger, décembre 1956 - septembre 1957, which was first published
in Paris in 1962, and which formed the original basis for the film.4
In France, the delayed release of Pontecorvo's film in 1971
coincided with the publication of La Vraie Bataille d'Alger by
Jacques Massu (one of the officers on whom the character of Mathieu
was based), who cited Yacef's book and what he called 'the film by
Pontecorvo-Yacef Saadi' prominently among his reasons for writing
his book (1971: 12). In his introduction Massu called into doubt the
aptness of the phrase 'Bataille d'Alger' and explained that it had
been used 'by our adversary, Yacef Saadi' (ibid.: 11), but in the
rest of the book he went on to use it quite straightforwardly and
seemingly quite enthusiastically.5 Massu's book in turn, which was a
commercial success, prompted the publication of Bataille d'Alger,
bataille de l'homme (1972) by Jacques Pâris de la Bollardière, a
general who had resigned in 1957 over the use of torture and had
spoken out against it, and was subsequently placed under arrest by
Massu. Further responses to Massu included J'accuse le général Massu
of 1972 by Jules Roy, whose earlier work La Guerre d'Algérie (1960)
was important in establishing that phrase, 'Guerre d'Algérie' ('War
of Algeria', or, as is usual in English, 'Algerian War'), as the
most common name for the conflict, against the long-standing efforts
of the French government;6 Pierre Démeron's Les 400 Coups de Massu
of 1972, whose title ridiculed Massu by associating him with a very
different work of cinema; and Bataille d'Alger ou bataille d'Algérie
of 1972 by Mohamed Lebjaoui, a member of the first CNRA (Conseil
National de la Révolution Algérienne), who also disapproved of the
phrase and argued that Massu in fact promoted it as he wished to
lend spurious dignity to his brutal police work:
In reality there was no 'battle of Algiers'. General Massu claims he
borrowed the expression from the Algerians. But it's actually
barrack room slang. It would never have occurred to me to apply the
term 'battle' to the giant terror operation inflicted on the
capital's Muslim population. (Lebjaoui 1972: 15)

(Similarly, in the interview published below, Yacef asserts that it
was Massu who first introduced the phrase.) Yves Godard, another of
the figures seemingly amalgamated into Mathieu (as mentioned
earlier), weighed in with the first volume of a projected multi-part
work, Les Trois Batailles d'Alger (1972). This list is not
comprehensive, and the phrase has continued to echo through
subsequent texts including Jean-Luc Einaudi's La Bataille de Paris,
17 octobre 1961 of 1991 (about the massacre alluded to in the
Editorial); and, in English, The Battle of the Casbah, the
translation of General Paul Aussaresses's Services Spéciaux, Algérie
1955-1957 (2001), notorious for its defence of torture. From all
this it seems clear that, in conjunction with Yacef's memoirs, the
film became deeply entangled, at least from the time of Massu's
book, with still unextinguished arguments over torture (about which
I will shortly say more), over the status of the battle itself and
over more general understandings and memories of the war.7

The second point that must be made, however, about the relation of
The Battle of Algiers to the 'Battle of Algiers' is that, somewhat
against this flow of 'memory' or of echoes, few historians use the
phrase 'Battle of Algiers' without inverted commas, and some avoid
the phrase entirely, presumably in order to avoid the risk of
misrepresentation and misplaced glorification. Partly, perhaps,
because of possible misgivings about its objectivity (because it is
a feature film, and because of Yacef's involvement), The Battle of
Algiers itself is mentioned strikingly little even in the various
publications I have just listed, including those explicitly
responding to Massu. Among historians, even those who use the phrase
put limited emphasis on the event; there is no consensus that the
event really was an important 'battle' as such; and analyses of the
FLN's tactics are largely negative.8 It is clear that the
paratroopers achieved a military victory and won increased support
for the army among the pieds noirs. Among Algerians, although the
events helped polarize opinion in ways that arguably proved
beneficial to the cause, they also seem to have damaged the
authority of the FLN, initially and perhaps even in the longer term,
in that the organization had propelled all the inhabitants of
Algiers, including waverers and those not directly involved with the
FLN, deep into violence, killing many civilians along the way,
without achieving any immediate goal. Moreover, the FLN's own
command structures were damaged, and its principal political leaders
went into exile in the wake of the battle; this no doubt made it
easier for them in important respects to pursue subsequent
diplomatic and political initiatives, but it had not been their
plan, and it deepened the internal divisions that were to resurface
violently after independence. In many respects, the 'battle' was a

If in any sense the FLN's action turned out to be a success, it was
in focusing French and international attention on the conflict. The
wave of violence and the general strike organized by the FLN were
timed to coincide with a debate on Algeria in the United Nations,
the aim being to bring the war from the country's interior into the
capital city, where it would be more conspicuous to and more sharply
felt by foreign correspondents. As John Ruedy puts it,

it is clear that it was the Battle of Algiers that really riveted
world attention for the first time upon the Algerian struggle and
that, for the first time, brought many of its issues home to the
public in France. In the long run, international pressures and a
disillusioned French public opinion would be the key factors forcing
the French state to accept Algerian independence. (Ruedy 2005: 1992)

Ruedy is talking about the 'battle' as such, of course, but it is
striking that his description of these successful aspects of the
FLN's action could be applied quite aptly to the film, to the extent
that its aestheticized representation 'riveted world attention' upon
the Algerian struggle and 'brought many of its issues home to the
public in France', perhaps thereby encouraging them to 'accept
Algerian independence'. Admittedly, audiences for the film in France
have never been large and the issues it raises were familiar by the
time the film was released.9 All the same, it seems to me that there
is a notable convergence here between event and film in their
historical significance (an issue to which I will return in my
concluding section). In a historical process of which the film
became a part, the 'battle' became a success retrospectively, in the
light of Algerian independence, in an internationalized sphere of

As has already been mentioned and as is well known, torture played a
particularly important part in this process. Controversy over the
use of torture emerged early in the war but became much more
prominent in the wake of the 'battle', notably through Henri Alleg's
book La Question of January 1958.11 One of the arguments made by
Alleg was that torture corrupted the torturers, a theme picked up in
Sartre's essay 'Une victoire' of March 1958, where Sartre also
argued that 'in these two inseparable couples - the colonist and the
colonized, the torturer and the victim - the second is no more than
the manifestation of the first' (2001: 76). This argument had
already been articulated by other radical commentators including
Fanon, who in September 1957 had published an article
entitled 'L'Algérie face aux tortionnaires français' in the FLN's
journal El Moudjahid where he labelled torture a 'way of life' and
stated that torture was 'inherent' in colonialism, as well as
emphasizing the sadistic aspects of the practice and expressing
disgust at those French commentators who seemed to care only about
torture's effects on the French (Fanon 2001: 73, 71).12 Perhaps
influenced by these figures, Franco Solinas remarked, 'you don't
attack colonialism for using torture. If you like, you can just call
torture the "signal" indicating a decaying situation' (2004: 32).

In the film, one of the most important functions of Mathieu as a
character is to provide a clear, coolly articulated defence of
torture as a weapon, and his speeches on this issue are reasoned and
not unpersuasive (though if there is any risk that the thrust of
this section will be misunderstood, as I return from history to
aesthetics, I should perhaps state that I think torture is always
unacceptable). On one level Mathieu's arguments intersect with the
point made by Sartre and others about the necessary link between
colonialism and violence. Indeed, Donald Reid argues that the film
makes the army's use of torture seem more systematic and controlled
than it really was: he writes:

Edward Behr estimates that during the Battle of Algiers, thirty to
forty percent of adult males in the casbah were arrested for
questioning; all arrested, male and female, were tortured, wrote
Tillion, unless saved by the rapid intervention of a powerful
protector While most of the torture carried out by the French army
was done to humiliate and terrorize the population, torture in the
movie appears less gratuitous, part of a policing strategy to purge
the casbah of the FLN. (Reid 2005: 95-8)

Similarly, Mellen notes that the film gives little sense of the
ethos among the paras connecting willingness to torture and
manliness, or of the racism that facilitated that willingness (1973:
62). I cannot help feeling that anyone should be horrified by the
very powerful montage sequence of images of torture which
immediately follows Mathieu's defence of the practice (and which, in
showing a smoking, perhaps smirking, junior soldier in a torture
room, may draw on notions about the corrupting force of French
torture on the French). My experience of screenings suggests that
audiences do indeed find the sequence horrific and upsetting. It is
devoid of intradiegetic sound and accompanied by ecclesiastical
music. This is arguably the most important example of what I
referred to earlier as the 'symbolic' resonance of Pontecorvo's use
of music, in that it seems to underscore, among other things, the
strikingly Christ-like poses of some of the men, and one could
conjecture about the associations sparked off in this way, at least
for audiences familiar with the musical tradition drawn on here -
Christ as revolutionary; the innocence of the victims; the
dignifying of self-sacrifice, evidently not an exclusively Islamic
value. Yet the score's 'meaning' is not clear-cut. And in some
important sense, I would argue, what we are to make of Mathieu's
decision to promote the use of torture, and the efficacy of that
decision, is left open by the film. As Emily Tomlinson points out in
a brilliant 'hauntological' reading of the film,
'Lifted out of time' and narrative 'logic', severed from causality,
La Bataille's torture sequence preserves its victims' silence [and]
refuses to integrate the most pained of gestures, the most
clandestine of the war's 'horrors' - the physical reactions to
torture - into its chronologically marked cycle of victory and
defeat. (Tomlinson 2004: 365, 368)

A comparable dislocation or hesitancy, I want to suggest, can be
detected in the film's representation of the 'Battle of Algiers'
more generally. From greater temporal distance, the importance of
metropolitan French and international opinion to the outcome of the
war became much clearer than when the 'battle' began; indeed,
Mathieu's mixture of perspicacity and blindness - his awareness of
the importance of opinion, and his failure to foresee how negatively
his compatriots would view the use of torture - may seem like an
attitude more likely to have been constructed in 1965 (when the film
was made) than held in 1956. Yet in 1965 and in subsequent
historiography, as noted earlier, the importance of the 'battle' as
such remained moot.

If the film may be considered, as Pontecorvo sometimes suggested, to
be a 'tragedy' of sorts - and so again to be something other than
documentary realism - it should be noted that Algerian independence,
the inevitability that lies at the story's end, falls outside the
film's main narrative arc; and the question remains of what
contribution, if any, the characters' actions made to the final goal
of independence, let alone to the longer-term political culture of
Algeria. The long flashback that forms the bulk of the film
establishes a causal chain making it clear how and why Ali la Pointe
and his associates come to be blown up in 1957 - that is, relatively
early in the war. The showdown with Ali and his associates marks the
beginning and end of that flashback, buckling it into a neat loop;
after this, Colonel Mathieu feels his job is done and even says,
about the FLN, 'I think that's the last we'll hear of them'.13 Back
within the film there is an all-important coda: the action now leaps
to the vast demonstrations of December 1960, which a voice-over -
taken, we discover after a few moments, from a French journalist's
phone call - presents as having arisen spontaneously (the journalist
says that his FLN contacts in Tunis have confirmed this view),14 and
as having had, due to their 'surprising unanimity', an important
influence on French public opinion about the war and Algerian
independence. Another journalist remarks in a voice-over that after
things have died down, 'one can still hear, rising up from the
Muslim districts, their incomprehensible, terrifying chants'. In one
of the very few sequences in the film that, for me at least, strike
a false note, and one that again seems to take us outside
documentary realism, we see a member of the French security forces,
on the last day of the demonstrations, shouting into the mist
through a megaphone: 'Listen to me! Go home!'; then, after a
pause: 'What do you want?' After another pause, replies start to
come back in Arabic: 'Independence!', 'Our pride!', 'We want our
freedom!'. After this, the final voice-over - the first that is
retrospective and historical - tells us: 'Two more years of struggle
lay ahead. And on the 2nd of July 1962, with the advent of
independence, the Algerian nation was born.'

The point I wish to emphasize through this redescription of the
film's telescoped final sequences is that they give very little
sense of how the FLN moved from defeat in 1957 to victory in 1962;
indeed, in relation to the demonstrations of 1960, the resurgence of
the anti-colonial movement is presented as nearly incomprehensible,
as we have seen. Cinematically, too, these final episodes feel
different: in terms of the rhythm and tone of the film, I am
suggesting, there is something disconcerting about the brevity,
belatedness and disjointedness of the film's treatment of the period
from the 'battle' to independence. Pontecorvo himself repeatedly
described the final sequence, when Algerian women taunt the security
forces, as 'ballet-like', explaining that it carried a symbolic
charge (see, for example, Said 2000: 24-5). Music again plays a role
here, linking the main narrative to the coda: the main, much-
reworked musical theme that for most of the film accompanied Ali la
Pointe (what David Forgacs calls 'Ali's theme' in his article above)
returns at the very end of the film just after we have been told
about the Algerians' eventual triumph, the final trill underscoring
la Pointe's status as the politicized representative (or symbol) of
an Algerian underclass. Pontecorvo also suggested that for such
reasons the final sequence was 'unrealistic', but to me it seems
that, at least in terms of its wide shots, repeated loss of focus,
and vast, anonymous cast, it is among the most 'documentary-like' of
the whole film.15 One could even view the footage of the
demonstrations as an irruption of the 'real' and of the tide of
history, after the heroics of the main narrative. In any case, what
the film seems to emphasize, finally, is that the Algerians' victory
was, in the end, a victory for the masses; and on the question of
the impact of the 'Battle of Algiers', and whether the battle
was 'necessary' from an Algerian perspective (a question that is
ultimately unanswerable), the film, 'read' closely, avoids the false
clarity of retrospection.

The general thrust of this article has been to show that the
relation between Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers and Algerian history
is more intricate than has usually been recognized. The different
sections of the article have pursued that argument on different
levels, with reference to the film's 'documentary' and non-
documentary aesthetics, the possible limitations of its 'grasp' of
history, so to speak, and the peculiarities of its own history of

On one level, then, I have dwelt on the processes
of 'aestheticization' and narrativization that disconnect and
reconnect the film, its subject matter and the spectator. There is
always a risk that this sort of approach will seem trivial in the
case of material like this, political material that is violent and
contentious, and whose grim and inspiring topicality has been
endlessly renewed in ways that tend to make a correct understanding
of the events and of their force of inspiration appear more
important than any formal or aesthetic question. Part of my argument
has tended to suggest nevertheless that anyone wanting to understand
the film's continuing force must consider its deft combination and
juxtaposition of the aesthetics of newsreel with other aesthetics
entirely. Consequently it is tempting to speculate, by way of
conclusion, that the factors distancing Pontecorvo's film from
newsreel and from objectivity have been integral to its persistent
ability to draw audiences towards the original historical events it
depicts; and if that is correct, it is likely to have applied as
much to those who have 'ignored', as it were, such aspects of the
film, relying on it uncritically for an historical view, as to those
who have criticized or distrusted it because they have felt that it
lacks objectivity. In that case, the aesthetic powers of The Battle
of Algiers must be linked to its cinematic beauty as well as its
violence, to the irregularities and interruptions as well as the
momentum of its narrative rhythm, and to a related openness to
interpretation that at once invites and calls into question specific
appropriations and instrumentalizations.

On another level I have tried to show, without falling into a
generalized relativism or 'constructivism' with regard to the
historical record, that the division between original 'event' and
history of representations is remarkably blurred in this case; and
that the unusual intensity of the film's life after its release, and
the resistances it has frequently encountered, have been powered by
a peculiar confusion or overlap, in some broadly conceived sphere of
reception and representation, of the film and the history it
depicts. I have suggested that the success of the
political/historical event, such as it was - primarily the impact as
propaganda of the 'Battle of Algiers' in an international context -
was above all representational and retrospective. In the Cahiers du
cinéma dossier that marked the 2004 re-release of the film,16 one
critic remarked: 'The history of The Battle of Algiers has become
the history of the uses to which it has been put' (Giavarini 2004:
74); part of my argument has been that the same could be said of
the 'Battle of Algiers', and that The Battle of Algiers contributed
to that process in quite concrete ways - even while, or even if,
self-reflexive, non-linear and non-realist dimensions of its
aesthetics may have had the potential, at least, to call into
question its historical functions as document and intervention.

That last assertion ties together the different strands of my
argument to a degree, but I want to end with my own 'coda' by
emphasizing that in pursuing different levels of analysis here - on
the one hand investigation of the film's aesthetics and narrative
construction, and on the other exploration of its actual place in
history - I have tended to be pulled in different directions. There
is a general issue at stake: the sort of attention I paid in parts
of this essay to the film's non-documentary facets, including
moments of possible reflexivity, works primarily, I would say,
through a specifically critical dialectic in which, if it functions
well, a film's rich 'interpretability' is both revealed and
enhanced; and attention of that order does not convert in any simple
way into speculation on how a film has actually been viewed. And of
this general rule, The Battle of Algiers, once its aesthetic
complexity has been brought to the fore, provides the most startling
example. There could scarcely be a more vivid disparity between the
hesitant, plural meanings that a film - this film - can produce
under close critical scrutiny, and its empirical history of
reception. Moreover, this disparity is not necessarily lessened when
the meanings sought and found by the critic are historical and
political. In practice (and I am thinking here of students to whom I
have shown the film, as well as the histories I have discussed in
this essay) it is easy, it seems, for a spectator to emerge from The
Battle of Algiers with an almost euphoric sense of the historical
impetus of the Algerians' final victory and little or no sense of
the uncertainties surrounding the historical status of the 'battle'
as such, within the film or outside it. Those of us who are critics
and who would identify ourselves as anti-colonialists may share that
euphoria when we watch the film, but we are left with difficult
questions about the distance between our own protocols of
interpretation and the fields of reception in which films and all
texts do their political and aesthetic work.


1. Alleg, Henri ((1958)) The Question - trans. John Calder, preface
by Jean-Paul Sartre, London: John Calder. (First published in 1958
as La Question, Paris: Minuit.)
2. Aussaresses, Paul ((2001)) Services Spéciaux, Algérie 1955-1957
Perrin , Paris - (Translated by Robert L. Miller as The Battle of
the Casbah: Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism in Algeria, 1955-1957,
New York: Enigma, 2002.)
3. Bignardi, Irene ((2000)) The making of The Battle of Algiers.
Cineaste XXV:2 , pp. 14-22.
4. de la Bollardière, Jacques Pâris ((1972)) Bataille d'Alger,
bataille de l'homme Desclée de Brouwer , Paris
5. Branche, Raphaëlle ((2001)) La Torture et l'armée pendant la
guerre d'Algérie, 1954-1962 Gallimard , Paris
6. Cooper, Sarah ((2006)) Selfless Cinema? Ethics and French
Documentary MHRA , London
7. Démeron, Pierre ((1972)) Les 400 Coups de Massu Pauvert , Paris
8. Einaudi, Jean-Luc ((1991)) La Bataille de Paris, 17 octobre 1961
Seuil , Paris
9. Fanon, Frantz ((2001)) Pour la révolution africaine: Ecrits
politiques pp. 71-79. La Découverte , Paris - [1964]
10. Gadant, Monique ((1988)) Islam et nationalisme en Algérie,
d'après "El Moudjahid", organe central du FLN de 1956 à 1962
Harmattan , Paris
11. Ghirelli, Massimo ((1974)) Gillo Pontecorvo La Nuova Italia ,
12. Giavarini, Laurence ((2004)) Quelle histoire?. Cahiers du cinéma
593 , pp. 72-74. - (September)
13. Yves, Godard ((1972)) Les Trois Batailles d'Alger, vol. 1: Les
Paras dans la ville Fayard , Paris
14. (Harbi, Mohammed and Stora, Benjamin eds.) ((2004)) La Guerre
d'Algérie: 1954-2004, La Fin de l'amnésie Robert Laffont , Paris
15. Lacheraf, Mostefa (Berrah, Mouny, Bachy, Victor, Salama,
Mohand Ben and Boughedir, Ferid eds.) ((1981)) CinémAction pp. 25-
45. - in
16. Lebjaoui, Mohamed ((1972)) Bataille d'Alger ou bataille
d'Algérie Gallimard , Paris
17. Prévost, Jacques Le ((1957)) La Bataille d'Alger (janvier -
février 1957) Baconnier , Algiers
18. Massu, Jacques ((1971)) La Vraie Bataille d'Alger Plon , Paris
19. Mellen, Joan ((1973)) The Battle of Algiers Indiana University
Press , Bloomington and London
20. Meynier, Gilbert ((2002)) Histoire intérieure du FLN, 1954-1962
Fayard , Paris
21. Michalczyk, John J. ((1986)) The Italian Political Filmmakers
Associated University Presses , London and Toronto
22. Ory, Pascal (Rioux, Jean-Pierre ed.) ((1990)) La Guerre
d'Algérie et les Français pp. 572-581. Fayard , Paris
23. Reid, Donald ((2005)) Re-viewing The Battle of Algiers with
Germaine Tillion. History Workshop Journal 60 , pp. 93-115. -
(Autumn) [ crossref ]
24. Roy, Jules ((1960)) La Guerre d'Algérie Julliard , Paris
25. Roy, Jules ((1972)) J'accuse le général Massu Seuil , Paris
26. (Ruedy, John ed.) ((1994)) Islamism and Secularism in North
Africa St Martin's Press , New York
27. (Ruedy, John ed.) ((2005)) Modern Algeria: The Origins and
Development of a Nation Indiana University Press , Bloomington and
Indianapolis - [1922]
28. Said, Edward ((2000)) The dictatorship of truth: an interview
with Gillo Pontecorvo. Cineaste XXV:2 , pp. 24-25.
29. Sartre, Jean-Paul ((2001)) Colonialism and Neocolonialism
(originally Situations V) pp. 65-77. Routledge , London - (first
printed in L'Express, 6 March 1958)
30. Solinas, Franco ((2004)) pp. 28-40. - (extracted from P. Solinas
1973), Criterion DVD booklet
31. (Solinas, PierNico ed.) ((1973)) Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle
of Algiers Charles Scribner's Sons , New York
32. Stora, Benjamin ((2001)) Algeria: A Short History, 1830-2000
Cornell University Press , Ithaca - trans. Jane Marie Todd
33. Thénault, Sylvie ((2005)) Histoire de la guerre d'indépendance
algérienne Flammarion , Paris
34. Tomlinson, Emily ((2004)) "Rebirth in sorrow": La Bataille
d'Alger. French Studies pp. 357-370. - LVIII(3) (July) [ crossref ]
35. Yacef, Saadi ((1962)) Souvenirs de la Bataille d'Alger, décembre
1956 - septembre 1957 Julliard , Paris
36. Yacef, Saadi ((2002)) La Bataille d'Alger Publisud , Paris -
vols 1 and 2
1See Editorial above.

2I should clarify that I do not think it feasible to define
empirical attributes that distinguish documentary from fiction film,
even though the distinction is important. Sarah Cooper
remarks: 'Having worked through possible modes of establishing a
difference at the level of production and representation,
documentary scholarship now places this responsibility with the
viewer' (2006: 6). What matters to me here are the regimes of
spectatorship associated with that category.

3See Forgacs' article above (pp. 361-2).

4See Forgacs' article above.

5See Yacef on this issue below (p. 409).

6The phrase 'Guerre d'Algérie' was adopted officially only in 1999
(see ).

7It must be because of the film, I would suggest, that the
publishers' introduction to The Battle of the Casbah can refer
to 'the famous "battle of Algiers"' shortly after emphasizing the
deep unfamiliarity of Algeria and its history to most Americans
(2002: vii). The same, partly disavowed acknowledgement of the
film's eminence can perhaps be seen in the single reference to the
film in the large collective volume La Guerre d'Algérie: 1954-2004,
La Fin de l'amnésie, where Khaoula Taleb Ibrahimi notes in passing
that 'everyone remembers the film' (Harbi and Stora 2004: 212).

8Ruedy's section, 'The Battle of Algiers and its repercussions', is
three pages long, in a 38-page chapter on the war (Ruedy 2005).
Gilbert Meynier, in his monumental Histoire intérieure du FLN, 1954-
1962 (2002), talks about the '[g]rande répression d'Alger'; Sylvie
Thénault, in her recent Histoire de la guerre d'indépendance
algérienne, notes that the phrase 'Bataille d'Alger' is in some ways
a misnomer (2005: 135).

9See Caillé's article above for audience figures.

10From this point of view it is worth remembering that one of the
areas in which post-independence Algeria could claim to be a success
in the mid-1960s was in the leading role it took internationally
among non-aligned nations (see Ruedy 2005: ch. 7), and that the
film's conception and impact, in the context of anti-colonial
struggles elsewhere in the 1960s, were also transnational. Moreover,
the coup by Houari Boumedienne against Ahmed Ben Bella took place on
19 June 1965, as Pontecorvo was preparing to film (various
commentators (e.g., Stora 2001: 141) have claimed that witnesses of
the coup against Ben Bella mistook the events for part of the on-
location action of The Battle of Algiers, but the dates given by
Forgacs above make this seem unlikely); already in 1966,
Pontecorvo's film, which proved a great success in Algeria, provided
a reminder, to a divided and tumultuous post-independence Algeria,
of recent glories and recent forms of solidarity.

11On Alleg, see p. 370 above; for more detail on torture during the
war, see Branche (2001).

12The choice of the title El Moudjahid for the FLN's (initially
French-language) journal raises questions about the relation of the
organization to Islam; and from this perspective it is striking that
the Algerian man we see guillotined in an early scene shouts 'Allahu
akbar!' before shouting 'Long live the revolution!'. On the
historical aspects of this question see Gadant (1988) and Ruedy
(1994). See also the interview with Yacef below.

13The statement is quickly qualified, but for a moment at least
Mathieu appears to believe it. His remark creates the film's moment
of greatest dramatic irony, at least for an audience that knows the
historical outcome (not yet apparent in the film), and perhaps knows
too that the FLN was behind the film in certain senses.

14In interviewing Saadi Yacef it occurred to me that the film's
indication that the demonstrations were incomprehensible both to the
French and to the FLN leadership in Tunis may also reflect
historical fissures and resentments between exiled leaders and
leaders who remained within Algeria.

15I would add that Djamila Amrane suggested to me in correspondence
that (contrary to the analysis of some critics) the behaviour and
prominence of the women in the last scene is wholly plausible.

16See Caillé's article a bove (pp. 384-7).

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