Wednesday, 21 November 2007


Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers, 40 Years On

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


Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers of 1966 is extraordinary both
as a work of cinema and for its involved and influential afterlife.
The film is of its time, politically and cinematographically, but,
forty years on, it retains its ability to touch nerves. As I write
this, in May 2007, it has just been re-released in the UK; viewed
today, it appears dismally pertinent to a world of 'terror',
torture, oppression and war.

The Battle of Algiers tells the story of an early phase in the
Algerian War of Independence, a phase that ended in an apparently
conclusive victory for the French paratroopers. The war began on 1
November 1954, when the newly formed FLN (Front de Libération
Nationale) launched guerrilla attacks on military and police
targets. The early stages of the war saw polarization and
radicalization of opinion, and a rapid escalation of violence on
both sides - not least, in these early stages, among Algerians, as
the FLN sought to impose its authority. (According to John Ruedy's
history of modern Algeria, '[d]uring the first two and one-half
years of the war, the FLN killed only one European for every six
Muslims it liquidated' (2005 [1992]: 164).) Prominent incidents
prior to the 'Battle of Algiers' included the vote in the French
parliament in March 1956 that granted 'special powers' to the French
military in Algeria, and the kidnapping in October 1956 of FLN
leader Ben Bella, who eventually came to power in 1962. In France by
this time the war had toppled a vacillant Fourth Republic; de Gaulle
had returned to power and had gradually come to accept the
inevitability of Algerian independence, a stance that among pro-
French-Algeria hardliners had provoked plans to assassinate him, and
an attempted putsch.

One of the reasons for returning today to Pontecorvo's film is that
the legacy of the war remains fiercely contested, and, especially in
France, an important shift may be taking place in the way the war -
along with French colonialism more widely - is represented and
remembered. Debates have revived around torture, the fate of the
harkis (Algerians who fought with the security forces, and many of
whom were killed in the violence that continued after July 1962),
and the slaughter in Paris in 1961 of pro-FLN demonstrators.
Precisely what this putative shift may amount to is not yet clear,
but there is certainly a widespread feeling that French society is
moving out of a long period of 'amnesia', to borrow a term from a
recent history book (La Guerre d'Algérie: 1954-2004, La Fin de
l'amnésie (2004), edited by Mohammed Harbi and Benjamin Stora).
Historiographical work has been among the many factors contributing
to this process (see also Raphaëlle Branche's La Guerre d'Algérie:
Une histoire apaisée? of 2005), as has the activism of the movement
Les Indigènes de la République, launched publicly in January 2005,
whose founding declarations branded contemporary France
colonial/neocolonial in its dealings with the rest of the world
and 'postcolonial' and discriminatory in its treatment
of 'populations stemming from postcolonial immigration' (see
). And cinema has been playing
a striking role: Michael Haneke's Caché of 2005, an international
success, prompted many viewers to think for the first time about the
Paris massacre, raising broader questions about people's awareness
of the war and French colonialism and the traces they left. The
impact of Rachid Bouchareb's Indigènes/Days of Glory (2006), a film
about Algerian soldiers in the Second World War, which prompted
Jacques Chirac to end the freeze of pensions for Algerian veterans,
can also be linked to altered perceptions of the Algerian War of
Independence and its aftermath. These are just two films among many
around the topic in the last couple of years, including Michou
d'Auber (Thomas Gilou, 2005), Nuit noire: 17 octobre 1961 (Alain
Tasma, 2005), Mon Colonel (Laurent Herbiet, 2006), La Trahison
(Philippe Faucon, 2006), Nocturnes (Henry Colomer, 2006), and
L'Ennemi intime (Florent Emilio Siri, 2007). Just before this wave
of new releases, and against the backdrop of the Iraq war, The
Battle of Algiers was re-released in 2004 in countries including
France and the USA, and was shown for the first time ever on French

This collection aims to demonstrate how worthy is The Battle of
Algiers of remaining in the public eye and persisting as an 'object
of critical affection' (to borrow a phrase from Benita Parry),
especially for postcolonial critics - for its account of an anti-
imperial war, its depiction of 'terrorist' tactics and their violent
suppression through torture and by other means, its representation
of Muslim women and their relation to revolution and Islamic
tradition, and for many other reasons, including its endlessly
renewed contemporary resonance. It is intended both to be accessible
to those unfamiliar with the film (and the opening essay begins with
a brief account of the historical events on which it is based) and
to see beyond the confusions and complexities that have marked the
film's reception.1 Certain myths around The Battle of Algiers have
no doubt drawn in some viewers but they have also impeded a clear
view of both the film as such and the histories with which it is
involved. Some of these myths concern the very genesis of the film,
which is the subject of the second essay in this collection, where
David Forgacs casts new light on the film's peculiar Italo-Algerian
production history and its political and filmic conception. Other
myths concern the history of its releases around the world and their
influence. Symptomatically, the trailer for the 2004 re-release of
the film in the USA announced: 'The most explosive film of the 1960s
is now the most important film of 2004 Banned in France 1965
Screened by the Pentagon 2003 Containing not a single frame of
documentary or news footage'; and finally, with a certain
bathos, 'Based on actual events'.2 These phrases evoke several
strands of the film's afterlife, real or imagined: first,
the 'censorship' to which the film was seemingly subjected in France
and beyond, which is the subject of the essay by Benjamin Stora, who
shows that the initial absence of the film from French cinema
screens was not truly an instance of censorship, and so was not a
product of a single historical moment, but stemmed from the
postcolonial 'memory wars' that, as I have already suggested,
continue to this day; second, the mixture of praise and violent
opprobrium elicited by the film in each wave of its reception
history from 1966 onwards (as late as 1981, a French cinema showing
the film was fire-bombed), a history alluded to by Stora and
examined in detail by Patricia Caillé through close attention to
French film culture - which leads her to conclude that The Battle of
Algiers 'has been banished to the fringes of a film culture
incapable of offering an appropriate framework for its analysis';
and third, the notion that the film could be mistaken for
documentary or newsreel, which my own 'reading' of the film calls
into question as part of a reconsideration of its aesthetics and its
relation to the war.

The recent American trailer also, of course, gestured towards the
film's alleged uses as a 'training manual' by political
organizations from the Pentagon to the PLO, another intriguing and
somewhat mythologized part of its history. Since no essay here
dwells on that topic, it is perhaps worth saying now that it seems
implausible that the film was ever necessary to an organization such
as the Pentagon or the PLO in their attempts to build or
dismantle 'terrorist' networks. There is no doubt that it has
provided inspiration at times, often in circumstances, and with
political goals, far removed from those of its original conception:
in November 2004, for instance, the Guardian Weekly reported:

The commander of the Israeli forces that invaded Tulkarm in March
2002, Colonel Moshe 'Chico' Tamir, had an unusual idea. His staging
of the surrender of the town's fighters to the Israeli army seems to
have been inspired by his recollection of Gillo Pontecorvo's
celebrated 60s film The Battle of Algiers. The TV crews invited to
document the occasion were confronted with the familiar image from
the film of militants climbing out of their hiding places with hands
raised, as the paratroopers marched into the casbah. But the
artistic-minded officer seems not to have watched that movie to the
end: for although the French won the battle, they lost the war.
(Dudai and Baram 2004)

The latter point had seemingly got through to the Pentagon, by
contrast, when they turned to the film at around the same time: we
are told that the flyer for the 2003 screening read:
How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas
Children shoot soldiers at point blank range. Women plant bombs in
cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound
familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails
strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this
film. (see Kaufman 2003)3

Nevertheless, I think that the extent of its inspirational role has
often been overstated, not least by the film's publicists. To take
one further example, the reported use of the film by the Black
Panthers may not have amounted to much, though it was invoked on one
US poster for the film ('Eldridge Cleaver has seen it - have you?'
(see Criterion DVD, 'Extras')) and is alluded to by Joan Mellen in
what remains the most substantial critical work on the film (Mellen
1973).4 I cannot claim to have researched this thoroughly but would
note that the film is mentioned only once in a large collective
volume, Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party - and
that is when, in his essay about the trial of the 'Panther 21' in
New York, Ward Churchill writes:
Although it was at that point the longest criminal trial in New York
history, generating more than 13,000 pages of testimony and attended
by scores of exhibits - at one point prosecutors even showed a film
entitled The Battle of Algiers to demonstrate how the Panthers
were 'influenced by African terrorism' - it took the jury just
ninety minutes to reach 'not guilty' verdicts in all 156 of the
charges against the thirteen defendants who ultimately stood trial.
(Churchill 2001: 103)

Certainly, the Black Panthers were very interested in Fanon, who was
also an influence on Pontecorvo; that is another story and one that
could not be told here, though it is connected with the main theme
of Danièle Djamila Amrane Minne's essay, the role of Muslim women in
the war - an issue that has attracted particular interest within
postcolonial studies, and was first 'mythologized', one might say,
by Fanon in his essay 'Algeria Unveiled' of 1959 (Fanon 1965).5 The
collection closes with an interview with Saadi Yacef, the former FLN
fighter who was the producer of the film and one of its stars, and
whose remarks here offer new insights into the film's place in
Algerian culture.6 In postcolonial Algeria too, especially after the
rise of Islamism and the civil war of the 1990s, the war's legacy is
today being revisited. In shifting contexts and in numerous ways
that I hope the collection will illuminate, Pontecorvo's film, as
both source and 'statement', and as a postcolonial
cultural/political intervention of uncommon depth and force, remains
at once exemplary and unique.


1. Branche, Raphaëlle ((2005)) La Guerre d'Algérie: Une histoire
apaisée? Seuil , Paris
2. Churchill, Ward (Cleaver, Kathleen and Katsiaficas, George eds.)
((2001)) Liberation, Imagination and the Black Panther Party pp. 78-
117. Routledge , New York and London - in
3. Dudai, Ron and Baram, Daphna ((2004)) The second Battle of
Algiers. Guardian Weekly pp. 5-11. - November: 13
4. Fanon, Frantz ((1965)) A Dying Colonialism pp. 35-67. Grove
Press , New York - [1959]
5. (Harbi, Mohammed and Stora, Benjamin eds.) ((2004)) La Guerre
d'Algérie: 1954-2004, La Fin de l'amnésie Robert Laffont , Paris
6. Kaufman, Michael T. ((2003)) The Battle of Algiers?', New York
Times - in
7. Mellen, Joan ((1973)) The Battle of Algiers Indiana University
Press , Bloomington and London
8. Moore, Lindsey ((2003)) 'The veil of nationalism: Frantz
Fanon's "Algeria unveiled" and Gillo Pontecorvo's. The Battle of
Algiers', Kunapipi 25:2 , pp. 56-73.
9. Panchasi, Roxanne ((2006)) Imperialism, terrorism and resistance
Now on DVD!. Interventions 8:2 , pp. 343-346.
10. Ruedy, John ((2005)) Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development
of a Nation Indiana University Press , Bloomington and Indianapolis -
11. Srivastava, Neelam ((2005)) Anti-colonial violence and
the "dictatorship of truth" in the films of Gillo Pontecorvo: an
interview. Interventions 7:1 , pp. 106-117. [informaworld]
1In editing I have tried to allow both for readers interested in a
single article, and for those reading the whole collection; thus
minor repetitions have been allowed across articles but substantial
repetitions have been eliminated and replaced with cross references.
The spelling of terms and names that may be unfamiliar has been
standardized and they are explained the first time that they are
used in the collection; the explanations are subsequently cross-

2This trailer is included in the excellent boxed set of The Battle
of Algiers released in The Criterion Collection in 2004, which
includes a booklet and two DVDs of documentary material. For a
review see Panchasi (2006).

3For more on the way reports about the Pentagon screening affected
the reception of the film see Caillé below; and on the film's
relation to the 'memory wars' or the 'war of ideas' see Stora and
Harrison below.

4Mellen writes: 'The Black Panther party in the United States has
made the viewing of The Battle of Algiers an important element in
orienting new members' and cites an article asking if the techniques
seen in the film can be applied in Harlem (1973: 65).

5Pontecorvo insisted he had not read this particular article (see
Srivastava 2005). On links between Fanon and Pontecorvo see also
Moore (2003).

6Saadi Yacef's name often appears in print as Yacef Saadi; both
versions appear in the film's credits. Yacef is his family name.

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