Wednesday, 21 November 2007

BATTLE OF ALGIERS SPECIAL - 8

AN INTERVIEW WITH SAADI YACEF

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

Abstract

Saadi Yacef was an FLN leader during the War of Independence and
produced and co-starred in The Battle of Algiers, in which he played
himself. (The details of his role as the film's producer are
described in David Forgacs' article above.) Yacef was born in the
Algiers casbah in 1928, became involved in nationalist politics in
1945, and was arrested in September 1957. He was imprisoned in
Barberousse and sentenced to death. In prison he began writing the
memoirs that later became the basis of Pontecorvo's film. Partly
thanks to the intervention of Germaine Tillion and partly thanks to
the amnesty offered by de Gaulle, his death sentence was commuted,
and he was released after independence. He later became a member of
the Algerian Senate.

The material published here, translated from French and edited by
Nicholas Harrison, combines parts of a question and answer session,
led by David Forgacs, that took place at the ICA, London, on 8 May
2007, and an interview conducted the following day. Questions from
audience members at the ICA are marked Q.

Introduction

NICHOLAS HARRISON I understand that you yourself provided a lot of
the funding for the film. How much support did you get from the
Algerian government?

SAADI YACEF They helped me a lot. If you worked out the financial
value of everything they made available to me - uniforms, locations,
tanks - it would come to millions of dollars.

NH And did they impose any conditions upon you?

SY No, no. They hadn't been through it, or most of them hadn't. I
had lived through it, and the true story had its own validity. You
couldn't get round that, and there was trust on both sides. They let
me get on with it. They themselves wanted to know the inside story
of the battle.

NH Watching the film again recently, I was struck by the speech by
Ben M'Hidi where he says that it's hard starting a revolution, and
harder still completing it, but the greatest difficulties come after
the revolution is over. To what extent was that scene, and the film
more generally, shaped by events in Algeria after 1962, especially
Boumedienne's coup of 1965?

SY Ben M'Hidi was a friend of mine. And in the war's calmer moments,
we used to talk about the future. He talked about problems he'd had
with Ben Bella, who was one of the leaders of the revolution and who
later became president. There had already been problems. And he
realized that he himself, fighting inside the country, would have
issues later with leaders who were outside the country, and who
wanted to take power later on. Already at that point, he said,
people were competing for power. Given the arguments that were going
on already, he wondered how bad things would get later on. So he had
raised that issue, and I put it into the film. Already during the
revolution he had it in mind that there was a race for power, and
that after independence it would intensify, that there would be
clashes, and more clashes.

NH So in terms of what was happening in 1965

SY I gave Pontecorvo some ideas as we went along. I told him about
things, and he would find ways of putting them into the film.

DAVID FORGACS Pontecorvo is an interesting director partly because
of the way he worked with untrained actors. He'd done it before The
Battle of Algiers and did it again later. How did he work with
untrained actors, and how did he get such good performances? What
was your own experience of being directed by him?

SY It helped that the war had finished so recently; the wounds of
the war were still raw That's why we didn't use actors. The
condemned man in the early scene with the guillotine, for example,
had been in that same prison, condemned to death; so he knew his
role, without Pontecorvo saying anything to him.

In my own case it was very easy - much easier than it had been to
play the role when it was a matter of life and death. I had more
leeway when it was make-believe. In general, Pontecorvo worked with
activists who had just come out of the war. When we got people to
play the role of the parachutists and put them in uniforms, and they
climbed up on the roofs of the casbah, bystanders really thought the
French had come back. People had been through it all in reality and
were in the right frame of mind. The only one who really needed any
coaching was the actor playing Ali la Pointe, who was someone
Pontecorvo spotted in the street. He was a shepherd and spoke no
French, and Pontecorvo and I needed to explain certain things to
him. I'd like to add that Pontecorvo was a cinematic genius, and I
want to pay homage to his memory here.2

Q The film focuses on Algiers, and I wanted to ask if the combatants
in Algiers had contact with other regions, and how they managed
that, once the blockade was in place?

SY The Algerian War was a matter for the whole of Algeria, and
involved everyone who lived in Algeria and who wished to participate
in the struggle. People can argue about whether one group did more
than another, and the FLN made mistakes, as did the French. That
always happens. But the people were united. There wasn't a split
between Sunnis and Shi'ites, the country was 96 per cent Muslim, and
we fought united.

NH Did you feel in the end that anything important had been missed
out of the film?

SY The war was so violent and there were so many stories one could
tell We had to make do with showing the main events, including the
bombs on both sides, the strike, my arrest, the courage of the
combatants [militants], the rue de Thèbes, the demonstrations of
1960 and so on. We couldn't tell the story from beginning to end As
it was, we shot enough footage for a film lasting eight hours, and
we had to cut various scenes, the aim being to give the film
a 'choral' quality, by which I mean it was the Algerian people that
won the war, so we had to avoid depicting acts of heroism and we had
to leave out various stories.

Why focus on the battle? Well, for many years, France had not won
any military battles. For instance, in 1947 when there had been the
uprising in Madagascar, France lost the battle and lost the war. In
the Second World War, if I remember correctly, the Germans reached
Paris in thirteen days. And then there was Indochina and Dien Bien
Phu. And the French had still not learnt the lessons that history
was teaching them. They went into Tunisia and accused the Bey of
having collaborated with the Germans, and they lost out, and they
lost out again when they took the King of Morocco to Madagascar. And
in Algeria, people saw the weakness of the French empire, and saw
how it was beginning to crumble. So it was the right moment to do
something.

The war started in 1954 and went on into 1956, and there was the
Suez Crisis, involving the English, the French and the Israelis,
each attacking Egypt for its own reasons. France's only reason was
to destroy a huge transmitter that was broadcasting encouragement to
the Algerians. They thought that if they got rid of the transmitter,
their problems in Algeria would be over. In charge of the French
army was General Massu, and the troops went in and it was a
massacre; they were about to reach the 'final solution' - that is,
occupying Egypt. But Kennedy and Krushchev stepped in, and Massu was
robbed of his victory. France had been losing all its battles, it
was about to win one, and was stopped by the Americans and the
Russians. That's why Massu ended up coming to Algeria with his
paras; and once he was there, they needed to create the conditions
that would allow them to take power, and to win at least one battle.
They managed to create the conditions, for example by putting bombs
in churches and cemeteries, they created an atmosphere ready for a
confrontation between the two communities; and they argued that the
civil authorities couldn't handle the situation, and the army could.
They ended up working as policemen. It's like Iraq today. So they
needed to create a battle; in January there was the strike; and
Massu declared that there had been a battle, which he called
the 'Battle of Algiers'. He said he had won - and he did win

NH So it was Massu who first used the expression 'Battle of Algiers'?

SY If you read his book - page 39, I think - he says he spoke to
some police chief about the 'Battle of Algiers'; he was the first to
use that expression, and I later cited it in my book.3

NH And how did the Algerians see the 'battle', then? In the film,
the French think they've won the battle, and I don't think the film
gives a clear view of the relation between the battle and the final
outcome of independence

SY We'd have had to make three films! We had to stick to the main
events.

NH But what was the significance of the battle as such, from the
Algerian perspective?

SY They accepted the battle; in the end it became a victory for
them. How so? Because torture was established as standard practice
throughout Algeria, and torture undermined the Fourth Republic and
brought it down, so de Gaulle returned to power and so on. Torture
created a movement among liberals, among families in France, and
there were demonstrations; it proved counterproductive. All over the
world, people were talking about it, they knew torture was going on,
like in Guantanamo now. So the battle was counterproductive from the
French point of view. We couldn't show everything, or the film would
have been four hours long. If we had lost the war, we would have
thought of the strike and the battle as a defeat. But you can lose a
battle and win the war. One gives ground in one place but makes up
for it elsewhere. The week-long strike was very costly for us, but
it did destabilize the French government.

NH And was that planned? Had you thought in advance that the strike
might work in this way, that it might polarize and radicalize
opinion?

SY No. I had discussed it with one of the five main leaders, Ben
M'Hidi. I had argued that a two-day strike would be enough, timed to
coincide with the UN debate, but the decision had been taken. Two
days would have been enough to show the UN that the FLN had
authority. A week-long strike was an act of stupidity [une bêtise].
But I don't see it as stupid now, because we got our independence.
It was an evil that ended up serving a greater good.

Anyway, that's how I see it. I went through it, so I have the right
to defend a point of view that may be indefensible today.

NH Why indefensible?

SY Well, why make a bomb? I'd answer, well, it's to do with
circumstances. Someone who only sees the bomb exploding will condemn
the bomber, of course. But at the time, I was completely and utterly
right to do what I did, in spite of the cruelty it entailed.

NH I wanted to ask you also about Islam, in the war and in the film.
The first FLN communiqué alludes to Islamic principles

SY The first proclamation by the FLN was addressed to the French of
Algeria and the French authorities and said that we would do
everything in our power for our fatherland, that we were ready to
die to free our country; but that we were ready to talk peacefully
about the issues, and if we gained independence it would be a
secular state [état laïc], different religions would be respected.
Don't forget that the first proclamation by the FLN was written in
French; if it had been religious, it would have been in Arabic. Most
of the leaders were not practising, we didn't pray and so on, but
we're Muslims.

NH I was thinking too of the man who is guillotined, who
shouts 'Allahu akbar' before he shouts 'Tahia el-Djazair' [long live
Algeria]; for some participants, was the anti-colonial war a
religious war?

SY No. Absolutely not. More than 90 per cent of Algerians were
Muslims. It was thanks to Islam that we were never converted into
Frenchmen, into Christians. All through the French occupation, from
the beginning, Islam had persisted, through the observation of
Ramadhan, prayer and so on. And that is what prevented integration.
If the French had been smart, they would have allowed mixed
marriages, in order to make a single community. But it was if they
were allergic to that idea. So Islam remained intact, right up to
the beginning of the war. But it wasn't because of Islam that the
war began; most Muslims were not in favour of the war, and they hid;
they didn't play any role and things were left up to us, people who
were from a Muslim background but not practising Muslims. But if
you're going to be executed, and you're from that background, you
hope to go to paradise and you'll shout 'God is great'. It's the
same for terrorists in Iraq; that's how people use 'Allahu akbar'
You think of yourself as dying for the fatherland and for the glory
of Islam. Islam played a very important role in encouraging
individuals to accept death as their fate.

NH And do you see any connections between the War of Independence
and the war of the 1990s?

SY No, no, in the 1990s it was yobs, assassins who wanted to create
another sort of Islam, their own version, one that went back to
origins. They saw that there was a vast number of Muslims in the
world and that therein lay a potential source of support; if they
created schools and so on, that would allow them to create a
movement.

Q How about parallels between events of 1957 and 2007? Is there
anything that we should look at more carefully in the events of the
Algerian War that could illuminate what is happening now?

SY All the armies in the world, working together, including the
Pentagon, will never, ever manage to defeat a people that wishes to
be master of its own destiny. It's the same for colonialism in the
past, or the Americans in Iraq, whether it's for political reasons,
or economic reasons, or other reasons. The film shows that if one
wants to be free, one has to pay the price, and the price is heavy;
but one will succeed. When someone sends a country up in flames, as
the Americans are doing, it creates smoke, and the smoke suffocates
those who started the fire.

The film shows how the country was occupied and how that was wrong;
the occupation had to be fought, by any means, and it was very hard.
I never took pleasure in seeing a bomb explode, in seeing people
mutilated. I never took any pleasure in that. But the same was
happening on the other side, and you get caught in a spiral. That's
why in the film we wanted to give a balanced view, to show the
atrocities on one side and people's behaviour on the other side; we
didn't want the spectator to come out accusing one side. It was a
chess game, but there was no winner or loser; History won.

Q I've read that the film has become required viewing for the top
brass at the Pentagon. Do you find it perverse that the film has
become a counter-insurgency manual?

DF And, on the other side, has been used by insurgent groups.

SY It seems it was shown at the Pentagon, apparently in the hope of
avoiding the mistakes made by the French. But contrary to what they
think, the situation of guerrillas in Latin America, China, South
Africa and so on is not comparable to what is happening in Iraq.
Algeria was a settler colony. Iraq is a modern colonial occupation;
geographically, economically and sociologically it's unlike the
Algerian situation. The Battle of Algiers should be able to teach
people some lessons, but the Americans are bad students, like the
French were, and they are making things worse.

Q How have reactions to the film changed over the years in France?

SY It was perfectly understandable that the French who lived in
Algeria and who left their country - and it was their country -
reacted so badly. They had been kicked out and didn't want to hear
any more about the war that had hurt them so badly. So they planted
bombs and burned cinemas and so on, and the government didn't
intervene, as it didn't want to appear to be on one side or the
other. Things only changed when people recognized that it had been a
real war, and they started to talk about torture and so on; and that
made it possible, very recently, for the film to come out again.

NH I wanted finally to hear more about the film's own history in
Algeria. I read that some Algerians involved in the film, right up
to the last minute before it was released, didn't want to include
the shots of the little boy eating ice cream, just before one of the
bombs explodes

SY It wasn't 'some Algerians', it was me. I said to Pontecorvo that
Algerian audiences would be critical of that scene, and that we'd
have problems, so perhaps we should cut it. He said, well, we could
cut it, but he argued that it was important on the one hand to show
torture and all that our enemies did wrong, and on the other The
boy was going to die, but it was war, and if people saw that, they
would think that we had been courageous, that we'd told the truth as
we saw it. So he persuaded me. I spoke about it with friends, and
with a minister who was on the set - not to keep an eye on us, just
out of curiosity - and I explained that those shots had to stay.
There was violence on both sides, and the film had to tell the truth.

NH And you yourself were convinced?

SY Yes, completely.

NH And were others critical of that decision, once the film was
released?

SY No, no one.

NH What about Mathieu - did people think he was too sympathetic a
figure, especially since he is fictionalized?

SY We needed to have a character who was brave and intelligent.
Otherwise we'd have won the war within a couple of months. I was
allowed to depict the war how I wanted, because I had been in charge
of the capital. No one could take issue with my account of events.

Q/NH And what about in the longer term? The film was released in
1966 and again in 1969. How was it received initially, and have
reactions changed subsequently?

SY Before the film was screened in Venice, I took a rough cut for a
premiere in Algeria. I invited the president, Boumedienne, who
[pause] found it hard to stomach; and there were ministers present
and so on. Everyone clapped, but deep down they weren't happy,
because he and others were from the mountains and wished the film
had not been about Algiers. But the story was true and they had to
applaud.

When it first came out there were vast queues, half a kilometre
long, outside the cinemas. There were even people who died in the
crush. And people thought it was a good film. I later gave all the
film rights to my country, because it was thanks to the Algerian
people that I could make the film; it was their story and it was my
duty to return it to them, so that, along with other films, it can
help people remember what happened. It has sometimes been shown on
official holidays.

Later on, you wouldn't have expected this old film in black and
white to be of any interest, but circumstances renewed people's
interest in it; I've been on CNN, and on Brazilian television;
people all around the world have heard of the Battle of
Algiers/Battle of Algiers. And that in turn piqued the curiosity of
young people in Algeria and woke them up a bit. And because of my
role in the Senate and so on, people know that I'm here with the
film now, that it's still used for propaganda and publicity for
Algeria. I'm happy to help in this way, and the fight continues.


Notes
1Editor's note: I would like to thank those involved with the ICA
event, especially Richard Larcombe of The Associates and David
Forgacs, for making the interview possible. I am grateful to Richard
and to Kevin Durst for providing images.

2Editor's note: Gillo Pontecorvo died in Autumn 2006, aged 89.

3Editor's note: Page 39 of Massu's book does not mention the police
chief and it is not clear what exactly Yacef is referring to here.
It is clear that both Yacef and Massu could be said in effect to
have promulgated the phrase with a degree of enthusiasm (see
Harrison's article above, pp. 389-8, for more on its history).

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