Thursday, February 20, 2014

Michael Dean Benton: Introduction and Discussion of The Battle of Algiers

(Originally published in Uprooting Criminology: April 14, 2014)

In 1966 Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers was released to critical acclaim as well as official condemnation. In France it was banned until 1974 when it was finally screened in a cut version. The film examines the early part of what is known as the Algerian War (1954-1962) when the colonized Algerian population threw off the century-long yoke of the French colonizers (they invaded Algeria in 1830). Pontecorvo’s film is unique in many ways:

1) Its focus is on the early intensification of the Algerian resistance when they began to focus on guerilla warfare in the city of Algiers as the most effective tactic against the French colonizers.

2) It also effectively portrays the French Legion’s military response. Torture as a method of information-gathering and intimidation, as well as, the concerted hunting down of resistance fighters.

3) The film uses mostly non-professional actors who had actually been a part of the Algerian resistance against the French.

4) The film is naturalistic in its portrayal of the operations of revolutionary cells and their guerrilla tactics.

5) The film provides powerful images of the colonizing forces usage of media to communicate their messages. Perhaps, not as obvious, is the resistance resort to “terror” as their only possible tactic to communicate their message.

6) It ends with the seemingly victorious moment for the colonizers when the French Legion has won the Battle of Algiers and decimated the guerrilla cells. However, as the last scene vividly demonstrates, they may have won the battle, but the French in their victory had poured gasoline onto the flame of resistance that would lead to their eventual defeat in the larger war.

The film is considered to be so realistic in its depiction of the resistance against colonizing forces, that the Pentagon in 2003, during the Bush Administration’s initiation of its “War on Terror,” held screenings for their officers in order for them to understand the resistance they would probably face. The film is also very effective in thinking about the later Abu Ghraib scandals and provides insights into the recent USA-France joint invasion of Mali.

Discussion questions:

• In The Battle of Algiers there is a powerful scene that examines the hypocrisy of Western ideology. This is when Colonel Mathieu is hosting the media to announce the capture of the resistance leader. The French celebrated the “heroic” resistance against the NAZI occupation, how were they now complicit in the same acts of the NAZIs (directly relating to the comment from one of the reporters during this scene)?

• Albert Memmi, the Tunisian writer, in his 1957 book The Colonizer and the Colonized, makes the claim that colonization is in essence “one variety of fascism” (63). Do you agree or disagree?

• France had just been defeated in another colonial war (The First Indochina War of 1945-1954 in Vietnam ), do you think this has something to do with their brutal determination to defeat the Algerian resistance.

• The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte considers the violence of the colonizer and the colonized to be different. What response do you have to this claim through a discussion of the violence perpetrated by both sides in the film? Is violence necessary, as Sartre claims, to the decolonization movement? Feel free to bring in observations from other decolonization movements.

• This film continues to resonate with 21st Century events in North Africa and the Middle East (in particular the Abu Ghraib scandals, the American empire’s endorsement of torture as a policy, and the American-French invasion of Mali). Are there lessons to be learned about the experiences of the colonizer and the colonized in this film?

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