July 27, 2007

Battle of Algiers

Directed by the Italian Gilo Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers is a fine example of using historical facts and weaving a fictional account around it. One of rare that is fictional but works just like a documentary; the film depicts the freedom struggle of the people in the French Algerian capital of Algiers. The film begins with the organization of revolutionary cells in the Casbah. The locals resisted to such an extent that that the French Paramilitary under Col. Mathieu takes over to end the struggle of the National Liberation Front (FLN). Finally the film ends with a scene that’s shows continued struggle of the people against the French military, who may have won the Battle of Algiers but have lost the war.

The great thing about the film is how Pontecorvo manages to successfully blend elements of documentary film making with styles such as Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité to create realistic depictions of the lives of ordinary people. Many scenes in the film rattle you and I can only imaging the impact it might have had on people in the 60's. The FLN has men, women and even children as members and the scene where children almost kill a man while teasing him makes one think how much of it is the real and how much cinematic liberty. The film is supposed to have its basis in the memoirs of FLN commander Saadi Yacef as well as a screenplay developed by the director.

The newsreel inspired style of filming that features great visuals of Algerian life and large scale riot scenes was so effective that the American reels carried a disclaimer that "not one foot" of newsreel was used. Cinematographer Marcello Gatti filmed in black and white and experimented with various techniques to give the film the look of newsreel and documentary film. The director spent two years in Algiers scouting locations and picking up people to act in the film amongst the non-professional people he met and interacted with. The sole professional actor in the film was Jean Martin who played Col. Mathieu. The Algerian government went all out to support the film and Pontecorvo was given a freehand and often allowed to blow up buildings to get his vision on film.

Since 19060 the film gained a reputation for inspiring political violence; in particular inspiring the actions of the Black Panthers and the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) are famous for using The Battle of Algiers as a discussion piece, propaganda film and training aid.

The film has some explicit torture scenes and that was one of the reasons that the French banned the film for five years. The film was in news again when the US Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at The Pentagon offered a screening of the film, regarding it as a useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq. A flyer for the 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."

In order to be neutral, Pontecorvo crosses the fine line between the two sides; the scene were a rebel blows up a café full of ordinary people- French and Algerian is more shocking than the scenes of the French using torture. No matter how one looks at it, The Battle of Algiers is a masterpiece.

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