not in our stars, but in ourselves
38/52: A movie about a war
It’s interesting in a sad way (albeit unsurprising) that countries who had won their own independence from either another ruling country or a ruling class would go on to impose their own colonial, imperialist, basically capitalist will on others. And not just equal others: Othered others, others with different skin colors and religions and cultural heritage, others who were (are) therefore considered less than. I am referring, of course, to the United States and to France. The enduring legacy of slavery and of colonialism continues to rear its ugly head in both countries, and it’s disheartening to see that neither national psyche seems to associate the voices calling out for justice and equality with their own old mottoes of “e pluribus unum” and “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”
The Battle of Algiers is based on true events from 1957: a brutal instance of guerrilla warfare in the longer fight for Algerian independence. The Algerian War eventually led to Algeria’s liberation from French colonial rule, and then to the decolonization of the rest of Africa – but the process wasn’t a fair or easy one. In Algiers, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Hadjadj) is a harmless petty criminal. He lives in the Casbah, the de facto Muslim section of the city. When the police try to chase him after one of his card tricks, a French jerk trips him. Ali punches the jerk, and then the police catch up. They take Ali to prison, where he hears a condemned man chant slogans of Algerian nationalism as he’s led to the guillotine. When he’s released, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) contacts him and brings him into their network. The FLN has plans for Algerian independence, and it involves a complete cleanse of all European/corrupt influences: no more drinking, no more drugs, no more prostitution. They’ll establish a Muslim country according to Muslim law. In an especially heartrending sequence, a few dozen children swarm around a drunk man and drag him down some stairs. However, the FLN isn’t simply clearing out foreign influences among Algerians: they’re targeting the French. After a series of shootings – wherein a young teenager finds a hidden gun, fires at a policeman, and runs away – the French establish harsh checkpoints around the Casbah. Women and children are mostly allowed to pass through without trouble; the FLN uses this rare instance of the French respecting Muslim customs regarding women: allowed to go through checkpoints untouched and unsearched, three women go to crowded places in the European part of the city and plant bombs. Of course, the French fight back just as ferociously, and kill civilians (including children) with apparent impunity. They capture Algerians and torture them to learn more about the leaders of the FLN. Ali La Pointe, who has become one of the last remaining FLN leaders, refuses to leave his hiding place. The French bomb him, and declare themselves the victors of the Battle of Algiers. In a postscript, however, it’s noted that Algeria did indeed win its independence in 1962.
This isn’t an easy movie to watch. It’s not meant to be, obviously, but – in the interest of authorial honesty, or something – I confess that I frequently wondered if I’d be able to keep watching, let alone write about it. That’s a testament to how well it’s all done; as Peter Matthews notes in his essay about the film for the Criterion Collection, “The Battle of Algiers would emulate the on-the-hoof aesthetic of 1960s cinema verité. Pontecorvo duly flung himself into the breach with a handheld camera that wobbled, zoomed, and reframed as though excitedly clawing at the action.” This isn’t your grandfather’s war movie, with its classically shot heroes and villains, wide shots and close ups and soaring musical scores. This is gritty and tough and hard to take – even though it’s still considerably sanitized.
Part of what makes the film so difficult is that, contrary to what we’re conditioned to want, neither side behaves all that heroically. We’re rooting for the Algerians. That’s never in question. But the film doesn’t shy away from showing us how cruelly both sides fight. It’s impossible to fight nobly, of course, when the force you’re fighting against is so fundamentally ignoble. In a revolution, the diplomats and the pacifists seldom win out. To throw off shackles, it’s necessary to fight bullies on their own terms. They won’t give up power simply because they’re asked. While it’s understandable, it’s not easy to look at.
Consider how the U.S. mainstream media has treated the protests in Ferguson and Baltimore, and the multitudinous other protests in the #BlackLivesMatter movement. None of those protests have even involved any meaningful violence (at least, not by the protesters; property damage doesn’t count, and I don’t care if a cop got a booboo after he threw tear gas canisters at a group of kids) – but look at how it’s been framed. Look at what we’ve been willing to tolerate in our discussion of these protests. Sure, their protests stem from hundreds of years of enslavement, disenfranchisement, violence, and inequality – but why can’t they just ask for things politely, like a good person would? Why do they think they deserve these things? The protests in the U.S. have been brought on by entirely justifiable outrage and grief, and have been – overall – peaceful; but we, the white ruling class, have balked at the very notion that the protests were legitimate. We see it in The Battle of Algiers as well: the French police bark into a megaphone that the Algerians had better stop all this fighting and let the French keep running their lives, because that’s what’s best for them, the poor little savages. It’s the same thing now as it was then; there is no new thing under the sun.
Maybe during a less tumultuous period in history (does such a thing exist?), this film would be easier to watch with a little more distance and objectivity. With things as they are, however, it’s viscerally relevant. We’re seeing not only the vicious opposition to protests in this country, we’re also seeing the horrible mutations that can take place in a postcolonial country. A destabilized nation will often turn to anyone and anything that promises to restore order. In Weimar-era Germany, it was the Nazis; in modern-day Syria, it’s ISIS. And of course, there are plenty of other examples from other former colonies that won their independence – and then saw near-complete collapse as the European powers fled, leaving behind only crumbling infrastructure and tensions that had simmered among its people throughout the hundreds of years with an imperial boot on their throats. It’s happened before, it’s happening now, and it will happen again.