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Gillo Pontecorvo: ‘My film shows what can happen when people unite’

The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film about the Algerian liberation struggle against French colonialism, is showing at Friends Meeting House, opposite Euston station, at 6.30pm this evening. Tom Behan spoke to him about the film and po

Issue No. 1923a

How did you come to make The Battle of Algiers?

In the 1960s people were much more aware than some people are today about these kinds of issues.

Everybody followed the attempts of many countries to achieve national liberation very closely. And lots of us, including me, were against the colonial powers.

Given that my previous film, Kapo, had been very successful in Italy (it was even a candidate at the Oscars), I got lots of offers to make films.

So when I told my producer what I wanted to do he said, “You’re mad – nobody cares about those niggers.” “Look,” I told him, “among other things they’re not ‘niggers’ – they’re as white as you or me.”

Due to a lack of finance, initially most of us didn’t get paid. The technicians worked for lower wages because they believed in it too.

What kind of response did you get locally when you filmed in the casbah in Algiers?

People loved us. As I said, we didn’t have much money, so local people helped out where they could. You see, bits of the screenplay had already been published locally, so people knew they weren’t going to be portrayed as they normally were – that’s why they gave us a hand.

You had problems getting it shown. Wasn’t it initially banned in France?

If I’m not mistaken the French authorities didn’t actually ban it. They just said nothing, and delayed things bureaucratically. Meanwhile French fascists said it was “anti-French”, whereas in Italy some of the left said it was too sympathetic towards the French troops.

In reality we didn’t try to blame the paratroopers. At the end of the day we were attacking the people who had sent them there.

We eventually got a certificate in France after Louis Malle and other French directors led a campaign, saying it was scandalous it hadn’t been released – and they won.

The government had used the argument that there would be trouble if it was shown.

The only problem occurred in Lyons, where someone threw ink at the screen. OK, that cinema owner might have had a problem, but it was nothing compared to the problems the film talked about.

Why do you think George Bush organised a showing in the White House?

I don’t think they showed it because they thought the details were identical to Iraq, but because the overall atmosphere is very similar.

But establishment figures will never like this film, because it shows that when people unite they are strong. When it came out loads of workers and students used to go and see it.

Why is it still relevant today?

Because of its main themes. One thing I particularly like was what the New York Times once said – that it doesn’t teach you how to make a revolution but how to make a film. It doesn’t teach you how to lead a war or a revolt, but how to make cinema. Action always works in cinema. I think films can have very political themes, but you can’t bore people. This is a film that is tense in every single minute.

What do you think of the anti-capitalist movement?

I’m very sympathetic towards it, as it is moving towards change and progress. It’s definitely a good thing that it exists.


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Features
Thu 14 Oct 2004, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1923a
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