By Tom Hickey
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Their Struggle Belongs to the World

This article is over 19 years, 10 months old
From June 1956 to October 1957 the Algerian liberation struggle was fought in the capital, Algiers. Tom Hickey looks at the history and its representation in The Battle of Algiers.
Issue 288

The Battle of Algiers represents one of the pivotal moments in the Algerian war of independence. Directed by Gillo Ponticorvo, it captures the social and political conditions of the nationalist revolution: the rationale for the use of terror by the nationalist forces, the logic that drove the French army of occupation to use torture, and the relationship between political and military considerations in conditions of war.

Banned in France until 1971, despite its Cannes prize, and provoking riots on its first showing in Paris, the film picks at a wound in the ideology of imperialism. It is hardly surprising, for anyone familiar with the film, that the US State Department should have organised a private viewing of it for policy makers and strategists under the rubric ‘How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas’.

In 1954, an armed struggle was launched by the National Liberation Front (FLN), led by Ahmed Ben Bella. Part of the strategy of the FLN was to use terror directed at property to bring the struggle in Algeria to the attention of the world. In 1956, the struggle spread to the capital, Algiers.

Led in Algiers by Saadi Yacif, the 29 year old son of a Casbah baker, the FLN assassinated 49 adult male civilians in three days in June. The covert response of the authorities was a counter-terror whose first bombing of a house in the Casbah killed 70 civilians. Now the Battle of Algiers was to be waged without restraint.

In 1957, in the face of an escalating FLN campaign, the government called in the Paratroopers of the 10th Division, and gave them a free hand in maintaining law and order. Torture, execution and rape became the normal methods used to extract information from suspects. Led in the Casbah area by Colonel Bigeard (Matthieu in the film), the Paras interrogated between 30 percent and 40 percent of the male population in this manner over the next five years.

At first denied, or excused as individual excess by unruly soldiers, la torture eventually became a scandal to French liberal opinion. Long abolished by the Revolution of 1789, an abhorrence reinforced by the recent experience of the German occupation of 1940-44, torture was morally and politically repugnant in French culture. France was divided. Demoralised by stories of barbarity, and by the determination and popularity of the FLN, both France and its army progressively lost the will to fight.

Meanwhile, in Algiers, the FLN demonstrated its popularity by calling an eight-day general strike. The strike was a calculated risk. It would expose the supporters of the FLN to the Paras, and thus risk the destruction of the organisation in the city. It would also win recognition of the FLN as the legitimate voice of the Algerian people.

Militarily and organisationally, the strike was a disaster. Strongly supported by the Muslim population of the city, it nevertheless enabled the army to identify and arrest all of the leadership of the organisation. Movingly heroic but militarily doomed, the strike was a resounding political victory. It demonstrated that the population was for independence, and that France was desperate in its measures of repression. France lost the war because, in part, its army won the Battle of Algiers.

Pontecorvo’s film is not just a record of these events. Shot in grainy black and white, and using mainly amateur actors from Algiers, it is a compelling narrative. The character representing Saadi Yacif, the FLN commander of the Casbah district, is played by Saadi Yacif himself.

The film’s soundtrack by Ennio Morricone has always been a celebrated part of the film. Blending passages from Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion with North African and Berber rhythms, and with the sounds of the city (particularly the defiant ululations from a resentful and determined Casbah), it smudged the boundaries of musical traditions. It is with this soundtrack that Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) interfered for its Brighton concerts in May.

The interference worked. It worked so well in front of this live audience in Brighton’s Dome that at times you did not notice the music, so well did it complement the images and the story on the screen.

When you did notice the music, it was to note its enhancement of the effect, its challenge to the viewer, its arousal of indignation, its celebration of resistance. Its one weakness was a distinct sentimentalism of tone in some passages dominated by the band’s violin. Nevertheless this is a concert that ADF should be persuaded to mount again.

Morricone’s original placed its European audience immediately in a foreign place, one whose difference was registered by the unfamiliar soundscape, and by modulations of tone then alien to the western ear. The subversive aural choices were carefully deployed – the pinnacle of western culture’s musical compassion expressed in minor key, from Bach, selected to accompany the torture of an Arab. Sacrifice and redemption were now provided with a new iconic image – blow-torches piercing the sides of old men. These things were, of course, lost in the ADF interpretation. This means only that there are now two political and aesthetic experiences available with one film: the video and the ADF concert.

In 2003 in London, in the preparations for the demonstrations against the war on Iraq, the first president of independent Algeria came out of retirement to speak to a mass meeting of anti-war activists. Ben Bella explained how this unusual Italian-Algerian co-production was made so soon after the victory of the FLN in 1962: Yacif came to his office to suggest that the state should finance a film of the struggle. The president told the ex-guerrilla leader that the idea was preposterous. With insufficient funds for health and sanitation, the state could not budget to start a film industry. Yacif did not give up. Repeatedly sent away, he kept returning with the idea.

In response to the accusation that to squander money on a film would be to betray the poor of Algiers, Yacif replied that the struggle did not belong to people of Algiers but to the oppressed and the exploited of the world. Not to make the film would be a betrayal of a promise to them. Ben Bella explained that he had no answer to this argument. He made the funds available.

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