THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
209 West Houston St.
May 24-25, June 6-7, 11, 13
Series runs May 24 - June 13
Film Forum kicks off its impressive three-week series “The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981” with Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece, The Battle of Algiers, one of the most important films about colonialism ever made. To lend additional insight, Elaine Mokhtefi, author of Algiers, Third World Capital: Freedom Fighters, Revolutionaries, Black Panthers, will participate in a Q&A following the 8:30 show on May 24, and cultural historian Kazembe Balagun will introduce the 9:20 screening on June 11. In Pontecorvo’s gripping neo-Realist war thriller, a reporter asks French paratroop commander Lt. Col. Mathieu (Jean Martin), who has been sent to the Casbah to derail the Algerian insurgency, about an article Jean-Paul Sartre had just written for a Paris paper. “Why are the Sartres always born on the other side?” Mathieu says. “Then you like Sartre?” the reporter responds. “No, but I like him even less as a foe,” Mathieu coolly answers. In 1961, French existentialist Sartre wrote in the preface to Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, the seminal tome on colonialism and decolonialism, “In Algeria and Angola, Europeans are massacred at sight. It is the moment of the boomerang; it is the third phase of violence; it comes back on us, it strikes us, and we do not realize any more than we did the other times that it’s we that have launched it,” referring to European colonization.
“There are those among [the oppressed creatures] who assert themselves by throwing themselves barehanded against the guns; these are their heroes. Others make men of themselves by murdering Europeans, and these are shot down; brigands or martyrs, their agony exalts the terrified masses. Yes, terrified; at this fresh stage, colonial aggression turns inward in a current of terror among the natives. By this I do not only mean the fear that they experience when faced with our inexhaustible means of repression but also that which their own fury produces in them. They are cornered between our guns pointed at them and those terrifying compulsions, those desires for murder which spring from the depth of their spirits and which they do not always recognize; for at first it is not their violence, it is ours, which turns back on itself and rends them; and the first action of these oppressed creatures is to bury deep down that hidden anger which their and our moralities condemn and which is however only the last refuge of their humanity. Read Fanon: you will learn how, in the period of their helplessness, their mad impulse to murder is the expression of the natives’ collective unconscious.” Sartre’s brutally honest depiction of colonialism serves as a perfect introduction to Pontecorvo’s film, made five years later and then, unsurprisingly, banned in France. (In 1953, the Martinique-born Fanon, who fought for France in WWII, moved to Algeria, where he became a member of the National Liberation Front; French authorities expelled him from the country in 1957, but he kept working for the FLN and Algeria up to his death in 1961. For more on The Wretched of the Earth, see the documentary Concerning Violence: Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense.)
In The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo (Kapò, Burn!) and screenwriter Franco Solinas follow a small group of FLN rebels, focusing on the young, unpredictable Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) and the more calm and experienced commander, El-hadi Jafar (Saadi Yacef, playing a character based on himself; the story was also inspired by his book Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger). Told in flashback, the film takes viewers from 1954 to 1957 as Mathieu hunts down the FLN leaders while the revolutionaries stage strikes, bomb public places, and assassinate French police. Shot in a black-and-white cinema-vérité style on location by Marcello Gatti — Pontecorvo primarily was a documentarian — The Battle of Algiers is a tense, powerful work that plays out like a thrilling procedural, touching on themes that are still relevant fifty years later, including torture, cultural racism, media manipulation, terrorism, and counterterrorism. It seems so much like a documentary — the only professional actor in the cast is Martin — that it’s hardly shocking that the film has been used as a primer for the IRA, the Black Panthers, the Pentagon, and military and paramilitary organizations on both sides of the colonialism issue, although Pontecorvo is clearly on the side of the Algerian rebels. However, it does come as a surprise that the original conception was a melodrama starring Paul Newman as a Western journalist.
All these years later, The Battle of Algiers, which earned three Oscar nominations (for Best Foreign Language Film in 1967 and Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 1969), still has a torn-from-the-headlines urgency that makes it as potent as ever, and it looks better as well, having recently undergone a 4K restoration for its fiftieth anniversary. “The Hour of Liberation: Decolonizing Cinema, 1966-1981” runs May 24 - June 13 and includes such other political works as Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, Joaquim Pedro de Andrade’s Macunaíma, and Hai Ninh’s The Little Girl of Hanoi.