What must surely be the best film (re)released in theatres this year has become what could also be the best single-title DVD package of the year, Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). The Criterion Collection doesn’t disappoint with its three discs of material and 55-page booklet to be released next Tuesday. I reviewed the film last January when it played on Los Angeles screens, so I’ll simply highlight the DVD extras that impressed me the most. In addition to the following four programs, the DVD includes a new 51-minute documentary on the making of the film, a collection of filmmakers (Spike Lee, Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, and Oliver Stone) praising the film, and “»tats d’armes,” a 28-minute excerpt from Patrick Rotman’s 2002 documentary, L’Ennemi intime.
Overall, the extras provide a multi-faceted look at the film’s artistic and historical significance, and while I could have done with fewer clips from Pontecorvo’s film in each and every segment, the material helps to illuminate what many have described as one of the most important political films ever made. The film’s subject matter–the French occupation of Algeria and the violent insurrection it spawned–has many clear parallels to current events, and while the DVD extras aren’t quite as directly provocative as I might have hoped in this regard, there’s certainly more than enough grist for the mill. For the most part, Criterion have obviously decided to provide commentaries on terrorism, occupation, violence and freedom and allow viewers to draw their own conclusions.
The first extra I’d like to mention is Gillo Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992), a thoughtful and surprisingly touching documentary presented by the late film critic Edward Said that recounts Pontecorvo’s biography juxtaposed with scenes from his filmography. From his years as a twenty-something leftist leader of the Italian Resistance against the Fascists to his career as a filmmaker (beginning with his assistance on films in the mid-’50s and his first major directorial success in ’59, KapÚ, to The Battle of Algiers and Burn! in the ’60s and his surprising inactivity of the ’80s and ’90s), the film paints a nuanced portrait of a committed and uncompromising, but insecure artist.
Several of Pontecorvo’s friends (composer Ennio Morricone, cinematographer Marcelllo Gatti, writer John Francis Lane) talk about his perfectionism and inertia, and all speak hopefully about the possibility of yet another Pontecorvo film. Lane succinctly puts it, “You’d have to ask his analyst to know why he feels insecure. I mean, a director who has made such a great film. I suppose it’s a burden.” One of the most eloquent interviewees is producer David Puttnam (The Killing Fields), who suggests that a primary reason for Pontecorvo’s inactivity could be his interest in making overtly political films in a contemporary, commercially-driven film market: “[It might be that] he feels that his particular type of voice doesn’t have a home in Europe; certainly not a home in the United States if it doesn’t have a home in Europe.”
“Yet at the end,” Said concludes, “I think his films leave us with a lot of questions. Questions like, Can empires be defeated? Is there a possibility for relationships between Western societies and non-Western societies that are not based on oppression and discrimination?” Indeed, those questions remain just as potent today.
In 1992, Pontecorvo worked as a correspondent for an Italian TV program and revisited Algiers during a time of intense political strife. The result is the 55-minute Return to Algiers. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch the 73-year-old filmmaker energetically investigating various areas of the city enmeshed in turmoil, engaging in arguments, offering empathy, and later presenting his findings to the country’s president, Mohamed Boudiaf. Boudiaf was a co-founder of the FLN who later became one of its foremost critics, spending three decades in exile before being militarily installed as president–he was unfortunately assassinated shortly after Pontecorvo’s visit.
Like much of the current political milieu in Iraq, early ’90s Algeria was on the brink of civil war as the one-party FLN rule for thirty years had suddenly dissolved, leaving an over-populated, highly unemployed country with significant social unrest as various political factions struggled for power. The initial vote in a series of popular elections–the first in the country–gave the winning hand to the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF), a fundamentalist political group, so the pro-democracy government canceled the second round of elections, claiming “Algerian democracy is too young” to choose for itself.
For himself, Pontecorvo’s recalls that his “trip down memory lane” began on a sad note: the prison where he had filmed a scene for The Battle of Algiers that depicted the execution of a political prisoner. Pontecorvo notes that after they had shot the scene, he turned around and noticed his entire Algerian crew was in tears. In 130 years, he says, the French had obviously taught the Algerians many things, “but what remains indelibly impressed upon the Algerians are memories of episodes like the [execution] scene [in the film]. The prison is in operation once again” with 5,200 political prisoners.
At first, Pontecorvo finds himself embroiled in several heated exchanges–in the Casbah, a man angrily demands he not film so close to a mosque and at a university, students vehemently oppose his Western camera by issuing a string of accusations: “We don’t need to air our dirty linen in public . . . We don’t need your camera or your advice. They came from the West to give us the usual distorted message. We’re adults. We can take care of our own problems. . . . Our Palestinian brothers are being killed every day but you don’t talk about them, you talk about Kuwait. When 100,000 Iraqi children were killed, no one talks about that. . . . When you turn on the TV all you see is Israelis being killed. Arab deaths don’t count, do they?”
On the Italian TV program, Pontecorvo’s interviewer makes a flippant remark about Islamic intolerance, and Pontecorvo beautifully responds:
“I want to explain something. I didn’t say there weren’t dramatic flare-ups of fanaticism. I said it was a dangerous mistake for the West to say or think, ‘Islam is genetically backward, genetically terrorist, genetically intolerant.’ This is completely false. Look at history. We talked about it earlier [in the program]. From a certain time on, above all with colonialism in the last century, such blows, such pain was inflicted on these people, that they still have open wounds. And every time this ever stronger, ever more powerful Western world presents itself as a united force, sometimes paternalistic and full of advice, sometimes brandishing arms, they can’t help it, and their reaction is uncontrollable, even frenzied. . . We can’t allow ourselves the luxury of such a contentious relationship with 500 million people.”
However, Pontecorvo’s relationship with the citizenry changes drastically in the documentary when the Algerians realize who he is, and recognize him as having made a truthful film about Algerian independence. Crowds gather around him, smile, and thank him for his cultural contributions, culminating in their invitation for Pontecorvo to film an Islamic funeral at a local cemetary. “I think we’re the only Westerners who’ve been allowed to do this,” Pontecorvo notes.
Remembering History (2004) is a very well-produced documentary by Criterion which offers hard facts, detailed maps, archival footage, and well-lit, candid interviews with participants and scholars detailing Algeria’s history with the French and the subsequent revolution. It’s a highly informative piece that could’ve easily been released as an independent feature documentary or broadcast on PBS.
Among the many facts it notes: the French occupation of Algeria actually began in 1830 under King Charles V, many pied-noirs (French colonists) were refugees of the Franco-Prussian war in the 1870s who emigrated to Algiers–France’s actual “pacification” of the country therefore took about 40 years. In addition, Algiers became an actual district of France, not simply a colony (as was Morocco and Tunisia) and was therefore much more difficult to abandon. However, a system similar to apartheid was erected, as Algerians were continually treated as second class citizens; elections were constantly rigged by the French to protect their interests.
Nevertheless, Algerians had fought and died for France during both world wars, so after victory in Europe, they began to demand their rights, particularly when the United Nations declared that all colonies should be granted self-determination and France began losing its other colonies (most notoriously in Vietnam). In 1945, a large French massacre of Algerian demonstrators ensured a renewed battle against them.
One of the intriguing aspects of the documentary is its interviews with ex-terrorists/freedom fighters who are now Algerian public officials. Djamila Bouhired, who as a young woman planted bombs in Algerian public spaces, defends her actions: “After 50 years of struggle during which we had accomplished nothing, it was time to find another way and that was armed resistance. We were forced into it.”
One of the film’s eloquent scholars, Alistair Horne, describes the revolution:
“They immediately convey to the Arab world, and the rest of the world, the meaning of their action, the purpose, the principle that they’re fighting for, the principle of self-determination. However, in practical terms on the ground a lot of actions launched by the FLN were, while good enough to get headlines, actually in military terms, failures. It’s ineffective in Western Algeria. It’s also ineffective in Eastern Algeria. It’s enough to impress the French police because it’s coordinated, but militarily speaking it’s a flop, it doesn’t have a big impact on public opinion. It is only when we see the FLN demonstrating their capacity to stay in business, to evade repression, to come back, to strike again and to strike harder–a capacity they only really demonstrated in 1955–that people really begin to think that this is a historic change in the situation in Algeria.”
Another scholar, Hugh Roberts, pinpoints some of the French ideological confusion in the way they conflated “communists” with “revolutionaries” stemming from their experience in Vietnam. “These people were not communists they were nationalists,” Roberts explains. “And this really impeded the French intelligence because they were fighting the wrong enemy.”
Roberts also addresses the strategic escalation of violence, a principal that should give current war hawks in the US Administration some pause in their fight “against” terrorism:
“There was a horrendous massacre in Philippeville where a large number of French families–men, women, and children–were massacred, their throats slit in a very brutal way by members of the FLN. Well, this was extremely effective for the FLN because it naturally produced a terrible backlash from the French settlers and from the French army and many innocent Algerians were caught up in what the French called a ‘rat hunt’ and were killed. That’s where you get an atrocity, a reprisal, and a reaction against the reprisal.”
Saadi Yacef, the FLN leader during the war and whose account of it inspired Pontecorvo’s film, amplifies, “With [the French] atrocities, their torturing and killing of citizens, it was easy for us to gain followers. It was a stroke of luck for us. If you kill someone, they have a brother and a cousin, and they would join the FLN. So during that period from ’56 to ’57, the FLN grew from having 50% of the population’s support to 95%.”
This principle of provoking a violent reaction in order to bolster one’s cause is also a central topic of The Battle of Algiers: A Case Study, which features a new interview by ABC’s Christopher Isham with former US counter-terrorism officials Richard Clarke and Michael Sheehan.
It’s nice to hear articulate, informed terrorism experts insightfully discussing the general precepts of terrorism without the usual dramatic overtones or politicized sound bites such information is usually packaged within. While Isham ensures that the participants shy away from direct critical analysis of the Bush Administration’s policies (for that, refer to the recent book by Clarke, who headed US counter-terrorism for Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, and Bush Jr.), their comments are incisive and to the point.
On the topic of the cycles of violence, Sheehan notes:
“I think some of the lessons of Algiers are quite well-known to modern insurgents that will use terrorism for just that, to provoke the response. To provoke the heavy-handed response that will hopefully in their eyes, although it’s very calloused, kill civilians and further legitimize their movement and further delegitimize those they are fighting against.”
And on the topic of the goals of a war against insurgents:
“The French had to figure out, what did they really want their relationship with Algeria to be? They couldn’t cling to this notion of empire, which certainly was not sustainable in the late-’50s and early-’60s. They had to come up with a new vision for what they wanted. And from there, your military, police, your economic strategies are subsets of that.”
When Isham addresses the issue of torture and asks is it’s ever necessary despite being illegal and immoral, Clarke responds:
“These conversations usually begin by someone saying, ‘If there’s a nuclear bomb about to go off in Washington DC, and if by torturing you I can prevent that, would I do it?’ And, everyone’s supposed to say ‘Yes.’ But that’s an academic question. It never happens that way. And I think once you begin to go down the path to ‘the Dark Side,’ it’s easy to justify lesser and lesser [standards], and the threshold drops. And eventually, you find precisely that you’ve lost the strategic standing that you want because word leaks out that you’re doing it and you’ve lost moral standing and you lose popular support.”
The interview is a strong ending to an exemplary DVD package. Not to be missed.