Battle of Algiers

I went last night with some friends to see Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film Battle of Algiers. It is considered to be one of the defining moments of political cinema of the 20th century and certainly a very subtle examination of the duality of the Algerian struggle in that crucial year of 1957. I stringly advise that you see it because it has so many parallels with both the war in the six counties in this country and the US/K invasion and subsequent colonisation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

One thing in particular struck me about the portrayal of the motivations of both the French Colonel Mathieu and Jaffar’s FLN movement: the good Colonel states at one point that it does not matter to him who does what to whom, as long as he can win. As a soldier he must win at all costs. He is an instrument of a state and more to the point, an instrument of the French state. Jaffar and compatriots, in attempting to bring about the destruction of French colonial rule, must also win at all costs. He doesn’t care that the whole house that he is hiding out in might be blown up by the French paratroopers. He must also win.

In both cases, the means justify the ends. For the French army it was about the submission of a population through political, actual and symbolic violence. For the FLN it was their aim to rid their country of a colonial power through violence and mayhem. Both are trapped in a cycle of violence which appears to be not of their making. This is referred to by the French para commander and hinted at by Jaffar and Ali la Pointe in the course of the film.

A more morally ambivalent examination of political violence you will not find on screen. In the sequence that makes the film, three local women cut their hair and refashion themselves to take on the appearance of ‘normal’, sexualised French women to get past the checkpoints at the edge of the Casbah. We see them cutting their hair and donning new clothes. We see each of them in turn getting through the checkpoints. We see the fear on their faces as they approach their respective targets – two busy cafes and an Air France office. One of them in particular struck me as poignant: she sits in a cafe with dozens of others, casually sipping Coke, knowing what time to leave the cafe without the basket in which she carries that bomb and she looks around her: a baby licking ice cream sits in the corner, a really close up shot that makes you uncomfortable, knowing what is about to happen. I am asking myself during this sequence, would I do that?

OK, enough already:

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