Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 24, 2004 10:57 am 
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Perhaps no other cinematic depiction of revolt against colonial rule is so detailed, vivid, and specific as the 1965 Battle of Algiers (La battaglia di Algeri, just reissued in a new print and having limited distribution in the US). What it's a detailed, vivid, and specific recreation of is the insurrection against the French in Algiers in the late Fifties that shows how the French systematically eradicated that insurrection. It's also a story repeated with variations in dozens of parts of the globe now, as then. But as I'm not the first to note, it's neither a partisan tract nor a user manual. It was therefore foolish of the Pentagon to watch it recently as if tips on how to control Iraqi `resistance'/'terrorism' were to be found in it, and it has been equally foolish of the Black Panthers or other revolutionaries to watch it seeking tactical information for their struggles. Those tactics did not succeed; but neither did the effort to quell the independence movement: the French won the battle but lost the war. A process that might have proceeded peacefully in a matter of months, takes years to happen. The film documents the sad foolishness of solving conflicts with violence, the maximum loss and suffering on both sides and the protraction of the inevitable outcome.

The insurrection The Battle of Algiers describes is effectively quelled through the leadership of the bold, methodical French Colonel Mathieu (who represents the real-life figure, General Massu), who as we see succeeds in eliminating the organizational structure of the resistance, `triangle' by `triangle', using torture to ferret out names and locations of the autonomous `terrorists'/'partisans,' then killing the `head' of the `worm' their structure represents so it can't `regenerate.' Once this happens, after a merciless French campaign following a general strike, the sympathizers in the majority Algerian population are totally demoralized; but two years later a vigorous national independence movement `suddenly,' `spontaneously,' springs forth, and not long afterward France has to grant Algerian independence. It's at this point, rather than at the moment of Mathieu's momentary triumph, that the film ends.

Gillo Pontecorvo undertook his masterpiece after prodding from the resistance leader, Saadi Yacef, but he made a film equally sympathetic toward and critical of both sides. We see as much of the French dissection of the situation and repression of it (by the police chief, then Colonel Mathieu) as we see of the `terrorists'/'partisans' planning and execution of their actions. We see Colonel Mathieu as an appealing macho hero with occasional displays of noble fair play. He's a shades-wearing, cigarette puffing veteran who moves around with clarity, honesty, and panache; he himself has a `partisan' background. The `terrorist'/'rebel' leaders are serious, intensely committed men of various types, ranging from the sophisticated intellectual to the illiterate young firebrand. There are no `heroes' here; or, alternately, if you like, they're all `heroes.'

Mathieu appears before the press beside the captured `rebel'/'terrorist' leader – an unusual move in itself – and expresses his respect for the man's courage and conviction. The `rebel' leader in this scene is eloquent in defending `terrorist'/'rebellion' methods such as the use of baskets filled with explosives in public places. `Give us your bombs and we'll give you our baskets.' Mathieu for his part effectively explains to the journalists the necessity of torture to short circuit the `rebellion'/'terrorism'. After this explanation, the film, typically systematic at this point, begins showing a series of tortures of Algerians being carried out.

The first image we see in the film is the shattered face and body of the small, tortured Algerian man who's broken down and revealed where Ali `La Pointe,' the firebrand, the last remaining leader, is hiding. Then we see the `terrorist'/'rebel' leader Ali and his closest supporters trapped like deer in their hideaway, their faces soft and beautiful. The splendid black and white photography works like William Klein's Fifties and Sixties images (he's one of the key visual commentators of that period stylistically) to powerfully capture the edgy soulfulness of the North African people and their gritty Casbah milieu. Much of the film's power comes from the way Pontecorvo was able to work, through Saadi Yacef, directly in the Casbah among the real people – as Fernando Meirelles worked in the favelas of Brazil recently with local boys to forge the astonishing City of God.

The voices, which are dubbed, as was the fixed Italian filmmaking style, work somewhat less effectively because of obvious disconnects between mouth and sound at times, but the French is so analytical and the Algerians' Arabic so exotic-sounding (even to a student of Arabic) that they work, and the insistent, exciting music composed by Pontecorvo himself in collaboration with Ennio Morricone is a powerful element in the film's relentless forward movement.

The fast rhythms of the editing are balanced by the stunning authenticity of the hundreds of Algerian extras who swarm across the screen: it's in the crowd scenes that The Battle of Algiers really sings. There are many superb sequences of street fighting, of people massing at checkpoints, of the French victims innocently assembled in public places; and as an exhilarating coda there is the scene of joyous victory as Algerians celebrate their independence in the last blurry moments. This is a film (again, like City of God) of almost intoxicating -- and nauseating -- violence, complexity, and fervor. Pontecorvo's accomplishment, though, is the way through showing the leaders analyzing and debating the action he freezes any impulse toward partisanship in its tracks. The evenhandedness of the coverage works a Brechtian `Alienation Effect' so you aren't intoxicated; you don't, finally, get caught up in rooting for one side or the other.

The sequence of three pretty Algerian women carrying out an operation is a particularly memorable one -- but only one among many. First they take off their burqas and cut their hair and doll themselves up French style and then they get past the checkpoint into the French quarter to leave handbags full of explosives in a bar, a dance club, and an airport lounge. Again close-ups of faces in the bar and the jive dancers with jaunty jabbing elbows in the club show a brilliant use of image and classic editing: first the innocent, vulnerable faces, then the explosions. Here our sympathies for the French victims are fully awakened. Another sequence of Algerians removing bodies from a building has all the power and sadness of Christ's Passion.

There's no point where as in a conventional thriller we feel excitement and sympathy for the perpetrator, because we see the cruelty of the perpetrator and the humanity of the victim every time. The Battle of Algiers is a final triumphant use of Italian cinematic neorealismo. The killing is observed neutrally, but with sadness, as part of a stupid game caused by ignorance and played out compulsively when a political settlement would have been infinitely better – a stupid game observed with astonishing zest.

Revived thirty-five years later in a new 35-mm. print, its grainy beauty pristinely vivid, The Battle of Algiers remains a superbly made machine that plays out the addictive game of `terrorism,' repression, torture, revolt, and full-fledged insurrection as effectively now as when it was first issued. Like any classic, it's of its time and of all time. There's a lesson here, but it's not for partisans or colonialists: it's for all people.

Chris Knipp


January 4, 2004, Sunday
Lessons of the Pentagon's Favorite Training Film
By Stuart Klawans

There are no bad reasons for watching ''The Battle of Algiers'' -- the legendary epic about terrorism and counterterrorism in colonial Algeria by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo and the screenwriter Franco Solinas -- but some may be worse than others.

Among the most obvious of good reasons: a fresh print is going into theaters on Friday, opening at Film Forum in New York and at art houses in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington. Some viewers might seek out the film just for Marcello Gatti's cinematography, which has been restored to the newsreel-like immediacy that first startled viewers in 1966. But when a rerelease combines great artistic power with lasting political interest, celluloid junkies are not the only ones who ought to be excited. Architects could spend a happy two hours concentrating on ''The Battle of Algiers'' just for the winding staircases, inner courtyards and rooftop lookouts of the Casbah, the city's old Muslim section, where the events that Mr. Pontecorvo dramatized had actually taken place. Musicians could be content to take in the insistent, percussive score by Ennio Morricone and Mr. Pontecorvo, which is legendary in its own right.

Military strategists and revolutionaries, on the other hand, may have flimsier reasons for watching the film. The Black Panthers studied it in the late 60's as a textbook of urban warfare, even though it's more of a how-not-to manual. The movie does conclude with the Algerians' successful uprising against French rule in 1962, shown through one of the grandest crowd scenes ever devised, but ''The Battle of Algiers'' is mostly concerned with revolutionary defeat.

It recreates the events of 1954-7, when the French military systematically crushed a terror campaign and general strike organized by the F.L.N., the National Liberation Front. The Panthers were mistaken in their enthusiasm; and I think that Pentagon planners may have been misguided in their own way this summer when they organized a special screening to encourage fresh thinking about Iraq.

''How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas,'' read the flier for the event. ''Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?''

Apart from noting the inaccuracies that can bedevil any synopsis -- in the film, children shoot policemen point-blank, not soldiers, and the Arab population builds to a state of sullen withdrawal -- I think the flier was too coy in implying that ''The Battle of Algiers'' could illuminate today's Baghdad. In fact, I'm not even sure the film works as a guide to contemporary Algiers. Its lessons ought to be applied to other situations cautiously, precisely because of the film's principal strength: its deep roots in a specific time and place.

Mr. Pontecorvo and Solinas visited Algeria shortly before independence, to plan a movie dramatizing the war through the eyes of a French paratrooper. That project fell through; but in 1964 Mr. Pontecorvo received an unexpected visit from the F.L.N.'s former military chief in Algiers, Saadi Yacef, who had come to Italy to recruit a filmmaker. Mr. Yacef had some money -- half from private sources, half from the new Algerian government -- and a script that Mr. Pontecorvo later described as ''awful, and with a sickeningly propagandistic intention.'' But Mr. Yacef also had something more: the power to grant access to Algiers. Mr. Pontecorvo offered to go back there with Solinas to write a new script, and to do it on spec.

Six months later, after extensive interviews in Algiers, similar fact-finding in Paris and many hours of digging through documents, Mr. Pontecorvo and Solinas were ready to begin writing. Their script was not at all the triumphalist pageant that Mr. Yacef had expected. But when Mr. Pontecorvo agreed to let Mr. Yacef appear in the film -- essentially playing himself as a leader of the insurrection -- and raised more than half the budget on his own, ''The Battle of Algiers'' went into production.

Even today it's easy to see why the results outraged French officials (who banned the film until 1971) and astonished everyone else. No other fiction filmmaker had so accurately replayed a recent, world-shaking conflict. No one else had pursued the truth by creating a big film with so few trained performers (138 people picked off the streets, augmented by a single professional actor). And apart from Orson Welles, no one before had so imaginatively imitated the look of a newsreel, although Welles had pulled the trick only for the ''March of Time'' segment of ''Citizen Kane,'' whereas Mr. Pontecorvo kept up his illusion for 123 minutes. The term docudrama was not yet in wide use, and already Mr. Pontecorvo's film overshadowed the nascent genre, as the ''St. Matthew Passion'' towers over an advertising jingle.

Not that any of this would interest moviegoers at the Pentagon. Their sudden fascination with ''The Battle of Algiers'' has to do with Mr. Pontecorvo's acute analysis of terrorism and counterterrorism, which he presented almost like a demonstration of Newtonian physics. Action: the F.L.N. (a small and ragtag organization, working without popular support) carries out terror attacks against fellow Arabs and the French police. Reaction: the police blow up a house. Counter-reaction: people from the Casbah support the F.L.N. in increasing numbers and carry out even more horrifying attacks.

The French, in turn, escalate hostilities; they send in paratroopers, whose leader, Colonel Mathieu, destroys the entire F.L.N. network by means of torture and extra-judicial killings. That apparently is the end of the chain reaction -- except that the French have now outraged the whole Arab population. In the movie's coda, set after a long period of apparent quiescence, the Casbah suddenly rises up again as one.

I won't try to guess what use the Pentagon might make of this scenario. As a movie critic, though, I would advise the planners to heed one of the movie's main lessons, which is that film is unreliable. That's the point of a crucial scene in which Mathieu (the actor Jean Martin) reviews surveillance film from checkpoints around the Casbah. The cameras, trained on a crowd, have filmed the perpetrators of a particularly gruesome series of attacks, but Mathieu has no way to pick the murderers out of the passing faces.

The essence of the situation remains invisible to the cameras, just as the final revolt in ''The Battle of Algiers'' is invisible until it bursts forth. If the notably clear-headed Mathieu is so blind, despite 130 years of French presence in Algeria (another theme of the film), then I wonder whether American forces can learn much about their new field of operations in Iraq by watching a two-hour movie.

Even the maker of ''The Battle of Algiers'' turned out to be partially blind. Although Mr. Pontecorvo strove to be fair to the French, he clearly believed the F.L.N.'s struggle was part of a happy shock wave of liberations around the world. Instead it spawned an authoritarian regime in Algeria that today suppresses both the large Berber population and a popular Islamist movement.

But Mr. Pontecorvo was too smart to include any hints about the future in ''The Battle of Algiers.'' He confined the film to events in the past, which he made riveting for audiences in 1966. They ought to be riveting enough today. ''The Battle of Algiers'' remains a great movie, which is the best reason to watch it.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company ... 94DC404482 ... 94DC404482


September 7, 2003, Sunday
What Does the Pentagon See in 'Battle of Algiers'?
by Michael Kaufman

Challenged by terrorist tactics and guerrilla warfare in Iraq, the Pentagon recently held a screening of "The Battle of Algiers," the film that in the late 1960's was required viewing and something of a teaching tool for radicalized Americans and revolutionary wannabes opposing the Vietnam War.

Back in those days the young audiences that often sat through several showings of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 re-enactment of the urban struggle between French troops and Algerian nationalists, shared the director's sympathies for the guerrillas of the F.L.N., Algeria's National Liberation Front. Those viewers identified with and even cheered for Ali La Pointe, the streetwise operator who drew on his underworld connections to organize a network of terrorist cells and entrenched it within the Casbah, the city's old Muslim section. In the same way they would hiss Colonel Mathieu, the character based on Jacques Massu, the actual commander of the French forces.

The Pentagon's showing drew a more professionally detached audience of about 40 officers and civilian experts who were urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film — the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq. Or more specifically, the advantages and costs of resorting to torture and intimidation in seeking vital human intelligence about enemy plans.

As the flier inviting guests to the Pentagon screening declared: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

The idea came from the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, which a Defense Department official described as a civilian-led group with "responsibility for thinking aggressively and creatively" on issues of guerrilla war. The official said, "Showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French." He added that the discussion was lively and that more showings would probably be held.

No details of the discussion were provided but if the talk was confined to the action of the film it would have focused only on the battle for the city, which ended in 1957 in apparent triumph for the French with the killing of La Pointe and the destruction of the network. But insurrection continued throughout Algeria, and though the French won the Battle of Algiers, they lost the war for Algeria, ultimately withdrawing from a newly independent country ruled by the F.L.N. in 1962.

During the last four decades the events re-enacted in the film and the wider war in Algeria have been cited as an effective use of the tactics of a "people's war," where fighters emerge from seemingly ordinary lives to mount attacks and then retreat to the cover of their everyday identities. The question of how conventional armies can contend with such tactics and subdue their enemies seems as pressing today in Iraq as it did in Algiers in 1957. In both instances the need for on-the-ground intelligence is required to learn of impending attacks. Even in a world of electronic devices, human infiltration and interrogations remain indispensable, but how far should modern states go in the pursuit of such information?
Mr. Pontecorvo, who was a member of the Italian Communist Party, obviously felt the French had gone much too far by adopting policies of torture, brutal intimidation and outright killings. Though their use of force led to the triumph over La Pointe, it also provoked political scandals in France, discredited the French Army and traumatized French political life for decades, while inspiring support for the nationalists among Algerians and in much of the world. It was this tactical tradeoff that lies at the heart of the film and presumably makes it relevant for Pentagon study and discussion.
But this issue of how much force should be used by highly organized states as they confront the terror of less sophisticated enemies is far from simple. For example, what happens when a country with a long commitment to the Geneva Convention has allies who operate without such restriction.

Consider the ambivalent views over the years of General Massu, the principal model for the film's Colonel Mathieu.
In 1971, General Massu wrote a book challenging "The Battle of Algiers," and the film was banned in France for many years. In his book General Massu, who had been considered by soldiers the personification of military tradition, defended torture as "a cruel necessity." He wrote: "I am not afraid of the word torture, but I think in the majority of cases, the French military men obliged to use it to vanquish terrorism were, fortunately, choir boys compared to the use to which it was put by the rebels. The latter's extreme savagery led us to some ferocity, it is certain, but we remained within the law of eye for eye, tooth for tooth."
In 2000, his former second in command, Gen. Paul Aussaresses, acknowledged, showing neither doubts nor remorse, that thousands of Algerians "were made to disappear," that suicides were faked and that he had taken part himself in the execution of 25 men. General Aussaresses said "everybody" knew that such things had been authorized in Paris and he added that his only real regret was that some of those tortured died before they revealed anything useful.

As for General Massu, in 2001 he told interviewers from Le Monde, "Torture is not indispensable in time of war, we could have gotten along without it very well." Asked whether he thought France should officially admit its policies of torture in Algeria and condemn them, he replied: "I think that would be a good thing. Morally torture is something ugly."

At the moment it is hard to specify exactly how the Algerian experience and the burden of the film apply to the situation in Iraq, but as the flier for the Pentagon showing suggested, the conditions that the French faced in Algeria are similar to those the United States is finding in Iraq.
According to Thomas Powers, the author of "Intelligence Wars: American Secret History From Hitler to Al Qaeda": "What's called a low-intensity war in Iraq brings terrible frustrations and temptations — the frustrating difficulty of finding and fixing an enemy who could be anyone anywhere, and the temptation to resort to torture to extract the kind of detailed information from prisoners or suspects needed to strike effectively. How the United States is dealing with this temptation is one of the unknowns of the war. We are told that outright torture is forbidden, and we hope it is true. But as low-intensity wars drag on, soldiers tell themselves, `We're trying to save lives, no one will ever know, this guy can tell us where the bastards are.'"
If indeed the government is currently analyzing or even weighing the tactical choices reflected in "The Battle of Algiers," presumably that is being done at a higher level of secrecy than an open discussion following a screening of the Pontecorvo film. Still, by showing the movie within the Pentagon and by announcing that publicly, somebody seems to be raising issues that have remained obscure throughout the war against terror.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company



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