Saturday, December 6, 2008

Movie Review: Battle of Algiers

Successful independence movements invariably involve great turmoil, desperation, individual courage and sacrifice , carnage and even ruthlessness. The Algerian War of Independence which lasted over a period of about 8 years was one of the more violent and bloody efforts that resulted in collapse of the French rule in the country. Occurring nearly a decade after the Second World War, the battle was raged when public attitudes and the political landscape made it difficult for open repression and dominance by colonial powers. Nonetheless, as clearly shown in this incredibly powerful film The Battle of Algiers , the war was savage and brutal. It also manages to capture the spirit of the struggle, the opposing viewpoints,an element of reasonableness amongst key players on both sides involved in the conflict and a collective human drama that unfolds as naturally as it is disturbing.

Released in 1965, only 3 years after freedom was declared for Algeria, this movie does a splendid job of recreating the atmosphere of discontent, violence and a growing sense of nationalism. An Italian production featuring one of the members of the FLN (National Liberation Front) playing a similar role, the film was banned in France for portraying the French policy and tactics in a less than noble way. This fact should not surprise anyone after watching the film. Remarkably even-handed as it is, it does not flinch one bit from chronicling the atrocities committed by both sides.

Shot in black-and-white in a way resembling a documentary, Battle of Algiers is a hyper-realistic, stark and unforgettable experience. The images of the ramshackle buildings,the narrow alleys, the rampant poverty and the street urchins that populate the screen are stunningly real. So is the determination on the faces of women as they plant deadly bombs in areas not far from small children.

The opening scene sets the tone for what it to come. An intensely frail, emaciated man with sunken cheekbones, is sitting on a chair baring his scarred chest in a room, as a few uniformed men surrounding him express regret that he had not "talked" earlier. He is helped to his feet, after the commanding officer enters the room, and as he struggles to maintain his ground, he is asked to put on the military uniform so that he is not easily identified. As he is about to be taken with the troops, he makes one last desperate but utterly hopeless effort to run away screaming "Nooooooo" but it takes only a few beatings and some threatening words to convince him to co-operate- in informing the French about the hideout of Ali-La-Ponte one of the leaders of FLN.
The FLN, as Lt. Colonel Matthieu explains to his soldiers, is like a tapeworm. Unless you destroy the head, it is always going to be regenerating its body and creating further problems. Col. Mathieu is given charge of combating the rising insurgency in Algeria and maintaining the French rule in the country. He understands that FLN is the greatest threat to French control, and wants his men to get rid of the organization altogether. He describes the protocol observed by outlaws when recruiting new members, and the complications that it entails for the French forces. While not explicitly stating it, he does indicate what is required of an "interrogation" to extract information from prisoners. The torture scenes are painful to watch but no one would question its honest inclusion in the film. Yes, the hideous establishments of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Grahib come to mind just as so many events in this war uncannily resonates with contemporary political scenarios. It raises questions about the justification of terrorism by the weaker side. Is killing of innocent civilians acceptable if that happens to be the only mode of effective attack available for people fighting against oppression? However one has to be careful about interpreting Battle Of Algiers too- it was war to end colonial rule and as such drawing close parallels to other conflict zones may be improper.

Battle Of Algiers does not follow all the events in the war and focuses on the uprising in Algiers. While it depicts the violent activities of the FLN and French attempt to implement counter-insurgency methods to thwart them, there are some lead characters through whom some of the story is developed to provide a personal element to the narration. Many of these are either real individuals taking part in the struggle or are based on other real characters. Ali-La-Ponte is one of them, a disgruntled, illiterate , juvenile offender, he develops a violent dislike for French authority in Algeria and joins the ranks of FLN. Young and impulsive, he does not hesitate in slaying cops or Algerians he considers as traitors. His fiery personality takes takes him higher-up in the organization and he leads the way in staging public protests and carrying out lethal attacks.
The head of the FLN is El-Hadi Jafar, a character that is based on Saadi Yacef and played by himself. Jafar appears more controlled and thoughtful but he is just as radical not only in retaliation and destabilizing the French control, but also in his intolerance for his people who are victims of common weaknesses -alcohol, drugs, prostitution. While we sympathize with the Algerians for their battle against an external presence we cannot ignore the draconian impositions they enforce on society.

Ali-La-Ponte and others initially assault cops and others directly involved in nation's administration and law-enforcement, but after a bomb attack by an extremist French reporter that leaves several people dead, including children (I cannot over-emphasize how some of those images are disturbingly real), they increasingly target civilian French population.
The FLN runs a nationalistic propaganda to convince more people to enter the organization and support their goals. Their efforts to create discontent amongst Algerians is as important as their involvement in destabilizing French control through attacks. Another brilliant stroke of Battle Of Algiers is portrayal of the striking contrast between the poor living conditions of the Algerians, their slovenly attire and the swanky coffee-houses and bars frequented by the French. There is area in the city referred to as "European Quarters" where native Muslims are not permitted to move freely and I assume this was a common fixture in all European colonies. And yet that place is infiltrated by dangerous Muslim women - an entry facilitated by their change in attire more resembling the French . These women had resolved to carry out horrifying attacks and follow through they do with definite anxiety but little or no guilt (if only Hollywood was bold or honest enough to show simple truths like this, we would not be so shocked).

When random attacks increase and create considerable problem for the authorities, the French decide to bring in a military battalion to suppress the revolt. Leading the way is Mathieu, another character based on several French officers,- a suave, charismatic leader who draws enormous admiration and respect for his sense of balance and understanding, even though he does not countenance Algerian uprising and authorizes torture to capture the leaders of FLN. His charm, wit ,elegance and control can never be missed even when as he tackles tough questions from left-wing French media. Far removed from a monster caricature, he is simply a faithful soldier who does what is necessary to impose rule of law and protect French citizens. That does not stop him from publicly expressing admiration for some of the captured extremists, their courage and their principles. Some of his remarks, along with those of Ben M'hidi (the ideological voice of FLN) represent the simple but extremely profound truths about the nature of the confrontation and its ultimate objectives. These truths are simply laid out bare in the film, without any pontification or melodrama. Musical score is rare, but it is used to great effect in some of the dramatic moments like troops storming buildings or while depicting large-scale protests.

In the end, the military cracks down on most of FLN operatives but a few, including its leaders, are still at bay. One by one, they are brought down but not before the face-off results in maximum carnage. On their part, the French rank-and-file display racial and cultural arrogance in their sheer contempt for Algerian natives, often denigrating them as "Dirty Arabs". The Algerian fighters, on the other hand, are so disenchanted with the French that they relentlessly inflict as much damage as possible without any sign of remorse. The FLN is finally destroyed, when the remaining leader Ali-La-Ponte along three others hiding behind a wall are blown to bits after they refuse to surrender for a fair trial.

The FLN in Algiers may have been successfully suppressed and things seemed to be under control for a while but disquietude was most certainly going to grow one way or the other. In the last ten minutes or so, we are taken through a quick roundup of what happened in the following years. The limited random insurgency eventually gives way to massive widespread demonstrations, a collective desire for freedom and a national awakening to the possibility of complete independence. With only a small force battling against a large population, the situation becomes untenable for the French and they eventually concede.

(Algeria gained its independence in 1962 after a plebiscite organized by DeGaulle resulted in an overwhelming support for independence)

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