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“We are after all a white European people, with Greek and Latin culture and Christian religion … Have you seen the Muslims with their turbans and jellabas? The Arabs are Arab and the French are French. Do you think that French society could absorb 10 million Muslims who will soon be 20 million? My village would no longer be called Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises [Colombey-two-churches] but Colombey-les-Deux-Mosquees! [Colombey-two-mosques]

-Charles de Gaulle

So said the great French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle, reflecting his wisdom and prejudice as to why France could never completely integrate with Algeria, and why the latter had to be given its own freedom and independence. De Gaulle had been called upon to lead France at the height of the Algerian crisis, ending his years in the wilderness and propelling him into the middle of arguably the greatest anti-colonial struggle the African continent witnessed in the 20th century.

De Gaulle knew, better than most people, what a resistance to foreign occupation was all about. He was after all the most prominent figure of the French resistance to the German occupation of France during World War II. He knew that the Algerians would fight to the bitter end to gain their freedom and throw off the French colonial yolk that had ruled them for 130 years. He also knew that it was inevitable that France and Algeria would have to go their separate ways. Parting may have been sweet sorrow for a number of French nationalists, but for de Gaulle it was a forgone conclusion. A question of when rather than if, Algeria would be free.

Algeria had been a French colony since 1830 and was regarded as different from other French ‘possessions’ in their empire. One major difference was that unlike other colonies, Algeria had been administered as a part of France itself. Another difference was that there were over one million European settlers in Algeria, compared to nine million indigenous Arab Muslims.

Algérie Française (French Algeria) was what the Europeans and a number of Muslims fervently believed in. Algeria and France were one for them and total integration between the two was what was desired. Though, the European settlers were not too keen on the indigenous people being put on the same level as themselves. The Europeans were known as pieds noirs (black feet) because when they first came to the shores of Algeria, their black boots made them stand out from the locals, who were mostly barefoot. The pied noirs had lived in Algeria for generations and felt they had as much right to live there as the local Arabs.

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What made them and French nationalists even more adamant not to leave was the humiliation inflicted on France by the Vietminh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Having essentially been humiliated by the Germans during WWII and then losing in Indo-China, the French wanted to redeem themselves by showing to the world that they were tough and no pushovers. Algeria was the place to show what they were made of.

When a group calling itself the National Liberation Front (FLN) launched a series of attacks on the European settlers on November 1 1954, the French government sent in the army to crush the FLN. What followed was a bloody and brutal conflict that lasted for nearly eight years and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Torture, bombings, cold blooded killings and other horrific atrocities continued for years. It electrified other anti-colonialist struggles and shocked the world as well.

The Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo was one man who was fascinated by the Algerian freedom struggle. A staunch leftist and veteran of the anti-fascist struggle in Italy, Pontecorvo was also influenced by French Marxist Frantz Fanon, who was also a member of the FLN.

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Fanon’s book ‘The Wretched of the Earth’, focused on colonialism and its effects on the colonised. He justified the use violence as a means to gain freedom and made no apologies for it. Pontecorvo went one step further than Fanon, who only wrote about the use of violence in an anti-colonial struggle. He, on the other hand, would show it, all guns blazing and all bombs exploding.
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Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966) was one of the most controversial movies of the 1960’s and is also one of the greatest political films ever made. It was influenced by Italian neo-realism and revolutionising the way political-themed films were shown on a cinema screen. Its documentary-style film making or cinéma vérité (truthful cinema) was so shocking for its time that the makers of the movie had to put a placard stating that not a single stock of actual footage or newsreel was used in its production.

In a nutshell, the movie does not have a straightforward plot like most films. It’s simply a brutal representation of the Algerians struggle for freedom and the French colonialists fight to prevent that. On one side are the Algerian FLN rebels, such as El Hadi Jaffer and Ali la Pointe. On the French side is Colonel Mathieu, a tough and relentless veteran of a number of conflicts. Mathieu puts it very simply, if you believe France has a right to stay in Algeria, then you have to accept the consequences and methods to achieve that. Mathieu may at times be ruthless, but he does understand and to an extent sympathise with those he is fighting against.

Ali la Pointe on the other hand, feels no sympathy for his opponents. A small petty criminal who reinvents himself as an Algerian nationalist, he is the most zealous and at times the most frightening member of the resistance. His eyes are so full of rage and determination that you sometimes have to wonder whether the actor portraying him knows that he is working on a film.

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Pontecorvo used actual locations of the Algerian revolution during the principal photography of the film. He moved the camera around with lightening speed in the claustrophobic casbah’s of Algiers and showed every bombing, shootout and confrontation between the two sides as it happened.

The bomb explosions that are conducted in this film alone shock you by its brutal realism. The film is like a visual manual for urban guerrilla warfare and insurgencies, so much so that the Pentagon showed it to the top military brass when the United States faced its own insurgency during the conflict in Iraq.

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Almost immediately after its release, the film faced severe criticism, with some arguing that it justifies the use of terrorism and makes a shameless apology for it. France itself banned the movie for a number of years, probably not eager to open up wounds of the Algerian conflict. Pontecorvo clearly does sympathise with the Algerians and does not deny it. However to his credit, he does keep the film as balanced as possible, showing civilian casualties and atrocities committed by both sides. In the end, the futility of fighting a colonial war and its lack of any moral high ground for the colonizers is shown here lock stock and barrel. Fighting against a determined insurgency is sometimes like being King Canute sitting on the seashore commanding the tides to hold back.

‘The Battle of Algiers’ is cinema at its most electrifying. The performance of the cast (many of whom lived through and participated in the actual events) along with Ennio Morricone’s haunting theme music and the relentless pace of the film is astonishing. Pontecorvo’s film was as relevant back in the 1960s as it is now.

In some cases, the basic premise of fighting an insurgency is not the same, because in this day and age, not all insurgents have legitimate grievances. However, watch this film to see the extent to which insurgents and those that try to counter it will go to achieve their objectives.

 

View Dawn.com’s weekly classics archive here.

 


Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com and can be reached at rsayeed1984@gmail.com

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