I just saw a remarkable film The Battle of Algiers. Made in black and white (French with English subtitles) in 1966 by the Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, the story is about the Algerian struggle for independence and the battle between the rebels and the French colonial powers in the capital city of Algiers in the period 1954-1960.
In order to deal with the increasing violence during this period, the French government sends in elite paratroopers led by Colonel Mathieu. Mathieu sets about ruthlessly identifying the structure of the insurgent network, capturing and torturing members to get information on others, and killing and blowing up buildings in his pursuit of the rebels even if it contains civilians. And yet, he is not portrayed as a monster. In one great scene where he is giving a press conference, he is asked about his methods of getting information and the allegations of torture. He replies quite frankly that the French people must decide if they want to stay in Algeria or leave, and if they want to halt the violence against them or let it continue. He says that if they want to stay and stop the violence, then they must be prepared to live with the consequences of how that is achieved. It is the French people’s choice.
One gets the sense that Mathieu does not torture and kill suspects because he enjoys it. He is simply an amoral man, who has been given a job to do and he will get it done using whatever means he deems necessary. This is the kind of military person that political leaders want. They don’t want people who worry about the niceties of human rights and human dignity. But when you train people to deny their normal human feelings, then you get the kind of people who carry out the tortures described in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and who are even surprised when there is an outcry that what they did was wrong.
And Mathieu does succeed in his task, at least in the short run. By his ruthless methods he destroys the rebel network. But all that this buys is some time. After a lull in the violence for a couple of years, a sudden eruption of mass protests results in Algeria becoming independent in 1962. The French win the battle of Algiers but lose the war of independence.
The film gives a remarkably balanced look at the battle, avoiding the temptation to fall into easy clichés about good and evil. It shows the FLN (National Liberation Front) using women and children to carry out its bombing campaign against French civilians living in the French areas of the city. In one memorable sequence, three young Muslim women remove their veils, cut their hair, put on makeup, and dress like French women to enable them to carry bombs in their bags and pass through military checkpoints that surround the Muslim sector of the city (the Casbah). They place those bombs in a dance hall, coffee shop and Air France office, bombs that explode with deadly effect killing scores of civilians who just happen to be there.
In one scene:
Pontecorvo deals with the issue of the killing of innocents by an army vs. such killing by an irregular force. During a press conference, a reporter asks a captured official of the FLN: “Isn’t it a dirty thing to use women’s baskets to carry bombs to kill innocent people?” To which the official answers, “And you? Doesn’t it seem even dirtier to you to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages with thousands of innocent victims? It would be a lot easier for us if we had planes. Give us your bombers, and we’ll give you our baskets.”
The parallels of Algeria and Iraq are striking, so much so that it is reported that the US policy makers and military viewed this film with a view to hoping to learn how to combat the Iraq insurgency.
As in Iraq, the rebels are Muslims and the objections they have to being ruled by non-Muslims plays an important role in their motivation to revolt. The French had just humiliatingly lost in Vietnam in 1954 and their military was anxious to rehabilitate their reputations by winning elsewhere. In other words, they had their own ‘Vietnam syndrome’ to deal with, just like the US.
In the film, you see how the ability of the insurgents to blend in with the urban population enables them to move around and carry out attacks on the French police and citizenry, with women and children playing important roles. We see how the privileged and western lifestyle of the French people in Algeria makes them easy targets for attacks. We see how the attacks on French people and soldiers in Algeria causes great fury amongst the French citizenry, causing them to condone the torture and killing and other brutal methods of the French troops.
One major difference between the French involvement in Algeria and US involvement is Iraq is that Algeria had been occupied by the French for 130 years, since 1830. They had been there for so long that they considered it part of France and refused to consider the possibility of independence. The long occupation also resulted in a significant number of French people living in the city of Algiers, thus making them vulnerable targets. In Iraq, there are very few US civilians and almost all of them are in the heavily fortified so-called ‘green zone.’
The film takes a balanced look at what an urban guerilla war looks like and those who wish to see what might be currently happening in cities like Ramadi and Falluja and Baghdad can get a good idea by seeing this film. The scenes of mass protest by huge crowds of Algerians and their suppression by the occupying French forces are so realistic that the filmmakers put a disclaimer at the beginning stating that no documentary or newsreel footage had been used. And amazingly, this realism was achieved with all novice actors, people who were selected off the streets of Algiers. Only the French Colonel Mathieu was played by a professional actor, but you would not believe it from just seeing the film since the actors give such natural and polished performances, surely a sign of a great director.
For a good analysis of the film and background on its director, see here. The film is available at the Kelvin Smith Library.
POST SCRIPT: Documentary about Rajini Rajasingham-Thiranagama
Today at 10:00 pm WVIZ Channel 25 in Cleveland is showing No More Tears Sister. I wrote about this documentary earlier.