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One of the most influential cinéma vérité movies in history, Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’ (1966) rawly portrays the Algerian nationalist battle for independence (1954-1962). The Italo-Algerian movie starts in 1957 with a terrified FLN recruit surrendering to the torture of French paratroopers and revealing La Pointe’s hideout. Flashbacking to 1954, it paints the escalating tension between the French and the National Liberation Front – which was settling control over the Casbah through restrictive bans to boycott French bureaucracy. Children cold-bloodedly shoot at policemen, women hide guns under their veils, the French make use of the most brutal types of torture: this docufilm has become benchmark for this new warfare –‘Café War’.
As the French army in the city attempts to destroy the FLN led by Saadi (playing himself, whose memoirs were a crucial reference), guerilla targets soldiers and civilians on both sides – ‘pieds-noirs’ and Algerians: even though Col.Mathieu, commander of paratroopers, embodiment of the French paradox as oppressed-oppressor, dismantles the tapeworm-like avantgarde, two years later “for no particular reason” the uprising restarted: in 1962 the Algerians obtained their freedom.
In continuous alternation, innocent civilians die tortured on both sides “in the name of true virtue”: bombs do not choose their victims, yet Morricone’s sorrowful score, as survivors crawl around a shattered terrorist home, shows sympathy for the rebels. The leadership is portrayed in objective perspective: Mathieu logically analyses the enemy reassuring citizens in a triumphalist parade. La Pointe demonstrates loyalty to the FLN by shooting a policeman – a stooge would not have shot. In this analytically chilling approach, war tactics become lucid and dehumanized: women and children bypass French checkpoints with shopping-bags carrying bombs in crowded cafes. “Is France to remain in Algeria?” a French colonel asks: not only pieds-noirs were powerful voters as the geographic proximity made Algeria de facto French mainland. France’s fragile postwar position (Indo-China, Suez failures) and the rising nationalistic sentiment made France willing to “accept all necessary consequences.” Throughout the scenes, torturing enemies has no emotional attachment or humanizing consideration: blowtorching suspects’ bodies or cranking the voltage on their electrodes becomes mere military strategy.
“Terrorism is useful as a start, then the people must act” is said to La Pointe. This is crucial as the FLN starts an 8-day long general strike mobilizing the population to impact the international community and the ‘far-away’ UN: the end has to justify the means, and the avantgarde becomes a war of the Algerians with everybody on the front line. At the same time, strong military tactics cannot bring lasting stability without steady political strategies: the usage of torture decreased popular support for the French who lost a big diplomatic battle with the Algerians. Following the Leninist approach, this urban revolution involves every population strata while class differences nourish potential social danger – “resistance fighters always have their papers in order.” Public opinion and media coverage (“you have only to write, and well”), collective memory and national conscience become crucial. With its replicated historical authenticity, this docufilm became objective testimony and recognition of the fight for a newly-independent, politically inhomogeneous Algeria: in choral approach “one sole hero, the people.”
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