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This short commentary considers an extract from Pontecorvo’s 1966 The Battle of Algiers, a film which creates an account of the year long struggle between the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) and the French colonial powers for control of the French occupied and settled Algerian capital between 1956 and 1957. It is this battle which, ultimately, precipitated the Algerian independence of 1962.
Algeria had been a French colony since 1830 and by the time of the Battle of Algiers, all was not well in Algeria – the opposing tenets of Algeria nationalism were pitted against the principles of French colonialism and French opinions on Algeria were also divided at this time. Mitterand’s 1954 assertion that “L’Algerie c’est la France” and aspirations to view the Mediterranean not as a divide between countries but as “the Seine runs through Paris” were sentiments not shared by everyone in France.
The FLN had been established in Algeria by 1954 with the “objective […] to win a political victory. It was a single-minded strategy that recognized that favourable votes in the United Nations would matter even more than military success”. This led the FLN to pursue “unity at all costs, seeking tight surveillance and control over the behavior of its people”.
It is in this context that we meet the film’s (anti?)-hero Ali le Pointe, a guerrilla fighter for the FLN who later died aged 27 in a house exploded by the French military after his refusal to surrender at the end of the battle.
This extract opens with Ali le Pointe in conversation with Saari Nader. Here one of the key themes of the extract emerges – that of the moral corruption of the Algerians by the French settlers “there are still too many drunks, whores, junkies” “real enemy” and the need to “win them over or eliminate them”. This scene filmed in the half-light also sets the tone for how the FLN will be presented throughout the extract; the shadowy clandestine nature of their work is embodied through this filming style.
Ali le Pointe is presented as man with a job to do. He moves quickly and is given a powerful position in the frame – he is often in the centre of the shot, standing tall and given additional gravitas by the cape he wears. As he moves through the Casbah we gain an understanding of the respect he commands – he is known by everyone he speaks to and there is no need for him to use his name – “tell him I’m looking for him” is enough. Ali le Pointe embodies the stated aims of the FLN and the ambition to clean up the Casbah – he glances at sex workers in the narrow streets with disgust, he takes on a vigilante role when he encounters a contact smoking drugs and he shows no hesitation in gunning down an old friend who refuses to join the rebels. Interestingly, although levels of acculturation in Algeria were low, Ali le Pointe can happily converse in French with the owner of a brothel – part of the problem the FLN seeks to clean.
A useful comparison might be made between the portrayal of the Casbah in Battle of Algiers and the earlier portrayal of the same space in an earlier film from 1937 Pépé le Moko directed by Julien Duvivier. The Casbah is described as “like a labyrinth”, “a teeming anthill”, as possessing “dark winding streets like so many pitfalls”, “a jumble of mazes”, and “dark, putrid chasms” overcrowded, diverse and populated by barbarians and sex workers. “A city apart”. It is clear the the FLN are trying to bring greater homogeneity to the space – the Casbah will be a less diverse and morally cleaner place if their work is successful.
Early in the extract, a broadcast from the FLN states the ambition to eradicate the scourge of the French colonial administration which is, they say, responsible for the “misery and enslavement” of the Algerian people. The FLN begin to act like a government taking over the role of protector and moral arbiter from the French colonial powers. This scene plays like an information video from the state (a state) with its moral position clearly asserted and the decision in no uncertain terms to ban all drugs, alcohol and prostitution. The FLN also can be seen to be establishing its authority through this segment which states that “offenders will be punished and repeat offenders sentenced to death”. This highlights the divisions between the FLN and the French and looks ahead to future tensions between the two divided sides. Can the boisterous attack by the well-organised children (a community tightly bound a rallied to action by a whistle) be read as metaphor for the rapidly organising FLN and the eventual fate of the French oppressor. Is it a coincide that our drunk is wearing an oh-so-chic trench coat? Moriccone’s discordant, stabbing cellos don’t suggest otherwise.
The divisions between the French, Algeria and the FLN are made clear in the political and moral commentary and also through the cinematic presentation of the two starkly opposed architectures of Algiers. Algerians, it seems, live in the shadows of the Casbah and operate in its unique claustrophobia, whereas the French settlers, the Pieds-Noirs, inhabit the spacious boulevards of the European Quarter.
In this divided city, the FLN’s actions to unify the Casbah become more focused and more urgent. This successfully illustrated in the wedding scene – a scene which brings to life many of the FLN’s stated aims. This small, hurried, clandestine wedding takes places in the claustrophobia of the Casbah in small rooms with high walls in the city-within-the-city. It seems that wedding is a powerful symbol for the inhabitants of the Casbah – although framed by islamic prayer, the wedding is secular and civil, the bride and groom are not in traditional dress but, it could be argued, the clothes of the coloniser and the service itself is administered by the FLN not the French administration. More interestingly, this wedding is attended by hundreds of people who have turned out and line the balconies and walls of the Casbah – it seems this wedding as a political statement is more significant than the couple’s union as a statement of love. It may be taken to symbolise the hopes of some the Algerian people in its embodiment of the stated aims of the FLN. This wedding is itself “sovereign, democratic, and social, within the framework of the principles of Islam” – these words taken from the 1954 tract mentioned earlier. The wedding, as an act of war, serves also as an act of unification: “the day will come when we can have our weddings in the open”. Perhaps this is the a more acceptable face of unifying the Casbah than the given threat that “anybody disobeying Muslim rules of conduct all ran the risk of throat-cutting, mutilation or assassination as the FLN imposed itself as the sole nationalist force.”
The wedding closes with a scene shot from across the roofs of the Casbah with a long look toward the European Quarter – a markedly different landscape of wide boulevards, tall buildings, open squares, of light and air. This shot points us into the future, suggesting the struggles ahead and perhaps ultimately the independence and reintegration of these territories into a free Algeria, underlined by a surging optimism in Morricone’s score.
The fact that this film, shot on location, with amateur actors, on handheld cameras and grainy black and white stock is “still mistaken for a newsreel documentary” speaks of the power the film holds. In this short extract the FLN’s stated aims have been made clear along with their working methods, the film has introduced various key players in the rebellion and it has been shown why the FLN are so morally and politically set against the French colonial powers and their influence on the people of Algeria. These dense few moments reflect the reality of the situation on the ground at this time and stand both as record and representation of this pivotal moment in the history of Algeria.
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