The Italian-Algerian film, ‘The Battle of Algiers’, was thought by the regime of Ahmed Ben Bella as an example of propaganda socialist cinema that was the spearhead for Algerian revolutionary internationalism, which already began training for 1964 – in desert camps – to Central Americans, South Americans, Europeans, and Asians to “export the revolution” and thus provoke “two, three, ten, one hundred, Vietnams”, according to the Guevarista maxim. The final product exceeded the mediocrity of its initial objective. Raised as an exclusively Algerian project, because in fact it was intended to be the first Algerian feature film in history, in the hands of an Italian technical group it became a blockbuster that, from its premiere, became a reference film on political cinema (and now historical), which we believe is worth recommending, especially for the new generations to learn one of the aspects of the violent history of the twentieth century, as were the anti-colonial movements, but above all, of the coldness of Terrorist violence and its intricate justifications.
The film was so well accomplished in its documentary aspect, that even the retired French paratrooper officer Paul Aussaresses, who participated in the campaign in his youth, was removed in his seat by emotion, saying at every moment “it is magnificent! Yes, that’s how it happened!” Not in vain, the film is projected in the armies of many countries as an example of police action to fight against urban terrorist movements. The film was the idea of President Ahmed Ben Bella, who wanted to make an exclusively Algerian film as a spearhead for the projected socialist internationalism he had adopted as a foreign policy while seeking to rely on other leaders of the self-styled “non-aligned countries,” like Nasser from Egypt or Fidel Castro. Already by 1963, the year in which he decided to start the project, lots of young Palestinians, Irish, Congolese, Cameroonian, and South Africans came to train in irregular fighting at their camps installed in the southern deserts. One of the leaders of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and leader of the Algerian resistance in the battle of the Casbah, Yacef Saadi, is commissioned to look for a director to carry out the project, for which he travels to Italy, to offer it in First, Luchino Visconti, who rejects him immediately, arguing that the film and its purposes are completely alien to his films. Another Italian director, Francesco Rorsi declines the offer, and someone refers Saadi to Franco Solinas, an Italian screenwriter to help him in his search. It is Franco who offers it to Pontecorvo, who will end up filming it.
Pontecorvo was not a very reliable candidate at that time. He was a chemist, a profession he had abandoned to devote himself to journalism, from where he had referred to documentary work, doing work for official Italian television, in those years taken over by the militants of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). However, Franco and Pontecorvo work on the script that Saadi had rehearsed and rewrite it 4 times until a satisfactory result is achieved. Once the script was achieved, both were devoted to the Algerian independence revolution for 2 years, studying documentaries of the time, conducting interviews with the protagonists, consulting newspapers of the moment and studying photographs, until they were ready to start filming.
The filming would finally last 5 months, in the alleyways of the Arab Casbah and the boulevards of the European Algiers, during 1965, and for which the population itself served as an extra of the film, to provide it with more realism, faithful to its inspiration, Soviet realistic cinema. This search for extreme realism also has its anecdote, not at all, in Algerian history in general and the film in particular, which was witnessed by the great German journalist Peter Scholl-Latour:
“… On June 19, 1965, Ben Bella had been overthrown in a rather perfidious manner and was detained….So it was not surprising that at night, suddenly, there were movements of troops and the unpleasant ‘Villa Joly,’ where Ben Bella resided, was surrounded”.
Thus, the tape collides head-on with the story. While some Algerian soldiers play to be French paratroopers through the narrow streets of the citadel, Colonel Houari Bumedian gave coup d’etat to the architect of the Algerian revolution and later dictated him life imprisonment. Although Bumedian’s coup was intended to break with Ben Bella’s pan-Arabism and pan-Africanism, the tape project continued. It is striking that the film, although it revolves around the figure of Ali la-Pointe, a raterillo who becomes a guerrilla leader, the story is told from different perspectives. Some call the technique “choral story,” inaugurated by Kurosawa in his Rashmolon appointment. Thus, we can witness the way in which Algerian women get involved in acts of terrorism, putting bombs in discos, bars and tourism agencies, using the excuse of three of them, two of exceptional beauty on the tape, which apparently and judging by photographs of the real ones, they respected this aesthetic aspect in the film. And we are also witnessed, of the brutal French response, which sends General Matheu (General Massu in real life), to execute a clean in the city. The tension is increasing as paratroopers besiege the entire neighborhood and the response is a general strike, which causes troops to enter the force and decapitate the FLN. The events, condensed in two hours, are intended to cover the history of the Algerian uprising from 1954 to 1957.
The story that follows is known. Violence was increasing, reaching its climax in the so-called “blue night”, from March 4 to 5, 1962, during which 117 bombs exploded throughout the city, detonated by the French extremists of the OAS (Army Organization Secret), and that would eventually lead to France granting independence to its colony in July of that same year, already fed up with such spiraling violence. For his interest, I quote the complete fragment: “In the Marnia barracks, black Africans were trained – in total they would form a battalion – for guerrilla warfare in their respective countries. The majority came from the Portuguese colonies, and God knows how many detours they had reached the Maghreb. There were also men from Cameroon, Congolese, and South African members of the African National Congress (ANC). We shot in detail the military exercises of these future resistance guerrillas. The Algerian monitors chased their black pupils through the rocky enclosure, fired in such a way that the bullets passed almost touching their heads and harassed them by barbed wire and obstacles until total exhaustion. Then, the ‘freedom fighters’ went singing to their barracks”.
Undoubtedly, in the history of “Western” cinema, mostly Hollywood, an image of fully demonized Arabic has been built. In the documentary Reel Bad Arabs in which the author of the book, with the same title, Jack G. Shaheen, takes a tour of a large number of films that have negatively represented the Arabs, whether Palestinian, Algerian or Egyptian; These always appear as criminals or traitors. He also names some realistic representations of the Arabs, but their amount is much smaller. What interests the author is how these representations are linked to the country’s politics, in the case of Hollywood to the United States, and affect public opinion to support or repeal certain policies. The author suggests that cinema participates in the manipulation of public opinion about certain groups of people.
The film The Battle of Algiers gives us the beginning of the humanization of the other since the fact that it shows the other represented without dehumanizing it makes the film a tool for this process. In addition to the violence exerted by the colonized and the recognition of this other (settler) to humanize, the same book by Frantz Fanon that, by including, like Anna Politkovskaya in his Chechen work, Russian Dishonor, medical cases of both as the other side and make them talk, they help humanize the one who is suffering, seemingly far away or see the person hiding behind the band that does not show the value of those lives like ours.