The Battle of Algiers
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo
The past few years have seen people around the world experiencing an unprecedented kind of intimacy with violence: the harrowing videos of killing released by terror groups, media coverage of lone-gunman shootings, and nation-states’ militarised responses have all embedded themselves in our daily multi-screen experience, creating visual parallels hard to ignore. Such saturation may not necessarily lead to desensitisation – each occurrence remains as shocking as the last – but it does lead to the impression that visual parallels, or a chain of action-response, are embedded within the very nature of self-perpetuating violence. The representation and reproduction of such violence, in turn, grows to have different, albeit still far-reaching, effects on those at a distance from its direct victims and perpetrators – “radicalisation at home” being one currently much-debated manifestation. Within this context, the visual representation of violence and violent historical moments gains a weighted, charged meaning we must continue to interrogate: both in that it prompts us to rethink the justifications and explanations for violence we may hear, and in that its repetitive nature is laid bare, invoking necessary questions around the continuing legacies of today’s violence on future lives.
Film is perhaps the one visual medium that has time and again best carried this burden of representation and urged enquiry. Looking to the work of directors such as Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu, 2016) or Deepa Mehta (Earth, 1998) can sometimes better allow us to see the workings of violence in our collective histories than instantaneous factual media can. One such memorable film is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year: The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 recounting of, and tribute to, the Algerian war of independence. Shot on location mere years after the violent struggle with French colonialism, the Algerian-Italian production focuses on the years 1954 to 1957, when guerrilla warfare between the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French colonial armed forces for control of Algiers was at its most brutal.
Shot with a documentarian impulse, in a newsreel style, we begin and end with the perspective of the fictional petty-criminal-turned-revolutionary Ali La Pointe. The screenplay was written by Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the FLN during the war of independence, draws from real historical figures to inspire characters in the film: the French paramilitary leader Colonel Mathieu is a composite of several French colonial officers such as Jacques Massu and Marcel Bigeard; the FLN commander leader El-hadi Jafar is a character based on Yacef himself; and FLN founding member Larbi Ben M’hidi is based on his real counterpart. Both sides match one another in their unforgiving tactics as the struggle to claim the capital continues. As well as a dramatization of a crucial period of Algerian history, Pontecorvo’s film is in many ways also a complex exploration of the nature, uses and limits of violence. Its philosophical grounding in the work of anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon and its mix of documentary and narrative allow for a contextualising of anti-colonial violence in the face of overwhelming oppression; however, the film also dwells on how violent response constructs and depends on its mirror image, thus questioning its long-term legacy. Pontecorvo’s film is naturally a product of its time – the global anti-imperialist response in the 1960s saw much politically-charged art, literature and film address the struggles in Vietnam, Kenya, Algeria and Angola among others – but 50 years on, it is perhaps a more apt moment than ever to revisit this cinematic epic for its critique of a violence that still feels all too close to home.
A moment from The Battle of Algiers where the ululations of Algerian women are heard from the city at night is easy to miss, but symbolically charged with the uncomfortable link between violence and self-representation in the colonial encounter. As a real archive recording of a French radio report at this moment in the film dubs their voices “unintelligible shrieks”, these sounds of mourning and anger demand the coloniser’s attention in a manner which suggests the significance of Fanon’s assertion  that “he of whom they [the colonisers] have never stopped saying that the only language he understands is that of force, decides to give utterance by force”. The Casbah – the restricted North African quarter of Algiers – is poised on the brink of communicating their demands through a means that the coloniser cannot possibly find unintelligible: violence. Pontecorvo’s representation of the ensuing battle showcases both Algerian and French armed action between the years 1954 – 1956, intermixing liberational energies in moments of anti-colonial fervour with the seeds of doubt. When does answering the coloniser’s violence with violence stop being a restoration of native agency, instead becoming a vicious circle wherein every method of resistance relies on defining the emerging nation against and through antagonism? For all its political self-certainties, a closer reading of The Battle of Algiers reveals a nuanced critique of violence through depicting such acts as bound within a pattern of mimicry.
In the incendiary first chapter to The Wretched of the Earth (1960), “Concerning Violence”, Fanon’s confident words as to the inevitability of anti-colonial violence has rang louder in ears than his simultaneous acknowledgement that colonial mimicry is performed through violence. Yet the philosopher and trained psychiatrist in Fanon emphasised the fine line between violence as a restoration of native agency, and the same violence as inhibitive of this agency, because of its inherited, repetitively antagonistic discourse. Pontecorvo weaves the dual functionings of violence even at moments where his film depicts seemingly justified anti-colonial action. These are moments where violence enforces recognition, reasserting native presence in a city where a whole section of the population is holed-up, harassed and kept away from the Quartier Européen.
When the three female FLN members in European dress cross checkpoints with ease, seeking violent retaliation designed to mimic police bombings, Pontecorvo’s scene seems to reflect Fanon’s views on the empowering nature of anti-colonial violence as a means to break with physical and psychological entrapment. However, Pontecorvo follows this scene with a reminder of the problematic outcomes of answering violence with violence through depicting an oddly co-dependent relationship of warring ideologies, as represented through the characterisation of Colonel Mathieu and Ben M’hidi. Mathieu sees a series of historical dialectical oppositions, often invoking the historical severity of the moment by reminding his men of French mistakes at Dien Bien Phu, the 1954 battle that saw Vietnam’s Viet Minh emerge victorious and France’s colonial power in Indochina diminish. M’Hidi also sees violent struggle in terms of an unarguable Marxist dialectic. A corresponding measure of reciprocity, in both ruthlessness and mutual respect, seems to exist between the head of the French forces and the FLN. Pontecorvo may well have had such a retrospective critique in mind, for after independence in 1962, the main political opposition to the heavily-armed FLN took on the rhetoric of an equally incendiary Islamism. Post-independence oppositional voices were continuing to use a discourse dependent on mutual antagonism for validation. In a film that depicts both French colonials and Algerians locked by large historical developments into mimicry, Pontecorvo implies that so long as both sides continue to aggrandise violence as an agent of history, a cyclically antagonistic process will remain in place post-independence.
The Battle of Algiers’ most memorable moments often bring this concern regarding both sides’ systematic reproduction of violence to the forefront. When a local shelters El-hadi Djafar from the police, we cut abruptly from an exhilarating back-alley chase sequence to a mother’s stoic but tear-stained face. “They’ve taken my son,” she simply states in response to Djafar’s thanks. His only consolation is “take courage”; appeal for non-violence is lost within the repetitive rhetoric of violent revolutionary action. The political involvement of Petit Omar, too, is in itself a powerful trope. In a film already highly charged in symbolism, Omar becomes a figurehead for a future generation of post-independence Algerians growing accustomed to violence and potentially – as Omar does – falling victim to it. The young are in the midst of the struggle, and the transformative potential they represent is swept up in a tide of anti-colonial violence. In highlighting the mimicry and reciprocity found within violent anti-colonial resistance, the film suggests the stagnant future of such a process.
In this accomplished exploration of a complex historical period, The Battle of Algiers manages to represent the paradox that is a dialectic of violence, seemingly propelling historical events yet recreating its own conditions for existence through every manifestation. Highlighting the cyclicality of these structures of action and thought, the film implies that true resistance is not a sudden flare of violence that shakes one structure of antagonism but ultimately constructs another. If, in the insightful words of the anti-colonial thinker Amílcar Cabral , culture enables us to know what dynamic syntheses have been formed by social awareness, in order to resolve conflicts at each stage of the evolution of that society, then it is precisely the suspension of that dynamism in favour of a familiarly antagonistic dialectic that demonstrates just how far-reaching the effects of prolonged violence can be. Resistance to partaking of this violence enables a dismantling of first the structure of antagonism it seeks to address and then the need for its own existence. Instead of being momentary victors at some point of its ongoing historical process, it is denying violence that all-powerful definition itself, ringing with repetition and inevitability, that keeps it chained to its historical moment. Thus The Battle of Algiers utilises yet leaves the representation of violence at this problematic end, drawing attention to two futures: one a series of oppositional discourses which reproduce the myth of the necessity of violence, the other a future of continuous transformative alternatives.
Thus, that The Battle of Algiers should often be remembered as promoting violence where the film actually treated it with great ambiguity and scepticism is worthy of reconsideration at its anniversary. Works like these problematize certain ways in which violence is represented today, questioning the motives behind instances where its visual vocabulary communicates it as a one-off anomaly, a justified state response, or an ongoing product of history. In denying violence that kind of omni-presence by highlighting its patterns of mimicry and stagnancy, such works merit consideration beyond their time and encourage a historically-aware critical approach to our own moment.
Sarah Jilani  is a graduate of the MSt English from The Queen’s College, Oxford. She writes on art, film and literature for publications including ArtReview, Apollo Magazine and The Economist.