Monday, December 13, 2004

The Battle of Algiers

I spent a good portion of the weekend in front of the tube digesting the new 3-disc version of The Battle of Algiers. It tells the story of one portion of the Algierian revolt, spurred by the FLN, against colonial French rule after World War II (after they handed Vietnam off to us, they proceeded to fuck up northern Africa) that took place in the mid 1950s in the capital city of Algiers. The film, originally released in 1965, was ground breaking for a couple of reasons. First, it was shot completely on location in Algiers in a documentary style that influenced many films to come. Second, it created such an accurate portrayal of urban guerilla warfare, including terrorist and counter-terrorism, that it has used in the forty years since its release as instruction for both sides. Most recently, the film was screened for top brass at the Pentagon to see if any lessons learned from it can be applied in Iraq.

Criterion, as usual, did a superb job with the new DVD release. Disc 1 contains the movie itself, beautifully restored with easily read subtitles (the film is technically Italian, due to the director, but the dialogue is all in French and Arabic). Disc 2 examines the film's place in cinema history, including an in-depth "making of" documentary. Among other things, it tells you that the film was partially produced and was the brainchild of one of the leaders of the FLN, who was looking for a director to tell the story of his glorious revolution. It was largely because of his status (he played himself in the film, too) that the film was able to be made in Algiers itself, including the labyrinthine Casbah, where the FLN hid out from the French.

Disc 3 goes into the actual history and relevance of the film today, and provides some very interesting stuff. Most topical is a brief (25-minute) discussion with two terrorist/intelligence experts (Richard Clarke was one) about what it can teach about similar situations today. It basically boils down to the fact that military victory, once achieved, means little without a coherent political strategy that recognizes the long term outlook and goals of the other side (the French won the battle, but, literally, lost the war because the FLN just kept popping up).

Another terribly relevant extra is a documentary about the director's return to Algeria in 1992, about 30 years after he made the film. In the interim, the country had seen at least three governments (the president was assassinated shortly after giving an interview for the doc) and was the thrall of a rising tide of Islamic radicalism. The strident nature of those fundamentalists, and their attitudes towards Westerners -- all Westerners -- sounds a lot like the Middle East today. Given the time this piece was made, the director made an interesting observation about the first Gulf War. While most people in the region had no use for Saddam Hussein and condemned his invasion of Kuwait, many of them still rallied around Saddam once the West got involved. Not because they loved him, but because they saw the West's involvement as another in a long line of colonial and post-colonial interventions that have left the region so unstable. It's no surprise, then, that many in the region reacted in exactly the same way when the US invaded Iraq.

The other really interesting extra is a documentary that goes into the actual history of the Algerian revolution and the Battle of Algiers. It covers many things that are in the film, but most importantly covers what the film leaves out. The movie is frequently lauded for being "balanced" in its presentation of the situation. The French, while dominating colonialists, are not the two-dimensional thugs they would be in many (OK, American) films. The portrayal of the FLN, while focusing on the legitimate gripes of the Algerian people, does not gloss over the terrorist tactics used in their name. However, on balance, the French come out the worse, as there is never any real justification given by them for why they are in Algeria in the first place or why they'd fight to remain. Most importantly, it's the French (albeit unofficially) who being the bombing campaign, destroying several buildings the Casbah in retaliation for FLN attacks on police and army targets. The FLN's bombing campaign only begins from there.

The historical record seems to contradict, or at least complicate, that portrait. Outside of Algiers, the FLN was already well underway as a terrorist organization. In addition to massacreing French settlers in the countryside, there were violent purges of their Algerian political rivals as well. All that shows is that, while the FLN may not have started the attacks on civilians in Algiers, they didn't have to be pushed very far before they did.

One interesting thing is the French attitude towards torture during this time. There is absolutely no attempt by French commanders after the fact to hide the truth that French soldiers routinely tortured captured Algerians (many of whom had nothing to do with the FLN). One bonus feature even includes interview footage with the guy who was in charge of, in essence, making prisoners "disapear." In a way, this seems easier to accept that the US, "what, us, torture?" attitude in Iraq. The French, far from being the petite pussies of popular legend, pretty much stand up and say "we did what we had to do and aren't sorry for it." Of course, it didn't really work in the end.

But in the end, The Battle of Algiers is about more than that. It very dramatically emphasizes that the deaths of innocent civilians, whether French or Algerian (and, by extension, American or Iraqi), are equally tragic. It also demonstrates that inherent dangers of being an occupied force. The French no doubt believed they were doing the right thing in Algeria, at least at some point. They also, no doubt, stayed longer than they should and dug their heals in simply so as not to be pushed out. The powers that be in the US should learn from that lesson.

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