A few days ago Gillo Pontecorvo passed away at the age of 86. I honestly didn’t pay attention to his death until yesterday; I don’t think many people noticed either. Gillo, an Italian Jew, made one of the most important anti-colonial films of all time: The Battle of Algiers. Few people probably remember this black and white flick from the mid-60’s that documented the Algerian war of independence only a few years after it succeeded. The film depicted only a sampling of atrocities the French army committed in an attempt to sustain their colonial grip on Algeria and by the time it ended millions of Algerians were displaced, in concentration camps or dead. Today in the Arab world it is known as the movement of “A Million Martyrs”.
Gillo did attempt to be fair in the film in showing how atrocities were committed on both sides but in the grand scheme of the story the viewer will tend to sympathize with Ali La Pointe, the main character: a poor Algerian from the Casbah who becomes part of the National Liberation Front. As the FLN gains popularity and their resistance begins to increase, French paratroopers are brought in to control the situation.
There are several scenes that are absolutely pivotal and relevant: one is where the French Col. Mathieuis is explaining to his paratroopers the simple pyramid scheme that represents the organization of the FLN and suggests ways to break it. Another scene is where the press are questioning him about the torture tactics:
Col. Mathieu: The word “torture” doesn’t appear in our orders. We’ve always spoken of interrogation as the only valid method in a police operation directed against unknown enemies. As for the NLF, they request that their members, in the event of capture, should maintain silence for twenty-four hours, and then they may talk. So, the organization has already had the time it needs to render any information useless.
What type of interrogation should we choose, the one the courts use for a murder case, that drags on for months? Should we remain in Algeria? If you answer “yes,” then you must accept all the necessary consequences.
Do such speeches remind us of similar rhetoric used today? Another scene shows the press questioning the character of Ben Mahdi, a top leader of the FLN whose just been captured:
Journalist: M. Ben M’Hidi, don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?
Ben M’Hidi: And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.
So why is this film so important? Because so little has changed when it comes to colonialism and the occupation of Arab lands. In the past 100 years or so, be it the British, French, Italians or European Jews, all have repeated the same mistakes and the elements have rarely changed. Today in the post 9/11 world we don’t call it ‘colonialism’, we use clever political euphemisms like ‘preemptive interventionism’. The talking points have been reformed and refined. But some of the terminology has changed very little in the past century: occupied Arabs are terrorists and occupying Westerners are liberators.
Back in 2003 after the American invasion of Iraq, the Pentagon screened this film for its officers; it was a must-see at the time. Why? Possibly to demonstrate and suggest methods of how to break any insurgency. Possibly to demonstrate the resolve of the enemy; to know the enemy. For as Col. Mathieu says in the film: “To know them means to eliminate them”. At the screening, fliers were handed out entitled: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas”.
Watching this film will leave you with a great understanding of the realities alive and kicking today. Be it in occupied Iraq or occupied Palestine. Scenes, quotes, and simply the realistic way it was filmed, will give you a haunting reminder of our present realities. I highly recommend everyone rent it.