The Battle of Algiers

I'm probably going to go long like River soon. I cannot do the off-the-cuff breaking-news blogging for much longer. And I'm realizing there are so many people like Josh Marshall that are doing this so extremely well. So, I'll see. Here's something I wrote that some of you might enjoy. It's a review of Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers. I'll add all the italics tags where needed later on. Does anybody know how to do paragraph indentions? If you could let me know that'd be great.

Enjoy, lim


Having harbored one of the Pentagon’s three copies of The Battle of Algiers for years without the Feds knowing about it, I see it as only just that I review it since the war in Iraq is obviously over. I’m afraid it’s clear administration crustaceans learned nothing from studying the film. And since what’s going on in Iraq at the moment isn’t really re-colonialization, I don’t think Rumsfeld will be sending Cambone after me to retrieve the NTSC copy.

The Battle is an intense and brooding account in mockumentary style of the eventually successful Algerian attempt of ending French Occupation. It is shot on-location 10 years after the end of the events portrayed. The setting is mostly in the slums of Algiers (or the Casbah), the luxuries of the “French City”, the dark hide-outs of the revolutionaries, torture chambers of the French Legion, outdoor leisure events, and in press conferences. The Battle ‘s relevancy today is that it was used as a visual cultural guide by the Pentagon and other neo-con goons (even though a mockumentary) to prepare for the eventual outcome in Iraq.

Occupation is like S&M gone completely naive stepping into a different culture with bombs, barbed wire check-points, guns, ammunition, political charlatans, and economic terror to send its subjects through mindless trials and tribulations while both the oppressed and the oppressor are voyaged off into the throes of hellish masochisms imbued with metastasis deriving from Dante’s eighth circle that arrive at no single point of pleasure or relief. Pontecorvo’s team thoughtfully captures the rawness of an occupation. The mono sound, stark black and white sometimes verging upon blown-out frames makes for an uncooked heaven of lo-fi audio/visual asphyxiation of the soul that wishes to find a better place in this world. The unrefined qualities that contrast with impeccable use of space by the cinematographer and the cut by the editor are essential in filling out both characters and situations. The shifting of the film grammar’s degree of harshness and cacophonic elegance, plus the coloration of the characters rabid clarity of purpose delivers a shockingly beautiful cinematographic dance of light that includes strong politics. If you include the fact that its subject matter is in the Arab world, this combination is peerless among all films.

Pontecorvo’s team shows illustrative naturalism in a most potent form. Through languid silences and multi-hued shadows, The Battle codifies the language of resistance intermittently between cathartic symbols of vibrancy, mental suffocation, fresh resuscitation through riot and the death. The patchwork of dark and unthinkable tragedies and the lighter shadows of hope in acts of resistance visibly wear at the seams of colonial rule. 130 years is far too long. Why did it take so long? I wonder if the Penta-quacks thought they could learn how to oppress Iraqis for 130 years through this film. Instead, they watched with popcorn and candy saying, “Hey Don, isn’t this what we don’t want to happen?” There’s a vast array of ironies and direct similarities regarding torture, occupation, methods of resistance and oppression, and the foreshadowed defeat in the on-going Iraq war, so I’ll refrain from mentioning much more of the obvious.

The Battle is far from being a film that traps the viewer inside a static version of events. Instead, one’s imagination is left to run rampantly along the endlessly convoluted lines of Algier’s Casbah where one finds throbbing flux of Algerian society bathing in the acuity of simmering upheaval. They are portrayed resembling one and the same. Anybody can be a revolutionary: A mother with her son, a beautiful Algerian masquerading as a French woman playing upon the desires of her occupier. A revolution is born with wings in destitute alleyways and briskly oscillating hearts that mourn loved-ones lost and dies with Independence. And one learns terrorism is what reflects from the eyes and actions of the French commanders and soldier alike, while freedom and the will of self-determination becomes light guiding the eyes and deeds of Omar Ali (the main protagonist) and his fellow revolutionaries.

The Battle is not hampered by the setbacks and impossible situations that might hatch out of shooting pure documentary (or of being caught dead in the middle of a civil war). The freedom of expression of Pontecorvo wittingly aligns its purpose with the goal of the revolutionaries. In a regular documentary, the closer one engages his subject (i.e. reality), the task of giving it form and meaning becomes increasingly difficult. This is a great advantage of the mockumentary with non-actors as this one. And Pontecorvo is a brilliant perceptatician in this regard; he takes full advantage of this form to gain an immutable result. The Vertovian nature of The Battle would lend itself easily to being categorized as kino pravda (especially in the sense that Vertov originally desires the term to be used). Namely, a film that takes on a subject matter seeking to uncover hidden truth(s) vis a vis contrivance of representation through narrative sequence.

It also fits the ideological tilt of both Pontecorvo and Vertov. The truth of terrorism and how the oppressor plays the dual role of victim and terrorizer becomes all the more fluently expressed in The Battle. In the film there are members of the resistance and there are the occupiers. Innocents reveal themselves as homunculi only. So, the revolt shows itself to penetrate all walks of life. Those engaged in terrorism for oppression can be clearly differentiated from those engaged in terrorism for freedom. This is the poignant arrival of empathy that Pontecorvo so diligently expresses throughout the film with uncompromising aesthetic tenacity.

Pontecorvo relies on the narrow, winding streets of the casbah to serve as a central character and even embody the resistance’s path to freedom. There is a constant shift of setting to show the affect of occupation and resistance: between open-air events (such as horse races or dance clubs) being bombed, insurgents running through the narrow fare ways of the Casbah, the darkness of destitute hide-outs, and the French occupation soldiers harassing, humiliating, arresting, beating, and killing Algerians at will. It’s both the actual formula for resistance and the necessary visual formula Pontecorvo adopts to allow for the most believable account of these events.

The other types of scenes are the press conferences and the torture sessions toward the end of the film, which reveal the hypocrisy and brutality of colonialism through its supporters own words in public and actions in private: the Lt. Colonel Mathieu (top French soldier in Algeria) smacks of Bushisms and the torturers wax Rumsfeldian diatribes of brutish rhetoric.

The soundtrack is typically flawless of Ennio Morricone (though done in collaboration with Pontecorvo himself). At times, Tarantino rips off sounds of Morricone and Pontecorvo in his Kill Bills. But who hasn’t ripped-off Morricone in this manner? Then in a remarkably gorgeous and teriffying torture scene spilt with Algerian blood and battered bodies, French instruments implement by fresh-pressed uniforms, and Morricone’s sounds come the inhumanity of torture that is sadly still applied in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. As confrontation looms, the hues in scenes with French occupation soldiers grow darker and less definable while the sound track becomes sullen. This is in comparison with Algerian freedom fighters that wear white, especially in the beginning of the film before they commit their worst bombings in the “French City”. If an Algerian wears all white, he or she is bound to be a member of the resistance. This expresses the obvious, they are in the right wearing white.

Pontecorvo’s stellar team offers blind omniscience, the all-seeing eye, through their raw depiction of the Algerian fight for independence. Though he takes sides, Pontecorvo merely outlines the fact that occupation is inhumane and a misguided ideal for any peoples from the occupier to the resister’s point of view.


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