Early on in The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s remarkable historical war epic, we witness political prisoner Ali gaze out the window of his cell as another activist is led by French forces to execution by guillotine. It is a moment of unimaginable barbarism, practically mind-boggling to consider as having happened less than 100 years ago, made all the more powerful by the fact that the camera cuts away as the blade drops, focussing instead on low angle shots of tall, imposing prison buildings staring impassively down as the cruelty and horror of systemic colonial dominance passes beneath them.
Watching Ali, a guerilla member of a revolutionary force determined to run out colonial French forces that occupy the city of Algiers during the conflicts that occurred there in the 1950s, we witness the moment of his radicalization, the impetus that leads to civilian uprising, captured in a stunningly clear and concisely structured fashion. From this moment on, it is practically impossible for a viewer not to understand what drives Ali, a fact made all the more fascinating in the context of viewing the film in 2017. Ali, and those in the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN), are Muslim guerrilla fighters who use terrorist tactics including bombing, shootings in public areas and urban warfare. From their point of view, the actions they take throughout the film to liberate Algeria are means to an end, and what makes The Battle of Algiers so fascinating in a modern context is how effortless it is for the viewer to at the very least understand their radicalization and empathise with their activism.
As you can probably tell already, The Battle of Algiers is one of those films that can be endlessly philosophized over – a real ‘film school’ movie whose accomplishments on almost every level established it as one of the most noteworthy films about rebellion and freedom-fighting ever produced. Pontecorvo, an Italian neo-realist filmmaker, set out to capture a moment in history (covering three years of concentrated siege in the Algerian War that lasted almost a decade) in a way that felt utterly raw, immediate and true. In Algiers, we see a pioneering form of ‘docu-drama’ filmmaking, a style that focussed on immediacy, as though we the viewer are watching something akin to newsreel footage, rather than the cinema of immaculately structured shots and sets. Defined by handheld camera-work, naturalist performances and minimal cinematic flourishes, it is a style of filmmaking whose impact lingers today, particularly in films about marginalized or activist communities.
In this context, considering the work of filmmakers such as Kathryn Bigelow and her peers in the ‘Iraq War’ film boom of the 2000s is a fascinating prospect. Within them, the traces of Algiers’ neo-realist spirit still resonates. Before companies realized viewers weren’t particularly interested in stories set in the world of one of America’s greatest military blunders, we had countless attempts that shared the same basic aesthetic as Algiers – not just The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, but Green Zone, The Kingdom, Body of Lies and seemingly countless others. This aesthetic extends to capturing any content that trumpets feeling ‘real’ as one of its key objectives (handheld camera, documentary-style coverage, and so on), but also when exploring the plights and battles of marginalized communities such as the ones in Algiers.
What makes The Battle of Algiers so timeless is that Pontecorvo and his collaborators (including co-composer Ennio Morricone, whose work here is some of his very best) understand that the docu-drama style only works when it reflects the humanity of its characters. Pontecorvo ensures that whether it be French colonizers or Islamic freedom fighters, the human faces of everyone involved are the key to the story. The rich black and white cinematography captures the characters’ faces (almost entirely non-actors), focusing on singular entities in a crowd, or following a child’s smile as he passes by, or pausing on the hand of a wounded civilian clutching the arm of another amidst the rubble of a bombing.
And for what would seem a cerebral, ‘tough’ watch, what a thrilling experience The Battle of Algiers remains to this day. Few films of this era are as haunting, distressing and white knuckle intense as this. Witness the scene in which three women FLN supporters set aside their traditional Muslim garb to go undercover as French colonials, leaving handbag bombs in densely populated areas as they go. Or a high stakes chase scene that sees guerrilla fighters pursued by dogs through the mazelike streets of Algiers. The Battle of Algiers is a film with a mission – to capture this conflict from either side of the divide – but it never forgets that it is also a film, and one that is intense, deeply emotional and hauntingly resonant because of, not despite, its commitment to realism.
In France, The Battle of Algiers was banned for five years following its release. Perhaps understandably, the very act of giving Algerian freedom fighters human faces, people who had bombed and killed numerous French soldiers and civilians, was an unforgivable act regardless of the cinematic mastery with which it had been made. Ironically, the response was that even though the position of the French colonizers was made to be at least understandable if not sympathetic at times in the film, the very suggestion that the root of the conflict was colonization was one that could not be abided. The parallels today are obvious. Whether abroad or at home, the idea that the structures that form our society can be inherently wrong is a distinctly disquieting one, especially for those living comfortably within them. What great works of political art attempt to do is shake or question these structures, to shine a light on the positions of the marginalized or the defamed peoples of their society to see where they come from and why they resort to activism. Few films have done this quite as lyrically, consistently and fairly as The Battle of Algiers. One can only hope that activist, uprising and rebellion cinema produced in this most tumultuous of eras follows the example of this great film in giving voices to the voiceless.