This article will appear in Issue 37: Oppression and Resistance
Since the inception of film, questions about authenticity and realism have surrounded the medium. These questions loom large over The Battle of Algiers, a film which chronicles the late struggle for Algerian Independence. As if composed of a lost set of newsreels, it evokes an observational truth similar in style to guerilla filmmaking – Pontecorvo calls this “the dictatorship of the truth”. He achieves this truth through meticulous reconstruction, using real life locations, such as rebuilding bombsites, and non-professional actors, including petty thieves and a former National Liberation Front (FLN) leader. This, and the fact it was made only 3 years after Algeria’s independence, contribute to the palpable sense of outrage that permeates the screen. Moreover, despite being set in a condensed period, the impact of over a century of oppression is felt in every frame.
However, the implications of the film’s adherence to truth go far beyond the production process. Whilst committing to showing the atrocities of French torture, Pontecorvo gives equal weight to the FLN’s use of bombs, often spending time to highlight the faces of those amidst the chaos of war.
This approach, although never compromising the film’s anti-colonial position, provides a greater sense of authenticity and balance, making the spectator question the cost of resistance. Whilst never condemning the acts, it highlights fundamental differences in their purposes and contexts, leading the viewer toward the Algerian cause. Similarly, although the story is clearly an Algerian narrative, many scenes shift perspective and reveal the motives of the French. For example, the systematic removal of the FLN’s leaders during an 8 day strike leads the colonel to state “The FLN is decapitated… I think we’ll hear no more of it”. This line and surrounding scenes represent a performance of ideology – the belief that the superior French intelligence and strategy will always prevail. For a brief moment, this pervasive imperial myth appears to ring true. Yet two years later, Algeria rises again and takes to the streets – hoards of people carry Algerian flags in the face of the French carrying guns. The audible cry of a united Algeria drowns out any notion of French superiority and undermines their belief that they can destroy the independence movement by removing its figureheads. The ideological implications of the French camera perspective are reversed through handheld crowd shots, declaring the power of a unified people. Pontecorvo again highlights faces, imposing onto the spectator a lifetime of oppression and resistance and a repressed identity that is finally being seen.
Amongst all the ways in which the film reconstructs reality, ultimately, the most powerful takeaway is its fundamental call for freedom and liberation – a sentiment that needs only humanity for it to succeed.
By Daniel Collins