Criterion Files #249: Screening the Wartime Lessons of ‘The Battle of Algiers’

By  · Published on March 30th, 2011

I’ve watched Gillo Pontecorvo’s landmark film The Battle of Algiers (1966) many times. I remember the circumstances of viewing each and every time, because each time I see it, it affects me more profoundly than the last. The film alone is astounding, distressing, exhausting, shocking, beautiful, and it still feels urgent forty-five years after its release and more than fifty-five years after the events depicted in it took place. I’m both surprised and thankful time and again that such a film was ever even able to get made.

I rarely write about my personal relationship to a film as I believe it risks obscuring the critical lens that I wish to take to it, but the fact that each time I watch The Battle of Algiers is different than the last speaks rather appropriately to the film’s historical role. As famous screenings and topical revisitations conversantly continue to take place around the film, it acquires new historical profundity and greater relevance as time moves forward, hardly speaking exclusively to the 1957 battle of the film’s title.

Pontecorvo at the Pentagon

Perhaps the most famous screening of the film in recent history was one held at the Pentagon on August 27, 2003 as a means of illustrating the dangers of conducting war in Iraq. While The Battle of Algiers can certainly be interpreted as a procedural on tactics of terrorism as it is structured by detailed episodes of resistance by the National Liberation Front (FLN) in which each component of exercising guerrilla warfare is depicted in great detail from planning to execution. However, seeing The Battle of Algiers as a procedural misses the point entirely.

According to The New York Times, a Defense Department official in charge of the screening stated,

“Showing the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria, and was intended to prompt informative discussion of the challenges faced by the French.”

“The challenges faced by the French,” eh? Not the challenge of resisting French colonialism? And what of the ending (of the film and of history itself), where resistance only grows despite (or, rather, because of) the French army’s attempts at total control, and the film ends with innumerable Algerians taking the streets and chanting in deafening defiance?

Besides the troublesome-though-unsurprising notion that the spectators at the Pentagon were asked to watch a movie in the context of embodying and championing militant colonialism, the Pentagon screening’s major mistake in framing The Battle of Algiers as a procedural is made by the notion that France’s defeat was for procedural reasons. This fails to acknowledge the fact that fighting guerrilla warriors with a conventional army makes such a war futile and un-winnable, especially in a colonial context where the guerrilla fighters have nothing to lose and everything to gain, and the colonial army is in the position to have to adapt five steps behind against all the decidedly non-Western means of conducting battle.

Eight years later as we’re mired in the same two wars and a third in progress, it’s clear that the lessons best taken from The Battle of Algiers weren’t learned from this screening.

Understanding Third Cinema

But the spectators at this 2003 screening likely couldn’t see what The Battle of Algiers was really trying to say, as they weren’t used to seeing films like it. They were used to Hollywood. They were used to heroes and clear delineations between good and evil. They were used to protagonists who look like the French and bad guys who look like members of the FLN.

Where Hollywood is First Cinema and European arthouse films are Second Cinema, films like The Battle of Algiers is an early (and probably the most famous) example of an organized political-cinematic movement called Third Cinema, an activist form of filmmaking that, amongst its many goals, aims for the liberation of oppressed peoples and interrogates structures of power. As such, many works of Third Cinema arise from countries with a history of colonialism and use the medium to represent their history and their struggle.

Third Cinema has no signature cinematic form and varies stylistically, from the newsreel-documentary style of Algiers to the magnificent long-take filmmaking of Mikhail Kolotozov’s I Am Cuba (1964) or the fluid narrative structure of Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s Memories of Underdevelopment (1968). As an anti-colonialist project, Third Cinema has no national home or specificity and is infinitely adaptable. Thus, Westerners like Pontecorvo, who is Italian, can be Third Cinema filmmakers. In fact, Third Cinema disrupts the very idea of a cohesive “national cinema” by depicting transnational struggles over power and, thus, cultural identity, like in The Battle of Algiers’ oscillation between the languages of the colonizer (French) and the colonized (Arabic). Cohesive national identity expressed through art is therefore situated as a privilege afforded only to dominant countries, and is a selective farce as well as a naïve ideal that ignores the cultures they dominate whose characteristics have seeped into their own.

The one thing Third Cinema isn’t, is something that occupies or endorses the narrative or stylistic codes of First and Second cinemas. It doesn’t praise the triumphant individual hero (1st), nor does it stand as the personal vision of an individual artist (2nd). It’s an effort for and on behalf of a political collective. If a Third Cinema film isn’t pretty (though, many Third Cinema works are incredibly innovative), it’s because one is evaluating it by imperialist codes of quality that are conditioned rather than inherent. In fact, some Third Cinema theorists thought the efforts could only be achievable through creating a cinema that is decidedly “imperfect.”

These are movies made despite the means to make them, and despite the existence of a film business model. In fact, these are films that exist precisely because they are not manifested within such a paradigm.

The Jasmine Revolution and the Future of Third Cinema

In my last viewing of The Battle of Algiers, I couldn’t help but think about the current revolution sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. The anti-colonialist struggle depicted in The Battle of Algiers was one that many countries in this region fought. The current struggles in that part of the world are against the dictatorships that have arisen since the previous revolutions. This is an admittedly simplified summary of a vast, complex history of international relations, but as Egyptians seek to establish an honest democracy on their own terms and as Libyans fight to survive, I can’t help but hope that they are not only victorious in these efforts, but that the possibilities offered by the infinitely adaptable project known as Third Cinema provides for them opportunities for a 21st-century means of self-expression.

Click here and here for more information on Third Cinema.

And click here to battle through more Criterion Files