Friday, August 15, 2014

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The French general, played by the only trained actor in The Battle of Algiers, asked a group of reporters, “Should France stay in Algiers? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” The consequences referred to by the general were the torture of prisoners by the French army, and the bombing of civilians by the Algerian revolutionaries.

Gillo Pontecorvo's film is a landmark in cinema: a quintessential example of Italian neo-realism, and an important barometer of an era galvanized by revolution and radical political thought. It has since been used by terrorists and revolutionaries, along with world powers as a training video on guerrilla warfare. The Pentagon reportedly showed The Battle of Algiers to US officers in order to prepare for counter-terrorism efforts in the Iraq war.

Aside from being a thrilling film, The Battle of Algiers serves as a lesson when assessing the violence erupting in the Middle East today. What essential question, similar to that of the French general, should be asked about conflicts in the Middle East? One might ask, should Israel have a military presence in Gaza and the West Bank? And should the U.S. have a military presence in Iraq? Perhaps most importantly, what is the difference between a terrorist and a revolutionary?

The Algerian revolutionaries in the film strongly resembled what are now considered terrorists. However France didn't belong in Algeria and eventually withdrew in 1962. Should France stay in Algiers? The answer was no. The overthrow of the French regime seemed inevitable in the film. The Algerian people, picked up off the street to star in the film, their impassioned and anguished faces portrayed so starkly by Pontecorvo, would not be denied.

The general in The Battle of Algiers was willing to accept torture as a consequence of war. What lengths is the US willing to go in order to stop Hamas or ISIS and protect ourselves? As the three women planted bombs in a cafe, bar, and airport populated by civilians, Pontecorvo's film forced audiences to look terrorists in the face and see a human being. In that vein, are we willing to look at our enemies and sympathize with their point of view in order to make the world a better place?

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