Revealed truth or ultimate propaganda, The Battle of Algiers, a film made 35 years ago, is a text that might give Americans some perspective on our own situation today. As I watched the film again after so many years, I realized for the first time that Gillo Pontecorvo had achieved something beyond his conscious artistic and political intentions. Like Leo Tolstoy, who meant to show the evils of adultery in Anna Karenina but created a character that transcended his moralizing agenda, Pontecorvo's Algerians transcend his Marxist categories and labels. If Pontecorvo could now revisit his own film, even he might recognize that the march of history turned in a different direction; one that he did not predict and would not like. The historical turn has been to traditional Islam, not to the Marxist idea of dialectical progress. Film critic Pauline Kael was not wrong in describing Pontecorvo as a Marxist poet, but Pontecorvo's poetry was a celebration of humanity. He described himself as "someone who approached man and the human condition with a feeling of warmth and compassion." His film and his poetry were an attempt to connect himself and his Western audiences, through their common humanity, to the Arabs of the Casbah--to what, in academic jargon, we now call the "alien others." He embraced what is different in the Arabs of the Casbah, including their Islamic traditions, and made them fully human for us. Yes, there is tragic necessity, but Pontecorvo's inspiration is utopian. Revolution, even in the style of Frantz Fanon, held for him the promise of a universal community in which Pontecorvo and perhaps many European Marxists imagined themselves sharing.
Pontecorvo's classic film chronicles the French military efforts to put down the Algerian rebellion. Pontecorvo was a multitalented man who produced several memorable films, all of them with a Marxist message. Although he was inspired by Sergei M. Eisenstein, he worked in the tradition of Roberto Rossellini's version of Italian neorealism.
He filmed The Battle of Algiers in black and white, using lenses and camera angles that reproduced realistic images like those of the mass media. Pontecorvo succeeded so well that many in his audiences thought they were watching newsreel footage and a documentary of the National Liberation Front's (FLN) revolutionary struggle against their French colonial oppressors. And Pontecorvo succeeded on another political level: He convinced middle-class audiences that terrorism--the bombing of innocent people--might be necessary. This was Kael's judgment: she described the film as "the rape of the doubting intelligence." She dubbed Pontecorvo the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a "Marxist poet" who uses the power of the film medium to persuade his audience that terrorism is a tragic necessity.
Pontecorvo wanted to portray the Marxist understanding of the historical processes that "once begun cannot be stopped." In the film, it seems that the French paratroopers have broken the back of the secret revolutionary organization when their captured leader is paraded before a press conference and asked if the FLN is now defeated. The actor, who is in fact the man who led the FLN, replies, "In my opinion, the FLN has more chances of beating the French army than the French have of stopping history."
Pontecorvo wrote about that line, "Not only did we believe this to be right, but we really liked the idea that it was right." He believed history was moving "in a certain way," that the class struggle would continue in the Third World, with the lumpen-proletariat of the colonized people taking up arms against the colonists. It was this Fanonian psychiatric gloss on Marxism that Sartre had endorsed. The wretched of the earth, the black faces who had been condemned to wear white masks would assert their own identity through acts of violence--rising up against oppression even when it came from "super-civilized France." The French had been defeated by that march of history in Vietnam, and Pontecorvo wanted to depict the last futile stand of the French colonial empire in Algiers. Out of the Casbah would come the Viet Cong of Algeria. Pontecorvo claimed that the guiding principle of his filmmaking was the "Dictatorship of Truth," and his version of Truth certainly disturbed the super-civilized French, who banned his film. All over the world, critics recognized that The Battle of Algiers had the power of truth revealed or, like Kael, they worried that the film took audiences by storm, gave them no chance to think. It was not truth but ultimate propaganda; Kael described it as the left equivalent of Leni Riefenstahl's deification of Adolph Hitler in Triumph of the Will.
Pontecorvo's film no longer has the immediacy that it had in the late 1960s. We all experienced the enormity of Sept. 11 on television, and the moral imagination of Americans could not conceive of a Pontecorvo justification for such acts of terrorism. President Bush spoke for the passionate convictions of the American public when he promised a terrible and inescapable retribution. Overnight, even leftist doves turned into war hawks. Something had to be done, and in the mood of the country, it seemed more than reasonable to invade Afghanistan. A year and a half later--like Pontecorvo's French paratroopers who put down the insurrection in the Casbah--we seem to have achieved complete victory and our nation is ready for war with Iraq as Bush continues on the offensive designated "Operation Enduring Freedom."
Pontecorvo's film is perhaps most ironically instructive on that American rallying cry. His French paratroopers ignored all legal restraints and used torture to gain the information necessary to destroy the FLN and won the battle of Algiers; but, as we are shown, they lose the war to maintain the French colonial empire. Without warning, two years after the French victory comes the inevitable march of history as the entire Arab population swarms out of the Casbah to march on the French city of Algiers. The French respond to this unexpected crisis using every brutal technique of riot control at their disposal, including gas, machine gun fire and tanks, to drive the Arabs back toward the Casbah. There is a brief lull in the riot scripted by Pontecorvo. As night and fog fall over the city, a French police authority addresses the unseen mob through a megaphone. "What do you want?" he asks in bewilderment. In response, mobs of Arabs emerge from the fog demanding and celebrating their freedom. Pontecorvo had imagined this scene as an ecstatic ballet in which the camera would focus on an Arab woman who the French police would push down again and again, and each time, she would rise up in a dance of freedom. This was the revelation to Western audiences, that the Arab Muslims of the Casbah saw themselves as freedom fighters. It is a revelation to remember today.