Commentary On the Prospect of War

March 1, 2003
Alan A. Stone, MD

Volume 20, Issue 3

With the seemingly impending war with Iraq, Dr. Stone revisits the Marxist-based film The Battle of Algiers and is surprised to find Islamic fundamentalism prominently featured throughout. Looking back, he finds nothing in the director's or writer's notes, or in critics' writings on the film, to indicate they were aware of its presence-the film was viewed through the context of the time. Are we still making this deadly error in dealing with Muslim nations?

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.

Kael wrote in 1972 that Pontecorvo's historical-determinist message seeps right into your bones. But she assumed that what Pontecorvo's film showed us was how "the Algerian people were spontaneously turned into Marxist revolutionaries by historical events."

Pontecorvo and his writer Pier Franco Solinas created a screenplay out of a Marxist/Fanonian screed, and that is what audiences saw at the time. There can be no more powerful demonstration that meaning comes from the context in which a text is seen. In today's context, what one sees is that Pontecorvo's film shows not Marxist revolutionaries but Arab-Muslim fundamentalists mobilizing the people of the Casbah. The very first FLN communique to the people of Algiers in the film proclaims, "Our revolt is against colonialism, our goal to restore independent Algeria within the framework of Islamic principles." In fact, throughout The Battle of Algiers, it is Islam, not Marxism that is the yeast of the revolutionary solidarity that rises in the Casbah. The screenplay was, as Solinas said, "An ideological debate in dramatic form," but the film portrays a cleansing of the Arab people by a return to Islamic principles and a puritanical Islam that blames the French colonizers for imposing European decadence on Algiers. It is the French who have made the Arabs their prostitutes; undermined the traditional authority of the Muslim family; and brought cigarette smoking, alcoholism and drug addiction to their community. Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, the Ayatullah ul-Uzma Khamenei and many other Islamic fundamentalists would sign on to this argument.

The FLN begins its campaign for the good will of the Arabs of the Casbah not by teaching Marxism, but by preaching Islam. The FLN understands that its recruits have been drawn from marginalized outcasts with every reason to hate the French and nothing to lose. These recruits and the Arabs of the Casbah must be purified and ennobled before they can undertake guerilla warfare, and they will only achieve this through a return to Islamic traditions. Pontecorvo's example is the young Arab Ali La Pointe, who is an illiterate juvenile delinquent, a sometime boxer, grifter and street criminal. He is ready to join the FLN after he witnesses from his prison window the guillotining of a man who goes to his death chanting, "Tahia el Djez-air" (long live Algeria). In order to join the revolutionary underground, Ali must agree to kill a French policeman. His hatred of the police is fueled by all the resentments of his life. The FLN trick him with an unloaded gun, this test is only to prove that he is not a French double agent. His real rite of passage into the FLN will come when he kills a friend, an Arab pimp who controls a string of brothels. Ali la Pointe is first a servant of Islamic purification, only then can he become a revolutionary leader of the FLN.

This purification of the Arab people through violence in the name of Islam is a central theme in Pontecorvo's film. In an unforgettable scene, we are shown a derelict Arab alcoholic who is set upon by a baiting pack of young boys who symbolize the new Islamic order. All this is now so obvious and undeniable that it seems strange that 35 years ago even the clear-eyed Kael could not see it. And here is a more radical suggestion that Pontecorvo, the artist, created all this without appreciating what he was doing. Looking at The Battle of Algiers today, what is prophetic is his background local color theme of Islamic fundamentalism and what proved false was Pontecorvo's foreground depiction of "the world moving in a certain way," in the direction foretold by the Marxist dialectical vision.

How did so much Islamic fundamentalism find its way into Pontecorvo's film? I believe there are several answers, all of which have to do with how the film was actually made. Yacef Saadi, who had been the military head of the FLN in Algiers, came to Italy looking for a director to make a movie of the Algerian struggle from the Algerian point of view. The Algerians could not provide great financial resources, but they could give the filmmaker access to any site he wanted and they could put crowds of people at his disposal. And Pontecorvo made good use of what he was given. Crowds, not stars, were to be the protagonists of the film. Pontecorvo had been a journalist and a still photographer, and he decided with one notable exception not to use professional actors. With a photographer's eye he chose people like Brahim Haggiag, the young man who played Ali La Pointe. His method of casting meant that the faces in the film are visually arresting, that the actors--at least in appearance--are authentic, and that there is no Hollywood or studio gloss. But such actors cannot be expected to mouth Marxist slogans convincingly. The lines Pontecorvo gave them were natural to them, the product of long hours interviewing FLN members and French Algerians who had participated in the events that would be depicted. Reading Pontecorvo's description of his research methods, one could almost say he psychoanalyzed the participants on both sides and distilled their collective memories into his dialogue. When Pontecorvo began to film and edit, he kept adding touches to convey the particulars of Algerian life in the Casbah. His impulse was to capture "the feelings and the emotions shared by a multitude." And what his Algerian actors and extras shared was their Islamic tradition. Muslims are often shown at their prayers with their foreheads pressed to the ground in submission to their God. No such image appears in this film. There is a less familiar prayerful position in which they raise their head and hold out their cupped hands. To Western eyes, the latter is the much more acceptable picture of pious humility. It is only in that collective gesture that Pontecorvo's Muslims respond to the tragedies that befall them. In the final scene where the residents of the Casbah appear out of the night and fog and demand their freedom, Pontecorvo had intended to have all the extras chanting political slogans. But he felt it just did not work. Then he hit on the idea of having the Arab women erupt into their traditional ululation--rhythmic piercing cries. It has an awesome effect, but it asserts not the brotherhood of revolution but the unifying exotic claim of Arab identity. And Pontecorvo thought it worked so well he used it in an earlier moment of the film as the rallying cry of the Casbah.

There is another very important moment in the film when Pontecorvo's artistic imagination privileges Muslim tradition. One of the most striking contrasts in Algiers was the difference between the appearance of the French and the Muslim women. The French women wear stylish short dresses, dye and coif their hair, use lipstick, and emphasize their sexuality. The Arab women of the Casbah cover their long hair, use no cosmetics, and conceal their faces and their sexuality. There comes a moment in the escalating terrorism when the French police supervisor decides on an unofficial act of counterterrorism. He sets off some dynamite in the Casbah, destroying homes and killing innocent men, women and children. An FLN response is justified. Three Arab women are shown cutting their hair and putting on makeup and French-style dress. There can be no doubt that this is a ritual moment of Western degradation as these modest Muslim women are being transformed into sexual objects. To make this unmistakable, we are shown French soldiers and other men hitting on them as they deliver their hidden time bombs. Pontecorvo films each of these three women looking around the crowded places their bombs will destroy. One woman's gaze lingers over a small boy licking his ice cream cone before she leaves her bomb. Watching those women today, it seems clear that what made their terrorist mission sacred was Islamic faith, not revolutionary solidarity. Each woman fully appreciates that there will be innocent victims, but theirs is a holy cause. Pontecorvo also films a scene where FLN terrorists hijack an ambulance and drive down a street, machine-gunning the French people on the sidewalks. When they run out of ammunition they suicidally crash the ambulance into a crowd.

Pontecorvo thought that the French torture of their captives was worse than any Algerian terrorism, but what his artistry now reveals is that the uprising against the decadent West was not terrorism in the name of Marx, but tactics in a holy war where martyrs go to heaven. If in the 1960s Pontecorvo made the mistake of seeing The Battle of Algiers through a Marxist prism, today we may be making a similar mistake. America, as it searches for enduring freedom, sees itself as fighting for democracy against corrupt, if not crazed, dictators like Saddam Hussein and madmen like Bin Laden. But, as Pontecorvo shows us, the Islamic people on the other side have their own ideas about freedom, and for many of them, it will be a holy war in which terrorism is a sacred duty. If you have a "doubting intelligence," it is time to look at the lessons of history in Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers and think for yourself.