Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Movies, nations and uncomfortable past histories (I)

The Battle of Algiers is one of my all time favourite films. It is also one of the all time greatest films made. The last time I saw it was a little more than a year back and as I remember being as riveted as ever, unable to even take my eyes of the screen. The movie takes place during the Algerian War of Independence and the event it so hauntingly recreates is the Battle of Algiers.

A little back ground history. French involvement in Algeria started in the 1830s and France achieved effective control over the area when a French expeditionary force led by General Thomas Robert Bugeaud conquered the native forces of the Arab leader Abd-el-Kader (yes, him of the famous rai song) in 1847. Algeria was declared an integral part of France the very next year and a policy of resettling the Algerian lands with colons (or pieds-noirs) was actively followed. However, nationalist movements and resistance continued and by 1954 the Front de Libération Nationale, the FLN, had emerged as the most organized group with the most popular support.

The war can be divided into two phases: 1954 to 1957/58 and thereafter till independence. The watershed moment was the Battle of Algiers (1956-1958), which took place at a time when the FLN was at its peak. Following the passing of a law in 1956 which suspended most of the guarantees of individual liberties in Algeria the FLN embarked on a path of urban terrorism aiming to attract more attention to the Algerian cause. They averaged close to 800 shootings and bombings per month through the spring of 1957. The job of pacification went to General Jacques Massu and his Tenth Paratroopers' Division, who having served in Indochina understood guerilla warfare and mounted a counter insurgency program. Massu's men made massive arrests, isolated the casbah and practiced torture and eventually succeeded in capturing many FLN leaders, destroying their networks and comprehensively winning the battle.

The movie is excellent in every sense – it famously boasts that there was no documentary footage used, the music is perfect as is the acting, directing and cinematography. I love that Pontecorvo chose local Algerians to play the roles of the FLN members – he spent months scouting for faces that would just fit the role. Brahim Haggiag as Ali La Pointe is so beyond brilliant that his defiant expression is etched in ones memory long after the movie is over. Jean Martin plays Colonel Mathieu (a character based on Massu and other French officers) and is excellent as well. The scene where he makes his appearance, marching his division into the city, ramrod straight, soldier perfect is one of my favourites in the movie. Interestingly Pontecorvo was not happy with the scene while shooting – he felt Martin was not commanding enough. The problem was eventually sorted out by stuffing tissues in the actor’s uniform to broaden up his shoulders and give him an air of authority!

The Battle of Algiers is also an extremely uncomfortable film to watch. One does support the Algerian independence struggle but the methods of the FLN are shocking to say the least and leave one in a sort of moral quandary. On the French side, the torture is abhorrent. And yet one can’t help but be taken in by Mathieu’s charisma. The Battle of Algiers was decisively won by the French – and the penultimate minutes of the movie show this - the bombing of the casbah with a huge number of FLN leaders holed up inside. The last scenes of the movie (if I remember correctly) however show the events of 1961 with Algeria on the cusp on independence, people on the streets cheering. It seems somewhat bizarre in the aftermath of the French victory in the city but it shows how pyrrhic the victory in Algiers was. The French won the battle, as the cliché goes, but lost the war.

After the Battle of Algiers most of the fighting shifted to countryside and the FLN continued to lose power. The French followed a strategy of complete oppression and decimation and that they lost the war despite being militarily much stronger is one of the vagaries of fate but also shows the importance of public opinion and backlash against the policies of torture and the moral dilemma that French citizens eventually found themselves confronted with.

La Trahison (The Betrayal), a movie that I watched recently examines quite excellently the psychological impact of the war on the people involved. The movie is based on a book by Claude Sales recounting his experiences during the war as a lieutenant who has a number of Algerian conscripts under his charge. One of the bizarre aspects of French policy in Algeria was that Algeria was considered an integral part of France (unlike Morocco, Tunisia or Indochine). The large number of pieds-noirs settled in Algeria was one reason the French were so reluctant to leave but the bigger picture was Algeria was simply one part of France just as Provence or Alsace. That it happened to be geographically located in Africa was just an aside. Therefore, a large number of Algerians were conscripted to serve in the French Army to help fight the FLN. This wasn’t a small number by any means; the French managed to recruit many more Muslim Algerians than the FLN. In 1958, around 88,000 Muslims served as French troops. By 1961 this number was 200,000. In contrast the FLN at its peak (1957/58) had 20,000 recruits with another 20,000 – 30,000 auxiliary troops.

La Trahison takes place mostly in the villages with the French trying hard to weed out support for the FLN. It should be noted that the French carried out massive operation in the countryside once the war had shifted there. The population was heavily monitored to watch out for the insurgents. Very detailed and accurate documentations of the population took place. Censuses were conducted and identification cards were issued giving the army the ability to track individuals within the population. Fortified fences were built along the Tunisian and Moroccan borders. In addition mass resettlement of inhabitants in these areas took place to isolate the insurgency from aid and manpower.

In the movie, the Algerian soldiers are of the utmost importance given that they can communicate with the villagers and provide vital translating services. Yet these Algerian soldiers are stuck in the middle of nowhere. The have been told they are French and have to serve in the French Army but they aren’t treated as French by the soldiers from mainland France. The local Algerian populace is hostile, of course, and treats them as cowards. How the soldiers react in such a situation is what the movie examines. Will they, can they stay loyal? In an interview of Sales I was reading this line particularly struck out “Dans cette guerre, tout le monde est trahi : les pieds-noirs, la population algérienne, les soldats...” It’s an apt summation of what you feel when watching the movie.

Overall what is interesting is that the war is being discussed openly in the mainstream in France with more movies being made on the subject, more people talking openly and discussing what happened then. It should be noted that Pontecorvo’s movie was Italian made and banned in France for many years.

Interestingly, earlier today while I was thinking of writing this post this entry on Laila Lalami’s blog directed me to a NYT article on the new National Centre of the History of Immigration in Paris.

“But being a French citizen means you’re not categorized as African French or Southeast Asian French or West Indian French; you’re just plain French. That’s the republican ideal, citizenship bestowing theoretical equality, belying the reality of racism.”

Ironically the French Algerians were in theory as French as anyone else, only in practice it was a different story. It’s same for the immigrants who live in the banlieues. They are supposed to be as French as anyone else but if you know their address, you know they are immigrants. They are still the easiest prey for the right wing jack asses like Jean-Marie Le Pen -I will never forget his comment on Zidane being acceptable because he was the son of a hakri – or idiots who tried to pass a bill praising the ‘benefits’ of colonialism last year.

““The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things,” Jacques Toubon, the museum’s president, told me, somewhat defensively I thought. France “is very late in confronting the truth about its colonial history,” he said, but the purpose of his museum “is to tell the story of immigration.” That sounded to an American like devising a museum for African-American or American Indian cultures but skipping gingerly over slavery, segregation and Manifest Destiny.”

The French need to come to terms with their own colonial past (not to mention rethink their disastrous integration policies). That people are willing to talk about the past and discuss it critically is a huge positive, but it's also just a start.

*I had also wanted to write about Atom Eyogan’s movie Ararat and Turkey but seeing how ridiculously long this post is I shall perhaps post about that later.
** Most of the background information on Algeria is paraphrased from the introduction of a paper on the Algerian War of Independence I wrote for one of my history courses.


Falstaff said...

It is a stunning film, isn't it? Aside from all the tremendous scenes of the resistance, I particularly like the press conference with Mathieu - the one where he makes the point that if the French want to hold on to Algeria they have no option but to be brutal. I can't help feeling that the world would be a better place if people in imperialist nations were forced to face the consequences of their policies.

Incidentally, I take it you've read Camus on Algeria?

Szerelem said...

Oh yes...the press conference! I need to watch the movie again. Have you seen Z by the way? I love that movie too.

Camus on Algeria - some of it, yes. It leaves me deeply conflicted though. I get where he is coming from, being a pied-noir and I appreciate his its not all black or white line of thinking. Though I do feel recent Algerian history (the FLN becoming a single party, the Islamist movement, the civil war) sort of vindicate him (thankfully the country is recovering now)but the French presence in Algeria was probably one of the most brutal of all colonial governments. I also kept thinking of Algeria when I was reading The Rebel.

Falstaff said...

Yes, have seen Z, and really like it, though I don't think it really compares to Battle of Algiers.

On Camus: it's precisely the distance between the Rebel and some of his stuff on the Algerian question that I find interesting. He's so clear in the former and so much more tentative in the latter.

Tabula Rasa said...

i've been looking for the soundtrack for Z for a while now. we used to have it on lp - it was captivating.

btw, 'past histories' is pushing it a bit, no? :-)

Szerelem said...

Falstaff: I guess Algeria was too close to home. I remember reading about that fact that his mother was still living there and that he worried about her a great deal during the war.

TR: Oh, the music of Z is fantastic!!! Can't you just order it on Amazon. And "past histories" - ummm hastily written post. What'd you it rather be?

Tabula Rasa said...

your comment made me go check -- the version now available on amazon costs 231 usd.

histories are always past, so one of the two words is redundant. (and while i'm on this pedantia trip, your profile is dated :-D).

Szerelem said...

You are right of course, but I couldn't be arsed to change it. I blame my decrasing mental capacities on work. And why do I need to update my profile???

Alok said...

oh wow, that's a nice history lesson you have here.

It is one of my favourite films as well even though i know much less than you do about the algerian colonial struggle.

This film was in news a couple of years back when it was screened at pentagon for senior officials in charge of Iraq. It was actually in a press notice and generated lot of media coverage. I thought it was a very frank admission of the nature of american presence in Iraq and middle east as essentially imperealistic (neo-imperialistic may be?)

It is also interesting and also depressing to compare the FLN as portrayed in this film and hamas or hezbollah of our time. they both use indiscriminate violence mostly directed at civilians but something basic in the nature of millitant resistance changed which has now made it more complex. Can a similar film about Iraq and middle east be made in our time?

Alok said...

Also I haven't been able to procure the Costa-Gavras film yet :( It is not even there on netflix...

I will check if La Trahison is available on DVD...

There was a recent french film Cache (Hidden) by Michael Haneke which brilliantly tackled this algerian war and related trauma for the algerian immigrants in present day Paris. It is a great film in case you haven't seen it.

One earlier film by Haneke, Code Unknown, is also quite brilliant dealing with similar subjects of racism and problems of cultural assimilation in Paris... it is a little more generalist in its analysis.

Tabula Rasa said...

forty years of work ahead of you, lady. just observin'.

Szerelem said...

Alok: I read about the screening at the Pentagon. Also a lot of "resistance" movements look up to the FLN.
Interesting you bring up Hamas and Hezbollah...I think that for one says something about the role of Israel in the region. However, I think these two parties (the Hezbollah for sure) have a lot more support than the FLN ever did. Actually by the end of the war the FLN was bearly holding on...the French left for a number of reasons, a lot of which had to do with politics, issues and huge backlash in mainland France itself.
I missede Cache, but have hear a bit about it...shall try to find it.

TR: Meh. I will go back to being a student soon enough hopefully.

Jeremayakovka said...

See also, info on Alek Toumi. Also on the Harkis (here, too) - those Algerian loyal to French power, mostly till the bitter, reprisal-filled end.

My take on La Bataille d'Alger and uncomfortable present histories.