Wednesday, August 3, 2011
The Battle of Algiers
I watched The Battle of Algiers, directed in 1966 by Gillo Pontecorvo in film classes before. I don't know if I ever saw the whole thing before now, but I'm glad that I did. It's a great film about war, and urban guerrilla warfare. It's shot in stark black and white, the contrast often extreme during violent scenes. It shows the first time this new sort of warfare was ever used, the sort that was later employed by many countries. I like that it feels like a documentary, and is still really important to watch today - guerrilla warfare is still so common today, especially in the war that has been going on.
Since it's late, a lazy IMDB summary - "A film commissioned by the Algerian government that shows the Algerian revolution from both sides. The French foreign legion has left Vietnam in defeat and has something to prove. The Algerians are seeking independence. The two clash. The torture used by the French is contrasted with the Algerian's use of bombs in soda shops. A look at war as a nasty thing that harms and sullies everyone who participates in it." Ok. Maybe not the best summary, but I think we all get the point. The film basically shows the Algerian revolution and tries to be unbiased, showing the guerrilla warfare contrasted with the frightening torture the French were using.
Ebert draws a lot of comparisons between this film and the current war. It's hard not to. The last few years, we've seen and heard so many reports of the frightening urban guerrilla warfare. It has frequently been impossible for our guys to tell who the enemy is, because civilians and children were being used to detonate explosives. It's also hard to not think of ourselves as we see the images of the French torturing their enemies - images of Abu Ghraib came up for me as I saw some of the scenes.
In Ebert's essay, he writes about the modern use of the film, saying, ""The Battle of Algiers" is "a training film for urban guerrillas," Jimmy Breslin declared on TV in 1968. Certainly it was shown by the Black Panthers and the IRA to their members, and in September 2003 the New York Times reported that the movie was being shown in the Pentagon to military and civilian experts. Times reporter Michael Kaufman wrote that Pentagon audiences were "urged to consider and discuss the implicit issues at the core of the film -- the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq." In short, the possibilities of torture" (Great Movies III, 53). It's definitely interesting to think about how closely this film relates to our current times. It's one of the reasons, I think, that the movie remains famous and often studied - it's still relevant.
Some films are great at staying current, and sometimes it's at the expense of all other aspects of them (you watch it more for the fact that it was "ahead of it's time" or "still applicable" and not so much for the visual effects or style). The Battle of Algiers is not one of these films. It's still visually great. The harsh black and white cinematography is perfect here. It makes it feel like an old news reel, which was the intention - Ebert points out that it used to have a disclaimer promising that no news reel footage was used in the film. That's how realistic it looks! It's so powerful to watch because it feels like a documentary, and the parts that are amped up visually are not obvious enough to really take away from that feeling.
I remember liking what I saw of the film in classes (I'll never forget watching the famous scene where three women sneak through a border crossing to plant explosives in crowded cafes, hidden in purses), and now that I've sat down and watched the whole thing without professors skipping parts of it or me doodling or sleeping, I really love it. It's not really a fun movie, like all war movies, but that's of course what makes it so masterful. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a watch - it doesn't feel dated at all, and is just a really visually interesting and great movie to see. I think it gives you (or at least it gave me) quite a bit to ponder over afterward (I'd discuss but it's after midnight and my blog is probably not the place for my thoughts on this sort of thing). Let me know if you check it out!
Have any thoughts on The Battle of Algiers? Share them in the comments!
Ebert's Great Movie Essay on The Battle of Algiers
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