Friday, 8 February 2013

BFI Friday: The Battle of Algiers

For this BFI Friday, we'll be looking at The Battle of Algiers, in at number 48 on the BFI's all time greatest movies, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and released in 1966. Pontecorvo's film is based on the uprisings and bombings in the 1950s and 60s, during the French occupation of Algeria. The Battle of Algiers was banned in France until 1974 and only then was released with cuts. Pauline Kael in 1973 said of it that it is 'Probably the only film that has ever made middle-class audiences believe in the necessity of bombing innocent people', and indeed, the The Battle of Algiers' great controversy, that it is told from the perspective of the Algerian insurgents, still resonates in the year that Zero Dark Thirty is released in cinemas. Its contemporary relevance as a portrayal of terrorism is perhaps no better demonstrated than by the fact that in 2003 the Pentagon screened the film to demonstrate 'How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas'. The Battle of Algiers, is terrific, thrilling cinema, with wonderfully drawn characters and a tension that few modern thrillers can match. Indeed, Paul Greengrass, director of two of The Bourne films and of the superb  Green Zonehas spoken of its influence on him as a filmmaker, explaining that, 

The reason that I think [The Battle of Algiers] will endure and continue to speak to future generations is because it's essentially about change, and the way that change can be accomplished, whether through violence or through protest [...] It's got all the elements of our contemporary landscape: political violence, military intervention [...] and a common humanity.

'Not one foot' of newsreel was used in the film,
but you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.
One of the triumphs of The Battle of Algiers is its use of a documentary style, shot in black and white, with many scenes resembling news footage. Thirty years before 'found footage' and shaky-cam got in on the act, Pontecorvo brings an immediacy and reality to the narrative that few other directors in the 1960s were doing. If further evidence of the film's enduring relevance were needed, take a look at this article on Zero Dark Thirty, written by my colleague Alex Adams, who briefly compares Bigelow's film with The Battle of Algiers. As Adams points out, The Battle of Algiers exhibits a balance that is often lacking in modern films that deal with similar material. Indeed, to draw another comparison, Ben Affleck's Argo, a strong contender for this year's Best Picture Oscar and an otherwise excellent thriller, deals with issues of insurgency and terrorism. But just as with Zero Dark Thirty, Argo's story is told doggedly from the perspective of the the occupying force, which in that case is the Americans. In so doing, both Argo and Zero Dark Thirty invent a manichean world of goodies and baddies, despite the lip service Bigelow and Affleck pay to notions of 'balance' and self-proclaimed objectivity. In contrast, The Battle of Algiers, while clearly sympathising with the insurgent Algerians, does not demonise the French occupiers, but rather, represents both sides of the conflict in a way that is almost entirely absent from its modern counterparts.

In The Battle of Algiers, Pontecorvo crafts a nuanced, emotive and technically brilliant film, one that is as thrilling and compelling on a purely cinematic level as it is vital and important on the political. The Battle of Algiers is proof that cinema can be a powerful tool in political discourse, especially for something as sensitive, and as it was, urgent, as the Algerian War. Our own historical distance from the subject matter notwithstanding, the impact of Pontecorvo's film is as strong as ever, perhaps stronger, given its relevance in the face of modern Western occupations in the Middle East, and the contrast between Pontecorvo's masterpiece and contemporary political and war cinema. The Battle of Algiers is, in many ways, cinema at its best: vital, immediate, technically flawless and both emotionally and politically challenging. 

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