The Battle of Algiers (1966)

The Battle of Algiers narrates a chapter of the Algerian War of Independence which played out in the streets of Algiers in the 1950s.

The movie is shot in a documentary style on a black-and-white reel, casting non-professional actors (and even real-life survivors) so as to not let stardom intrude on the focus of the movie. Most of it is shot in the Muslim quarters of the city – a claustrophobic place with narrow, stepped streets and dingy, overcrowded buildings. It is here that the members of the resistance, the FLN, decide to declare war on the city.

Starting with ominous communiques which announce their rule, they proceed to shoot apathetic Algerians and French policemen as well as bomb the European quarters repeatedly. Ali La Pointe, a senior FLN member, is a street urchin-turned-assassin who is closest to a hero this movie has. The resistance invites the wrath of the French army and a state of guerrilla warfare ensues. The movie opens with La Pointe’s hideout being confessed by a man under torture. Shooting on black-and-white reel brings a level of starkness to human faces in film – every edge and every groove in the face reveals itself as it contorts, rendering it emotionally naked. The despair and pain glints in his eyes, as does the steely resolve in La Pointe’s, watching the soldiers tell him that death is imminent.

The movie has many such moments- especially when three Algerian women are sent on a mission to place bombs in the European quarter. As these women mingle into the crowds inconspicuously, they are shown to be reflecting at all the white faces-talking, laughing, smiling – which will be dead in a few minutes. Innocent faces. But French faces. And that is all that matters. Algerian lives matter.

Same goes for the French paratroopers, led by the serene but wily Colonel Mathieu, as they incite the Algerians during a general strike, harass the locals and use torture to hunt down and exterminate the FLN. Mathieu jokingly calls it ‘’Operation Champagne’’, justifying the use of torture to a group of reporters with what millennials say best- ‘’It is what it is.’’. No different is Midi, a FLN leader who, when asked about the bombings, just dispassionately states it would be easier with planes than the baskets they have to use.

The movie is a gritty study in the human cost of urban guerilla war, as the innocents pay for the crimes of the ‘’guilty’’. For the Algerians, death is worth their freedom. For the French, they are French-by-proxy and the FLN an annoying, but dangerous, minority. ‘’France is your motherland!’’ yells a soldier and in the next breath, ‘’Stay back, you dirty Arab!’’. The stakes are high and human lives are just collateral damage. Anything, and everything is game.

The movie is unpunctuated with any moments of romance, humour or celebration. The dialogue is precise and devoid of any sentimentality. In fact, the original screenplay was written without any dialogue. Nothing to cushion the sheer shock of watching human cruelty, desecration and brutality that blares throughout.

The Battle of Algiers now rests in the annals of cinema as one of the finest universal commentaries on guerilla warfare, even used as an ‘’educational’’ film by the Pentagon. Despite being based wholly in Algiers, its message reverberates universally: dipping the ledgers of war in glory can’t wipe the blood off them.

Vibhuti Roach
BSc. Statistics (Hons.) 2nd Year

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