16 May 2007

The Battle of Algiers

Recommended for historical interest and relevance to the news of the day.

A famous Italian film from 1966, directed and go-written by Gillo Pontecorvo. It’s one of those famous films I never got around to seeing until now, and has been high on my list since I read that the Pentagon had screened it for an Iraq study group.

In a very even-handed, documentary style, it takes us through the pivotal events in Algeria’s failed revolution of the 1950s. You’d swear you were watching newsreel footage, with crowds shot from a distance, on location, through smoke, using extras who were actually involved in the riots that were recreated for the film.

Its politics might not be what you’d expect. The revolutionary leaders are calm, thoughtful and articulate. But so are the French. The paratroopers are just doing a job, not happy about their role as policeman but accepting that it must be done. And despite the torture and the assassinations and the bombings, neither side comes off as crazy, or even as extreme. Ruthless, perhaps, and willing to do evil in the name of a greater good.

In the first scene, we open in silence to see a wizened old man, shivering in his underwear, with two or three troopers around him. The interrogator speaks: “You didn’t have to hold out for so long, you know. It could have been easier on you.” They make him a cup of coffee, and more paratroopers come in, patting the old man on the back, helping him stand and telling him everything will be OK.

Later, there’s a scene with a recently-arrested rebel leader, speaking with the French Colonel. They’re discussing their relative strategies in a calm, philosophical way. There’s no hatred here, no shouting, no wild eyes. There’s even respect. They’re both professionals, and you have the old-fashioned notion they would have been friends, except for being enemies.

You can’t watch it without thinking about Baghdad and Abu Ghraib. And you can’t help thinking that while so much of the apparatus of revolution remains the same (torture and assassinations and bombings), we’ve lost something important in the knee-jerk extremism that’s taken over since 9-11.

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