Saadi Yacef headed the Algerian rebel movement, the Front de Libération Nationale, in Algiers until his capture in summer 1957. Unlike his fellow combatants in the movement, murdered in captivity by the French military or blown up by French explosives in their Casbah hideouts or strangled by their own rivals within the FLN, he survived the war, although he did some prison time. In prison he wrote an account of his struggle. After independence, he went to Italy in search of a director to film his story.
Gillo Pontecorvo already had a script for a movie about the Algerian war for independence. It was to be called Para, short for paratrooper, those tough colorful survivors of World War II and Indochina that French novelists were celebrating in those years. His script relived the Algerian war through the eyes of a remorseful warrior, to be played, in Technicolor, by Paul Newman. Luckily, Newman was booked for the next two years, and Pontecorvo had the sense to see that Algerian history could best be told in Algerian voices. He and scriptwriter Franco Solinas adapted and deepened Yacef’s story and persuaded him to play himself in the film. Their Battle of Algiers is both an elegy for the war’s victims on both sides and a celebration of Algeria’s liberation from colonial oppression. It won the Golden Lion in Venice in 1966; it was banned from French movie theaters until 1971.
Great admirers of Rossellini’s neorealism, Pontecorvo and his Italian photographer shot the film on location in Algiers. They gave its skies, its rooftops, its broad boulevards and narrow Casbah warrens the same loving treatment Rossellini and later Pasolini lavished on Rome’s weather-beaten monuments and ragged edges.
Rossellini worked under wartime conditions in black and white with odd bits of film. Pontecorvo elevated necessity to an arte povera aesthetic, although no one who has seen the snippets of French period newsreels posted on YouTube could mistake his film for a documentary. He produced a taut, episodic chronicle of the horrific 1957 conflict. After a bombing in the Casbah killed eighty people, the Algerian rebels retaliated with their own campaign of urban terror against civilian targets. In response the French governor general of Algeria, with the approval of France’s socialist Minister of Justice, Francois Mitterand, turned over the city to the military under French Indochina vet General Jacques Massu, commander of the 10th Parachute division.
Martial law ruled the city from then on. Arab-Berber sections were put under lockdown and behind barbed wire, with checkpoints, and surrounded by a tight network of native spies. It was estimated that between 30 and 40% of the male population of the Casbah were arrested, at some point, and thousands were interrogated and tortured. The search-and-destroy operation quickly unwound the rebel terror network but, by its heinous methods, strengthened Algerian solidarity and weakened support for the war in France.
Pontecorvo’s smartest move was to dispense with actors altogether and allow the people of Algiers to play themselves. In the course of the war, the French had forced over two million Algerians out of their villages and into what can only be called concentration camps under military control. Eight thousand villages were destroyed, many by napalm. Many survivors of this unimaginable upheaval abandoned the countryside for good at war’s end and moved to the cities. The large number of women in the film’s memorable crowd scenes are probably intentional, but it’s also true that men in their twenties and thirties were the predominant casualties of the fighting. Pontecorvo worked with those the war had spared.
The film ennobles the worst scenes of degradation. An unidentified tear-stained face, a sorrowing witness, hovers over the torture scenes like a Berber Christ, to a solemn Bachlike accompaniment. Steeped in Italian sensibilities, Battle of Algiers is like a great Madonna or Pieta bent over the wounded body of the neighbor country. In fact things were far worse than the film can suggest. Torture didn’t arrive in the country with the battle of Algiers; it had been an accompaniment of colonial rule for generations. The special interrogation unit, the euphemistically named Détachements opérationnels de protection that functioned in Algiers that year, had its counterparts throughout the country. Hundreds of thousands of Algerians were tortured in the army’s search for intelligence about rebel networks. Women were raped and tortured. Of the 24,000 men arrested in Algiers in 1957, 3,000 could not be accounted for. Dead under torture? Summarily executed? Dropped into the sea from planes?
The movie was out-of-date before the filming began in summer 1965. In June, a coup by Colonel Houari Boumedienne put Algeria under military control for decades to come. A country forced to win its independence through violence and suspicion and secret plotting still struggles to break free of murky authoritarian rule. Contrast the joyous crowds parading their Algerian flags through the capital in December 1960—the movie’s upbeat final scene—with what goes on now, when public demonstrations in Algiers are banned, by state fiat, and a timid prodemocracy march that managed to bring three thousand people into the streets this past February 12, was stopped in its tracks by a deployment of forty thousand policemen and women, their loyalty reinforced by a recent 50% salary raise, retroactive to 2008.
Larbi Ben M’hidi, a hero of the Algerian resistance, gets the best lines in the film, lines that still resonate today. “Starting a revolution is hard, and it’s even harder to continue it. Winning is hardest of all. But only afterward, when we have won, will the real hardships begin.”