Gillo Pontecorvo’s “La Battaglia di Algeri” (1966)
Algerie francaise. It was considered a part of French. Didn’t prevent that in French imagination, the
populations they were controlling were backward, exotic. Long tradition in European imagination to
look at other parts of the globe as exotic but also alluring, sexually. Especially true of Islamic “east”
– called “Orientalism”
French Algerians – thought of their Algerian identity as just as important, just as integral as their
French identity. This was true with Camus.
So, they wanted to hold onto what they thought of as their homeland, too
French Algerians begged Charles de Gaulle to come back to power, so he did, solidified
presidential power, declared 5 Republic in which presidential power much more centralized. Within
a few years, he actually concluded that French hold over Algeria was impossible. Algerian longing
for independence was too great, FLN too strong
Battle of Algiers – 195657. This was only one pitched, protracted battle in a long war against
French control, and that battle ended in failure. Demoralized the French, though.
Independence came in July 1962
Premiered in 1966. Its directed was Pontecorvo. Lived in France for a while during war and then
moved to Italy again to fight fascists
Heavily influenced by Rossalini, Italian neorealism
Pontecorvo remained throughout his life a fierce opponent to anything conservative, remained
attached to communist party until 1956 (Hungarian crackdown)
Battle of Algiers went through several script revisions – took a long time for Pontecorvo and
screenwriters to reach some conclusion about what exactly the film was they wanted to make.
In original script, protagonist would be former paratrooper, Frenchman, now a magazine reporter.
His role was to slowly awaken to brutality of French army. To be played by Paul Newman (Butch
Cassidy). But, Pontecorvo resisted this attempt, he wanted to make a film more neorealist with
mostly unknown actors, the “dictatorship of truth”
It appears to be a documentary, and it’s so effective that one occasionally loses one’s bearings and
feels that one is simply watching a documentary, watching truth unfold.
Contrasts are sometimes very extreme in a way that makes it look like newsreel footage.
By this point, films were quite often in color. Pontecorvo was resisting the desire to satisfy
bourgeois taste for images that one could absorb in pleasure. This is an austere film, resists the
idea that it’s for pleasure, stays in “factual, documentary” mode
General impression in the film is that you are caught up in the action. Protagonists seem to be the
women, children, etc, running through the streets of the Casbah. Used a very popular technique
today, the handheld camera.
Despite that impression, we know that Pontecorvo chose for at least one or two roles in the film,
individuals who were well known, including Jean Martin (Colonel Matthieu) – Jean Martin had
been in original, Paris premier of Waiting for Godot as Lucky in 1953. The other well known person
was Saadi Yacef as Elhadi Jaffar – Elhadi Jaffar was fictitious, but Saadi Yacef was, in fact, a
member of the FLN himself. He played a fictitious character modeled closely after himself. Many people did not like what the film had done – too equal, too fair to both sides, they said. He
didn’t want to reduce the moral complexity. He rejected a script made by an exiled member of FLN
as too propagandistic, but we know his sympathies were with colonial rebellion
French felt that this was a “how to” guide to conducting a rebellion – there was a protests in the
street of French military and piedsnoirs) repatriated French Algerians). The film was banned in
France for its first five years. Nonetheless, it won the Golde