The Screen and the Streets: An excerpt from Sohail Daulatzai's 'Fifty Years of the Battle of Algiers: Past As Prologue'

The Baltimore Uprising did not begin in April 2015 following the death of Freddie Gray but, rather, back in November 2014, following the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown. Then, Baltimore, like so many other cities, took to the streets in protest and in solidarity with Ferguson, Missouri. And there, many of the major players who helped organize during the Baltimore Uprising introduced themselves to hundreds who marched for the first time, setting the stage for the Baltimore Uprising. Perhaps what occurred earlier this month when a thousand or so marched through Baltimore in protest of Donald Trump will similarly begin the rumblings of more mass resistance in the city.

This week, "The Battle Of Algiers," a film about the Algerian struggle for independence against France, screens in Baltimore. According to Sohail Daulatzai in his new book “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers,” the film was embraced by radical leftists like the Black Panther Party, the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Irish Republican Army, but it was also used by military juntas, including the Pentagon, which screened it in 2003 as a way for those in the military to understand Iraq (though what they learned from it seems unclear). The dense, visceral 1966 movie explores resistance from both sides but with a nuanced approach to guerrilla tactics still rarely seen. As Daulatzai argues, the film is "a nomadic text that found a home throughout the world."

"The routes it traveled reveal a larger story about how freedom dreams were shared and how the networks of repression sought to crush popular people’s struggles against the legacies of colonial and imperial rule." More poignantly, Daulatzai writes, “Though The Battle of Algiers was made fifty years ago, it’s as if it never ended. From the corridors of power to the tunnels of Gaza, we are seemingly still living the film. Only now it’s being billed as the ‘War on Terror’.” 

The following excerpts are reprinted by permission from the University of Minnesota Press from "Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue" by Sohail Daulatzai (Forerunners: Ideas First series), copyright 2016 by Sohail Daulatzai. The Battle Of Algiers," directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, screens at the Charles Theatre on Nov. 26, Nov. 30, and Dec. 1. (Brandon Soderberg) 

The Camera as Gun

As decolonization swept the globe and national liberation movements gained traction, artists, writers, intellectuals, activists, and others sought to define new nation-states in relationship to both their colonial past and their hopeful future. While discourses and debates occurred about national identity and the formation of a national culture, filmmakers, intellectuals, and artists saw art and culture as central tools to be used in shaping a revolutionary consciousness and challenging imperial and colonial orthodoxies. Whether it was the OSPAAAL in Havana, with its political graphic artwork; or the journal Lotus in Beirut, which was part of the Afro-Asian Writers Collective; or the Black Arts Movement in the United States, the movement known as Third Cinema had arguably the most enduring impact.

Emerging initially out of Brazil, Argentina, and Cuba and spreading throughout Africa and Asia as well, Third Cinema arose not just as an alternative but also as a challenge to dominant cinematic practice, whether it was the First Cinema, which was embodied in Hollywood, the commercial industrial cinemas in Europe and the Third World; or the Second Cinema, which was the experimental and art house cinemas of Europe and the United States. Taking various forms, Third Cinema's films have been grand epics, pseudo-documentaries, avant-garde expression, and social realism, and initially its main impetus was to complement the national struggle by heightening a revolutionary ethos around national identity and highlighting the residues of colonial power and the continued repression of minorities, women, and the poor within the nation itself. Seeking to create alternative visions of the past, present, and future, Third Cinema blended genre, aesthetics, and visual stylistics not solely for the purposes of artistic excellence but also to mobilize popular people's movements within and across borders.

Third Cinema comprises a vast array of films and documentaries, including films from western Asia (the Middle East), South America, and the African continent, including Henry Barakat's "A Man in Our House" (1961), Nelson Pereira dos Santos's "Barren Lives" (1963), Ousmane Sembene's "Black Girl" (1966), Tomás Gutiérrez Alea's "Memories of Underdevelopment" (1968) and "The Last Supper" (1976), Patricio Guzmán's "Battle of Chile" (1975), Mohammad Lakhdar-Hamina's "Chronicle of the Years of Embers" (1975), and numerous others. Many of the films narrate national liberation struggles, express the complexities of nation building, and also seek to close the gap between artists and the people by creating dialogue through a cinematic practice that engaged popular struggles.

Concerned with decolonization and cultural struggle, the seminal texts within Third Cinema were, not surprisingly, deeply influenced by the work of Frantz Fanon, in particular his book "The Wretched of the Earth." His ideas on the formation of national culture, the role of armed struggle, and the creation of revolutionary consciousness were seen not only in the writings that formed the foundation of Third Cinema but also in the seminal films that came to define the movement as their artists and writers sought to bridge the gap between radical artistic practice and militant anti-imperialism.

Glauber Rocha's "The Aesthetics of Hunger" lays claim to a terrain cultivated by Fanon and his militant anticolonialism. For Rocha, cinema is a weapon that reveals what colonial power conceals; borrowing heavily from Fanon, colonial control involves a violent encounter, and redemptive violence on the part of the colonized is the "moment when the colonizer becomes aware of the existence of the colonized." For Rocha, the new cinema of the Third World would "reveal that violence is normal behavior for the starving" and that "the aesthetics of violence are revolutionary rather than primitive."

While Rocha used Fanon as a means to give aesthetic dimension to Third Cinema, Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino employed Fanon to give literal force to Third World film, opening their treatise with an epigram of Fanon: "We must discuss, we must invent." With this, they laid claim to a terrain where anti-imperialist cinema would fundamentally challenge the political and economic order that made Third Cinema a necessity in the first place. Teshome Gabriel's "Towards a Critical Theory of Third World Films" uses Fanon's analysis of the three stages of national culture to argue that Fanon's final "combative phase" defines Third Cinema praxis.

Fanon's influence was seen in a number of Third Cinema films as well, including Solanas and Getino's "The Hour of the Furnaces" (1968), which explicitly quotes Fanon, and Rocha's "Black God, White Devil" (1964), which reflects Rocha's "aesthetic of hunger" and mobilizes Fanon's ideas on revolutionary violence. In addition, Sembene's "Xala" (1975) embodies Fanon's penetrating criticism of the corrupt nationalist bourgeoisie. Although these filmmakers and numerous others embraced Fanon's ideas, no film is more closely associated with Fanon than Pontecorvo's 1966 film "The Battle of Algiers."

Taking Aim: Shooting the Revolution

"The Battle of Algiers" would win numerous awards worldwide and was nominated for many others, including winning the prestigious Golden Lion Award at its debut at the Venice Film Festival in 1966, where the French delegation walked out of the award ceremony in protest. It was also nominated for an Oscar in 1967 for Best Foreign Film and again in 1969 for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and it would win the 1967 award for Best Director in Italy, Best Film in Cuba in 1967 in a Cine magazine poll of critics, a Periodistas Cinematográficos de México (PECIME) award among Mexican film critics, and the Kinema Junpo Award for Best Foreign Film in Japan in 1968.

David Forgacs has written about the production history of the film and details the central role that Saadi Yacef had in its making. Yacef had been the military commander for the FLN of the Autonomous Zone of Algiers during the years (1954–57) on which the film centered, and he wanted to see the Algerian nationalist struggle brought to the screen. Yacef not only acted in the film (playing Djafar, a character based on his own role in the war) but also coproduced the film as part of his Casbah Films entity. In addition, it was his own memoir ("Souvenirs of the Battle of Algiers") that he had written while in a French prison that would form the basis of the final script. After the war was over, Yacef had written a treatment with French filmmaker René Vautier and went to Italy to find a director. Italy at that time was the largest producer of films in Europe and had a respected and even lauded recent history of neorealist films. Yacef had approached Luchino Visconti but could not come to an agreement, and so he met with Gillo Pontecorvo, a former member of the Italian Communist Party who had been part of the Italian Resistance. Pontecorvo had directed "Kapo" (1960) and had already been thinking about a film about the Algerian War of Independence, having written a script for it called "Para" that he had hoped would star Paul Newman as an American journalist covering the war. For Yacef, Pontecorvo's script was problematic because it centered on the Europeans and their perspective, and for Pontecorvo, Yacef's version was too celebratory of the FLN. Pontecorvo and his partner Franco Solinas agreed to write a new treatment based on Yacef's memoir and also to travel to Algeria, where Yacef would introduce them to those who fought and see firsthand the impact of French colonialism and the war had on everyday Algerians and the fabric of Algerian society.

Pontecorvo and Solinas would complete the script, and with a relatively modest budget of eight hundred thousand dollars, shooting began in July 1965 and ended in December of that year. "The Battle of Algiers" was a joint venture between Yacef's Casbah Films and Italy's Igor Films, having received not only support from Italian financiers but also funding from private sources through Casbah Films as well as Algerian state support (which included access to locations and the use of extras, uniforms, and military equipment such as tanks and guns). For Yacef, who was the mastermind behind the film, this kind of coproduction and financing structure would expand the audience and market for the film, giving it international distribution, including to European art house cinemas and to the United States. Though elements of its institutional and production history suggest a mixed inheritance of European and Algerian support, "The Battle of Algiers" remains a hallmark of Third Cinema. Despite its hybrid history, the film maintained the radical liberationist thrust of Third Cinema, while it leveraged its European support to reach a broader international audience.

Employing a docudrama style that blurred the line between fiction and documentary, the film reenacted the actual Battle of Algiers of 1954–57, powerfully magnifying the tension for the viewer through a heightened sense of realism that was a result of several formal and aesthetic choices, including the use of handheld cameras and black-and-white film (when it could have used color); its shooting in actual locales where skirmishes and bombs were placed; and its deployment of voice-overs, communiqués, and press conferences, which added to its documentary and newsreel aesthetic. In fact, the sense of realism was so high, its immediacy felt so viscerally, that the producers were forced to place a title card at the beginning of the film for American audiences that said "not one foot of newsreel has been used in this re-enactment of 'The Battle of Algiers.'"

In addition, because the revolution had just ended three years prior to shooting and was fresh in the collective memory of Algerians, the use of nonprofessional actors (with the exception of Jean Martin, who played Colonel Matthieu) was also a powerful device, as the actual participants in the national struggle were a central part of the cast and did not even have to act but only be themselves, including Brahim Hadjadj, who played Ali La Pointe, and Yacef, who played Djafar (a character patterned after himself). This choice, as well as filming in locations where fighting and bombing had actually taken place—both in Algiers and more particularly in the Casbah—as well as the use of actual French people still living in Algiers, furthered the immediacy and realism that Third Cinema so poetically sought to achieve.

More important was that the film challenged colonial representations of Otherness by revealing the complexity of Muslim and Arab lives. No longer were the Third World, Muslims, or any non-European subjects of empire simply set pieces for white colonial fantasy, servants to white authority, or backgrounds to stories about white anxieties. This wasn't the exotic backdrop to a tangled French romance or the heroic workings of a European protagonist pitted against "swarthy" natives in a languid desert of palm trees with lazy camels. In "The Battle of Algiers," the Muslims had agency—limited, but agency nonetheless—that expressed itself in a demand for self-determination against those who sought to control their destinies. And unlike the cinemas of empire that centered English, French, and other European languages, "The Battle of Algiers" utilized and centered the Arabic language, giving the Algerian characters linguistic integrity and an authenticity that had up until then been denied.

But not just that. In amplifying the voices of Algerian resistance to colonial oppression, the film broke from conventional Hollywood and First Cinema practice by not centering the use of an individual protagonist who forces audience identification with that individual. Instead, the film privileges a larger collective as the protagonist—the Algerian people. In this way, the film doesn't just challenge dominant cinematic modes. It also suggests that social change and the engines of history are the product not of individuals but of collectives, be they communities or even countries. Though Ali La Pointe is one of many recurrent characters, and it is his capture around which the narrative arc is structured, the film shows that even after his death, the Algerian resistance to French colonial violence continued unabated.

Though the film has been praised as being balanced, it's clear that its sympathies lie with the Algerians. The use of musical score, close-ups, and long takes underscores the film's leanings, and maybe its most powerful impact could be felt in how the film created an empathy and identification with the Algerian rebels, whether it was with Ali La Pointe, the women moving through the checkpoints, or the Algerian people as a whole. In this way, what "The Battle of Algiers" did was close the gap between the screen and the streets, suggesting through its aesthetic choices that to identify with the Algerians on-screen would force spectators to fundamentally reconsider, and even question, dominant mainstream ideas about power and history circulating in the streets. This was the charge—and the burden—of Third Cinema: to turn viewers into active spectators who would become witnesses and, ultimately, rebels.

Born at the Af-Pak border, Sohail Daulatzai is a writer, curator and professor. His other books include "Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom beyond America," and "Return of the Mecca: The Art of Islam and Hip-Hop." He is also the co-editor of "Born to Use Mics," and wrote the liner notes for Rage Against The Machine's "XX" box set. Daulatzai teaches in the Department of Film and Media Studies, the Department in African American Studies, and the Program in Global Middle East Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

Follow him @sohaildaulatzai.

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