It’s ironic that one of the finest film indictments against Western colonialism sounds like the title of a bad History Channel documentary. Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, released in 1966, stands, along with Costa Gavras’s Z, as one of the few meaningful political films to come out of Europe in the 1960s and, even today, holds great relevance to the current political situation in North Africa and the Middle East.
America’s post-1945 plans are well documented: secure the world’s markets, control its resources, convert war production to domestic goods, remake West Germany and Japan into hi-tech capitalist satellite states, and leverage them to help the U.S. dominate the global economy. Above all, avoid sinking back into another Great Depression by forcing the world to buy our toasters and guns, both designed to break periodically. What would be the developing world’s role in all of this? Enrichment of a tiny percentage of global elite loyal to American business interests, who would control their civilian populations by force and crush any leftist populist resistance to the siphoning of their natural resources. Anyone against this agenda would be against freedom.
One overarching concern began to preoccupy capitalist planners: there were tens of thousands of liberated partisans across Europe, and most of them were still armed. All had suffered greatly under the occupation, where they cut communication lines and staged quick attacks. In short, they had done their bit, and they all now wanted some say in how the governments returning from exile patched up their nations. Support for former leaders, while easy to keep congealed during the Axis occupations, started to dissolve rather quickly as the parades ended. In Italy, this took the form of increased radicalization away from the right wing, with Communists, Socialists, and to a lesser extent Anarchists, all making giant political headway. In 1946, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party took the majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly, the provisional body in charge of drafting a new constitution for Italy, which meant that the Christian Democrats were now the minority clerical party. This was totally unheard of and reflected an increasing public hostility towards Catholicism and its complicity in the dissemination of Fascist doctrine. U.S. policy makers were terrified by this power shift and now saw a legitimate Communist victory in the 1948 electoral process–not a Bolshevik-style coup–as a real possibility. To compromise and control these free elections, the U.S. government funneled huge amounts of money into a propaganda campaign and used Italy as the first testing ground for its newly-formed National Security Council, which was created to advise the President on matters of foreign policy. That crucial counterinsurgency operation is beyond the scope of this blog but does make for enlightening reading of declassified government documents; suffice it to say, the Fascists would have been proud, particularly since many of them were elected back into the posts from which they had only recently been displaced. This became the pilot project for subsequent CIA-backed attacks throughout Latin America, where the violence and atrocities mounted tenfold.
For North Africa, the rotating door of European imperialists fighting self-serving wars on the backs of their colonial subjects meant the arrival of an unexpected power vacuum. The same occurred in southeast Asia, where the Japanese occupiers vacated parts of French Indochina (Vietnam). The U.S. shrewdly put the final nail in Britain’s colonial coffin by stipulating, in the terms of its Anglo-American Loan of 1945, that the U.K. first liquidate its overseas assets in the Commonwealth, thereby ensuring American global dominance for decades to come. Britain would be paying annually on that bill until 2006. As for France, I’m not sure of the whys behind its staunch determination to stay in the colonial game when it was so clearly outclassed by the new heavies, but they went at the task with considerable enthusiasm and arrogance. Vietnam’s war of independence against France and the U.S. is well documented, although you’re supposed to call it something else. The last-minute cancelling of the North/South unifying elections due to fear of Communist victory, just as in Italy, says all you need to know about the U.S./French dedication to democracy abroad. In Algeria, France also had, well, some trouble letting go.
Gillo Pontecorvo is the best directorial example of the swing towards radicalism in postwar Italy. His output next to his peers is minuscule, with primarily The Battle of Algiers and Quiemada commonly discussed today in film circles. It was Italian socialist Antonio Gramsci who first coined the term subaltern, which advocated that indigenous histories be told from the perspective of the colonized rather than the colonizers; and although Algiers cannot be said to be a true subaltern film due to Pontecorvo’s direction and Italian financing, it nevertheless reflects a thorough understanding of the mechanisms of oppression and dominance, and their impact on human rights. More importantly, the idea for the film originated with the Algerians themselves. It was Salash Baazi, a former member of the FLN (the Algerian freedom fighters, by then victorious) that first approached Italian producers with the idea of filming the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, the FLN commander imprisoned by the French and later freed to become a long-standing member of the Algerian government. The first draft, done by an Italian screenwriter before Pontecorvo’s involvement, reflected the angle still so prevalent today, that is, the narrative vis-a-vis the conscience-stricken imperialist soldier who uncovers the “truth” about his nation’s actions. Thankfully the FLN rejected this idea and a second draft was produced that provided a more balanced approach. This persistence of the FLN, that their story be told with some modicum of fairness, is a very important point to keep in mind since it is this exact fairness to which Pontecorvo respectfully adheres when coming on board. Indeed, Pontecorvo went to great lengths to include the past participants, including the casting of Yacef himself as the FLN leader. The secular, politically-driven FLN were as ruthless and tenacious as their French occupiers; in that sense, it mirrors almost exactly Israel’s ongoing dominance of the Palestinians through their illegal occupation of the West Bank, with the endless checkpoints, harassment, torture, and indiscriminate bombings.
The film’s significance today is multi-faceted. The Battle of Algiers has been used by both the oppressed and the oppressor, depending on the spin, and yet it still stands as a strong political statement, created at least in part by then-powerless voices attempting to eradicate imperialist systems of tyranny and control.