When I rounded first base with my Blind Spot Series, I wasn’t sure what I was in for. A lot of the titles I chose to cover this year felt like Film Lit 201, and with that I worried that I wouldn’t understand what I should be taking away from the film…or why it had endured. I was especially worried about some of the films I only knew by title, such as today’s selection. My nervousness first led me to Corey Atad who gave me all sorts of little clues that would guide me on my walk through THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, including connections to modern favorites like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
In an effort to double-down, I then turned to my rather film-literate brother. I was hoping for more clarity, perhaps even a better roadmap to lead me through the movie.
Instead, Shane just responded with three words:
“Just watch it”
Sure enough – that was all it took. Any intimidation or hesitations fell away as I soaked up a 62-year-old film that felt like it could have been made last week.
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS chronicles an occupation. The setting is French Algeria in the middle of the 20th Century. The region has been under French control for more than a century, but as tends to happen, the natives get restless and want to govern themselves. Thus, Algerian Muslims begin to align behind a socialist political party called the FLN (National Liberation Front). However, one man’s political party is another man’s terrorist cell, and before long the FLN is getting the French government’s attention by assassinating soldiers and detonating bombs in cafes.
These actions lead to sanctions…which lead to escalation…which leads to greater violence…which lead to battle lines being drawn. Pretty soon, occupying forces are being targeted by civilians. Children act as informants. Women act as gun runners.
It depicts a war that ignores the rules of engagement. This is a conflict where the line between strategic target and civilian casualties overlap so radically because so often they are one and the same. The military cannot recognize the enemy, because often times the enemy does not even recognize one another. It’s all by design, and all meant to tunnel under an occupying force. The end game is to galvanize a section of the population, and turn them against the occupants…and it’s an end game that is still employed today.
This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the date American-led forces invaded Iraq. Strangely, in the ten years since, it feels as though precious few great films were made about the conflict. In some ways that can be chalked up to a lack of perspective, and in others it might have come down to storytellers trying to tell a biased story.
Perhaps, instead of trying to tell new stories when they weren’t ready to be told (or heard), filmmakers who wanted to comment on the state of the world would have been better off pointing audiences towards THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS. It sums up so many of the repercussions so well. In one scene we watch a beautiful couple get married, and in the back of our brains we cringe because we know their marriage will likely be so short-lived. In another scene we watch as orders are relayed to soldiers. These orders are coming from bureaucrats back in France – officials who have no real clue what is happening on the front lines. The plans they hand down instantly feel like they will do more harm than good, but of course, nobody is allowed to question orders.
Finally, we see xenophobia begin to take hold in Algiers as the French population begin to suspect and even indict any Muslim that seems suspicious. Often they have nothing to do with any of the violence that the day has brought…nothing, that is, besides being Muslim.
Watching THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, I was both dumbstruck by its execution and saddened by the reality it underlines.
Wars cannot be fought in this manner. A character puts a point on it when he says “Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act.”. What that demands though, is having trained soldiers unable to tell the innocent from the guilty. On the flip side, it enlists people who might be angry, might be desperate, or might just not have any choice to get pulled into the fray. On paper, it should be a means to an end…but it never is, and what results is becoming far too common in our world. Algeria, Belfast, Baghdad, the list will go on and on. The increase in violence increases the occupation…and back-and-forth it goes like a bloody game of tennis.
Much of this might seem like thoughts inspired by events outside of the screen. However, it just cannot be helped. The film hasn’t aged a second; quite the opposite, it has once again become wildly relevant. It tries its very best to play even-handedly with The Algerians and The French, seldom lingering on whether one side is more ‘in the right’.
Nudging this writing series towards “Film Lit 201″ might have taken me a little more out of my comfort zone, and perhaps even cost me a reader or two. Still, if I learned anything from BATTLE OF ALGIERS, it’s to trust that certain titles endure for a reason. Sure, there are times when I come away from a classic, and I feel the urge to dig a little deeper and understand what I might have missed. Other times, pressing play and “just watching it” as Shane suggested, lays every card on the table.
In the case of THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS, I have been floored by just how poignant it remains…and perhaps even saddened that it is still very much the way of the world.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for March…
Will watched Badlands
Sean Kelly watched Hedwig and The Angry Inch
Andy Hart watched They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
Kurt watched The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Technically, I think he did it for Twitch)
Allison watched Goodfellas
Andrew “Birthday Boy” Robinson watched Close-Up
Courtney Small watched Les Diaboliques
Jake Cole watched The Bluest of Seas
Dan Heaton watched The Fall
Steven Flores watched Red Beard
Amir Soltani watched Sunrise