The Battle of Algiers


1966 – Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo

In my previous post about El Norte I spoke about how my parents were big film buffs, and also how I enjoyed watching movies with my mother. My mother has always had a very thoughtful approach to watching film.

The Battle of Algiers was on television back when I was about seven, maybe eight years old. In retrospect, it must have been PBS. Of course, memory is full of gaps and modifications. I may have been older, perhaps younger. I definitely remember seeing the scene with the cafés being blown up. I also definitely remember asking my mother why they would that: why they would blow up a public space, with children eating ice cream, people enjoying a song on the jukebox or conversation with friends. I don’t really remember how she explained it to me. (Of course, the sequence of images in my mind’s eye is entirely different than the actual montage.) The sequence haunted me for years, and it took a long time to figure out what movie this was.

When I was a child I must’ve come into the movie independently of anything before or after that pivotal sequence. I hadn’t seen the part where the French authorities had blown up an entire housing complex in the Casbah, killing dozens of whole families. The comprehension of why these women would take these actions, while still nausea-producing, at least makes some kind of narrative logic. Before, it had seemed entirely random. (All of this was roughly based on real life events the Algerian uprising in the 1950s.)

For a useful article on the historical background of the real events versus the events as portrayed in the film, I recommend this:

I had no idea at the time that, 40-45 years later, this film would still hold a mirror to world events. (The U.S. Military, apparently, in recent years, still uses this as a kind of field guide to navigating current occupied zones.)

The gritty, “you are there” newsreel feel to the movie is effective, and helps blur the lines between news, documentary and fictional narrative.

One more thing: the soundtrack is fantastic, being a mix of traditional Algerian music and Ennio Morricine.


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