Cinéma Vérité

By Leonard Fein

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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The IRA and the Tamil Tigers, Fatah and the Black Panthers and the special operations people at the Pentagon have all studied it. Critics have hailed it as one of the great movies of all time; The New Yorker calls it “a masterpiece, surely the most harrowing political epic ever,” others have used words like “riveting” and “breathtaking” to describe it.

The film is “The Battle of Algiers,” first released in 1965 and now in re-release around America in an improved version with new and more accurate subtitles. It chronicles a part of the Algerian effort to rid their land of what they saw as the French occupation. (I say “what they saw as” because the French had in fact occupied Algeria since 1830, and the war of the FLN, or National Liberation Front, against the French did not begin in earnest until 1954; by then, the French did not see themselves as occupiers in any conventional sense.) The movie has so much the feel of a documentary that it begins with a solemn disclaimer: “This dramatic re-enactment of The Battle of Algiers contains NOT ONE FOOT of Newsreel or Documentary film.” Yet no one, not even the actual veterans of the struggle in the Casbah of Algiers, questions its verisimilitude.

I saw the movie for the first time in its current incarnation. I was as moved as one is supposed to be, as horrified by the depictions of FLN terrorism and of French torture. But I apparently saw it with different eyes than have the critics who have written about its meaning and its relevance to the world of 2004.

Just about every critic finds the filmmakers sympathetic to the Algerians. It’s not that the French are hobnailed occupiers, not at all; their principal (and yes, principled) representative, the suave Colonel Mathieu, is in fact a remarkably civilized — or at least sophisticated — officer. He is quite precisely not a sadist, nor is he merely “following orders.” He’d been a member of the Resistance in France during World War II; he does not hate, in fact he respects, his enemies in the FLN. What drives him, as he reveals at a press conference, is logic: “Is France to remain in Algeria? If your answer is… yes, you must accept all the necessary consequences.” And chief among those consequences is torture. Victory depends on information, which depends on interrogation, which depends on torture.

Yet the movie does not shrink from depicting the methods of the FLN, which included the placing of lethal bombs in outdoor cafes, dance halls and race tracks. Time after time, we are shown the faces of innocents — and, an explosion later, their mangled bodies. Enough so that by the time the movie was over, and before I’d bothered to read the reviews, I was convinced I’d seen a balanced presentation, a film whose central point was that both sides were to blame, both were guilty.

Who was right? Both sides were right. And both were wrong.

Why, then, is the film universally regarded as favoring the FLN? Is it because any national liberation struggle generates more sympathy than any defense of colonialism? Or because more is expected of the French, morally, than is expected of the Algerians?

Whatever the answer to that puzzling question, many if not most reviewers of the current release see the film as a cautionary tale as the United States gets more and more bogged down in Iraq. Remember, they say, that though the French won the battle of Algiers at the tactical level, they lost it at the strategic level; five years later the French withdrew from Algeria, leaving a gruesome mess behind. But for me, the checkpoints and the building demolitions and the overwhelming French advantage in arms, on the one side, along with the slaughter of innocents on the other, suggested less Iraq than Israel.

The truth is, of course, that neither analogy — not to Iraq, not to Israel — is precise. As rooted as the French colons were in Algeria, Algeria was not their homeland; when they had to leave, they had a place to go. As Robert Frost put it: “Home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” In that powerful sense, both the Israelis and the Palestinians are already at home. Neither has anyplace else to be, anyone who has to — or wants to — take them in. Hence neither side can win.

The Algerians won their war because the checkpoints and the rest radicalized the Algerian people and divided France. In France, back then, it was Jean-Paul Sartre who ignited the opposition to the inhuman tactics of the paratroopers, and it was Charles de Gaulle who finally understood that victory was not possible, not without the endless corruption of the French soul and the enduring poisoning of French politics.

Watch as the checkpoints are erected, as people are pulled out of line to be searched, as the explosives are set to demolish the buildings, and watch as the cafes are blown up. Think Israelis, think Palestinians. No, the analogy to Algeria is not precise — but it is painfully instructive. The “necessary consequences”? This past week, two more “successful” Israeli operations in Gaza, from which Israel hints in intends to withdraw. But it is a delusion to suppose that with enough such “successes,” the Palestinians will… will what? Surrender? Disappear? Beg forgiveness? Delusions everywhere, soaked in blood.

Neither side can win; both can lose. Both are losing.

Leonard Fein’s most recent book is “Against the Dying of the Light: A Father’s Story of Love, Loss and Hope” (Jewish Lights, 2001).

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