CINEMA: News Weekly
FILM REVIEW - Gillo Pontecorvo's 'The Battle of Algiers'
, August 28, 2004
Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers
, is a cameo and a brilliant piece of film-making.
There were very important, indeed crucial, forces and persons in the shadows, such that the Algerians, the French Army and the settlers we saw were, unwittingly, actors in a script written and largely directed by others.
I want to look at these forces and persons and what has happened to Algeria; how her people have fared since victorious independence. The people I most wish to discuss are the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) who orchestrated the rebellion in Algiers but also throughout the country; who led the rebels to victory and secured independence from France; and then became the new rulers, who, albeit precariously, they still are.
Firstly, the driving force behind the revolt, the FLN, set out from the beginning to polarise the two communities, French and Algerian, so that they would see one another as enemies; them versus us, separated by an unbridgeable gap. So the FLN first murdered or drove away Algerians friendly to the French, or who believed in co-existence and the peaceful negotiation of differences. Then, they targeted Frenchmen with close contacts, or friendships or shared opinions with the Algerians.Polarise
Firstly, destroy the middle ground: "Death to the Peacemakers and Collaborators!" The FLN were successful in this. This tactic is in fact an old one, dating back at least as far as Nechaev and of the works of Dostoevsky and Conrad. To destroy Liberals, moderates, intellectually mature people, particularly if they be in your movement or party, is a prerequisite to radicalisation of the others. The Communists and the Nazis always started on such people early on - the soft targets. And our peace and student movements have often suffered "radicalisation" by similar manipulations.
In Algeria, the next step was to launch such attacks - bombing, assassination, as would force the state (in this case the French) to retaliate in kind or else lose all credibility in Algeria and Paris. By the very ferocity of the French riposte, more and more Algerians would be polarised and thus, able to be mobilised. Just another familiar but very successful tactic in the radical repertoire.
The triumph of these methods in Algiers provided valuable examples for all radical movements and revolutionary forces. The Vietnamese Communists went to town on such ploys - and Hamas and Hezbollah are trying them on the Israelis now. The victim has the choice of retaliation or surrender. Quite naturally, Pontecorvo doesn't feature much of this in his historical cameo.
After victory, the new FLN government, intertwined with its military, paid off old scores. Perhaps 120,000 Algerians who had worked with the French or were considered too friendly towards them - and, incidentally, whom the French had abandoned in their retreat - were massacred. Like post-1975 Vietnam, but perhaps far more lethal, perhaps more uncontrolled, and more barbaric.
Then, many leaders of the ongoing revolt, heroes of the public and the Western Left - such as Ben Bella - were purged. The system settled down as a one-party state, a dictatorship of party and army, becoming more repressive and more corrupt with the passing of each year.
Despite its substantial oil resources, poverty and unemployment steadily mounted. So, more and more Algerians became restive and masses migrated - legally and illegally - to France. There are now six million Muslims (mostly Algerian) in that country packed largely around Paris.
Had the revolution succeeded and delivered on promises of work, education and widening opportunities for the majority of the population, there would have been far less need for migration to France and to Europe. But the one-party revolutionary dictatorship has made Algeria a basket case. Twenty years after independence, the first President of Algeria - Ben Bella - declared the net result as "totally negative". "The country was a ruin," he said. "Its agriculture had been assassinated. We have no industry, only scrap iron. And everything in Algeria was corrupt from top to bottom."
This is quoted by Paul Johnson in a long section on the Algerian War in A History of the Modern World
. Johnson had seen the population explosion among the Algerian Arabs as making inevitable a continuing fight for scarce resources.
In 1830, the French had found only 1.5 million Arabs, their numbers diminishing. French medical services and other advances eliminated the major killer diseases so that by 1906 there were 4.5 million Muslims. By 1954, nine million. By the mid-1970s this figure had doubled again. It has now doubled yet again (including the six million now resident in France).
This demographic bomb is going off in other Muslim nations and populations. The fierce fight for social resources, for food, jobs, medicine, etc, alternating or combining with attempts to tap into the resources of others. Hence the massive invasion of Europe from Africa, the Middle East, south Asia and now, the ex-Soviet bloc. The people in the main are economic migrants.
Why has France almost been singled out for Algerian post-revolutionary occupation? Well ... French language and culture are familiar to Algerians and their countries are close. And France, in the past, has taken in many migrants and refugees from many places. But a whole bloc - with numbers exceeding the population of a country such as Switzerland or Norway? No, definitely not.Guilt
One explanation given is the guilt of the French - at least its "liberals" - over the country's behaviour during the Algerian War. And France, like all countries in the West, has been subjected to continuous multiculturalist propaganda and the need for the West to make reparation to the Third World (particularly ex-colonies) for the damage we have done. Say sorry.
This, by the way, has not hampered France in her extensive forays and endless activities in Africa, and the Middle East, which she still sees as her bailiwicks. I detect little opposition from French liberals or the Left on any of this.
As we know, the corruption and the tyranny of a government which has ruled since independence with the aid of its army, police and censors, finally set the scene for the now-familiar fundamentalist Islamic movement which promised to remove the corrupt and decadent lifestyles of so many city Algerians, and to create a semi-theocracy. Just and caring, but holistic, and anti-Western naturally.
Forced to hold democratic elections, the FLN hegemony found itself facing defeat at the hands of the new fundamentalist party, so suppressed the results, cancelled the elections, and began to harass government opponents. The result has been a civil war - still running - which has cost 100,000 lives so far and is replete with massacres and torture on both sides. The Second Algerian War.Morally bankrupt
The West, France in particular, and neighbours of Algeria, hope the Islamic fundamentalists will be defeated because such a victory would lead to another mass exodus of Algerians to France. Educated, secular women would see no life, no future for them in such an Islamic state.
So ... France's problems could greatly multiply if the rebels were successful. And a falling domino process might start from Morocco to the Levant. But no doubt the French Left and liberals would hail the new men, provided they said they hated America and George Bush, for that's all the Western Left need. Like the government in Algeria, they have been declared morally and politically bankrupt by all who know them.
Given the temper of the Algerians in the great self-contained enclaves around Paris, etc, and the fact that these enclaves are full of arms, are often no-go zones for the police and outsiders, are replete with gangster bosses and drug-dealers, and on a roll with the successes of Muslim irredentists and terrorists elsewhere, the French seem to have grounds for concern.
These Algerian visitors appear to have been told that they owe their hosts nothing, and their hosts owe them everything (courtesy of multiculturalism and the Western cringe). Something, you might think, will give. If and when it does, our Parisian advance guard would expect help from outside and the collusive interference by French liberals with all attempts by the state to deal decisively with the threat.
Some of us might live to see another film like Pontecorvo's - The Battle of Paris
If this last seems melodramatic, even fanciful, and the imagery strident - I would tend to agree. So see it as the other side of a coin called The Fire Next Time
of James Baldwin.
When that incendiary series of apocalyptic threats, buttressed by the angry posturings of Frantz Fanon (Black Skin, White Mask
) and the activities and philosophies of Black Power, the Black Panthers and the Weathermen ... surfaced in the United States in the 1960s, American liberals went orgasmic - an ecstasy duly mimicked by their hosts of imitators in the rest of the West.
Most whites and American blacks rejected the Black Power polarisation, but minorities on both sides virtually combined to poison relations between the two communities - black and white - the effects of which remain with us still. The only catch being, the hard men of Black Power rejected the moist embraces and sycophantic advances of the "liberals", seeing them as no better than the rest of us. Black Power was right - they were worse.
But this concentrated racism was cheered on by the same kind of people who are now chief apologists for militant, fundamentalist Islam, and all their
deeds and threats. Thinly-veiled racism at best.
The solution? To return to the language of realism and even-handedness: non-demonisation and non-idealisation
. But it wouldn't make good cinema or exciting street theatre.