The Nottingham Contemporary, an art gallery that’s more than just an art gallery (they also host lectures, reading groups, workshops and film screenings) and whose doors are open free of charge, are currently curating an exhibition of responses by various artists to the life and work of Jean Genet. Genet spent his early life in and out of prison and, as a repeat offender, was looking at spending pretty much the rest of his life behind bars but the intervention of the French intellectuals of the day, spearheaded by Sartre, secured a pardon and established him as one of the nation’s most important literary figures. Sartre was so impressed by Genet’s work that he wrote a 700-page biography of him entitled ‘Saint Genet’. Some people’s egos would be swelled by this. It had the opposite effect on Genet. He suffered a bout of writer’s block that lasted almost a decade. By the time he started writing again, his work was shot through with the aesthetic of his political activism.
How political was Genet? How much of a thorn in the side of the establishment? Well, his essay ‘Four Hours in Shatila’ – a description of the aftermath of the massacre at the titular Palestinian camp – is one of the great pieces of political writing … and its greatness is due to its humanity. Also – and I think this observation answers both questions emphatically – he was a white guy who was feted by the Black Panthers.
The Nottingham Contemporary’s exhibition is in two sections, the latter dealing with Genet’s activism. It’s on for another month (until 2nd October) and is worth checking out for the Black Panther memorabilia and some potent artworks inspired by the movement (the murals by Emory Douglas are frankly awesome). It was to tie in with this aspect of the exhibition, and in keeping with Genet’s empathy with the oppressed and the dispossessed, that the Nottingham Contemporary held a free screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers’.
Small confession: I’d never seen it before. One of those gaps in my film-going experience that was an inexplicable as it was embarrassing. Well, last Thursday I plugged the gap, I saw a masterpiece of world cinema, my first acquaintance with it was on the big screen, and it didn’t cost me a penny. (If that’s not a win-win situation, I don’t know what is.) The cherry on top was an informative introduction by Mathilde von Bulow, lecturer in 20th century international history at the University of Nottingham. As the opening credits rolled, I was thankful for the background knowledge, my understanding of the French/Algerian issue being probably one percentile above zero.
Turns out, I needn’t have worried. Pontecorvo breaks it down real simple: French colonialists = oppressors; Algerian muslims = oppressed. And yet Pontecorvo refuses to take the easy route and make it a tub-thumping propaganda piece. Negative consequences are shown on both sides. Acts of utter brutality are shown on both sides. Acts of humanity are present and correct, too. As much as the French colonialists (represented first by the police and then the army) are indisputably the villains of the piece, so too are the Algerian FLN freedom fighters depicted as frenziedly mowing down civilians and planting bombs in non-authoritarian/military areas such as nightclubs, bars and airports. A particularly touching scene, effective for not trying to play on the audience’s emotions, has a young Algerian boy rescued by a French police officer after an angry mob try to lynch him following a bombing he clearly had nothing to do with.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The production of the film merits discussion. In 1962, ‘Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger’ was published – a memoir by FLN leading light Saadi Yacef written while he was a prisoner of the French. Post-independence, and now a member of the new Algerian government, Yacef found himself fulfilling the unlikely role of film producer. Gillo Pontecorvo was a member of the Italian Communist Party, a dedicated anti-fascist and led the Resistance in Milan during the latter half of the war years. As a filmmaker, he was an acclaimed documentarist. His politics and his aesthetic of social realism made him an obvious choice. Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas were approached with the project.
The first screenplay Solinas turned in used the POV of a French paratrooper disgusted with his country’s treatment of the Algerians. It was nixed because the focus on a French protagonist and the backgrounding of the oppression suffered by the poorer citizens of Algiers, those living in near-poverty in the Casbah, and their treatment as little more than serfs by the colonials. Yacef prepared his own script, which was rejected by the production company as heavily skewed towards the Algerians. The final screenplay by Pontecorvo and Solinas, while making no bones about colonialist arrogance and brutality, also depicted the FLN’s initial fight back in unambiguous terms: the French police officers shot in the back, the bombing campaigns, the drive-by shootings. Innocent victims on both sides. ‘The Battle of Algiers’, for a goodly part of its running time, is a film about terrorism. It was used as a training film by both the Black Panthers and the Provisional IRA.
It’s a dangerous and provocative film, made more so by the immediacy of Pontecorvo’s directorial approach. Using grainy film stock, guerrilla-style on-the-street cinematography and jumpy edits, ‘The Battle of Algiers’ deliberately emulated the style of the newsreels of the new day. To emphasize the sense of documentary realism, Pontecorvo used non-professional actors (for many of whom it was there one and only time before the camera) with only the character of Le Colonel Matthieu, a composite of several French counter-insurgency officers, played by an established performer (Jean Martin). Yacef himself appeared in the film, portraying another composite character, Djafar, but essentially playing a version of himself.
Such as the film can be said to centre on a protagonist (the focus shifts around the halfway mark from the FLN’s activities to the intervention of the French military in the form of the 10th Parachute Regiment), that man is Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), an illiterate but righteously indignant street hustler who becomes involved with the FLN after his release from prison for decking a white man while standing up for himself. But Pontecorvo meticulously documents the contribution of other members: men, women and children. Then, as mentioned, the focus shifts to Matthieu and his troops as they police Algiers, stage incursions into the Casbah, interrogate suspects (a montage of beatings, electrocution, improper use of blowtorches, and forced submersion in vats of water is a pre-Guantanamo Bay blueprint for man’s inhumanity to man), and try to break the insurgents’ chain of command.
The characterization of Matthieu makes an interesting counterpoint to the ruthless but dedicated mindset of la Pointe and his comrades. Matthieu is a basically a man doing his job, doing it by whatever means are available to him, but not taking any personal pleasure in what he has to do. At a press conference, he responds to the accusation of using fascist measures by reminding the journalists that he was a member of the Resistance and that some of his men are survivors of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. When someone quotes Sartre’s opposition to colonialism, he ruefully wonders, “Why do the Sartres of this world always support the other side?”
It’s almost tempting to describe Pontecorvo’s direction as “neutral” or “even-handed”, but the film’s coda finds him definitely on the side of the people. Nonetheless, it’s his focus and commitment to realism that make ‘The Battle of Algiers’ such a timeless and powerful work of cinema: his ability to document a decisive political and social moment without the weight of history and the responsibility of the artist overwhelming the project.
(Footnote: there’s a great review, over at Mondo 70, of the other film about the Battle of Algiers, Mark Robson’s ‘Lost Command’)