The Battle of Algiers is not for the faint of heart. The film, made in 1967 by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, is shockingly violent in its depiction of the Algerian War of Independence during the 1950s. The movie centers on underdog hero, Ali La Pointe and follows his path from hustling street kid to high-ranking leader in the National Liberation Front (FLN), the principal revolutionary movement against French colonial forces. The Battle of Algiers remains a cinematic classic because of its portrayal of an iconic moment in African history. The movie memorializes the defeat of a colonial power by a popular mobilization of marginalized people. At times jarring and tense, at other times heartbreakingly sad, the film feels like a documentary. Violence is portrayed with a gritty realism that is often unsettling.
Yet, the movie also succeeds in humanizing the Algerian revolutionaries. Scenes of intense violence are juxtaposed with scenes betraying the uncertainty, cunning and resolve of those engaged in the revolutionary struggle. Pontecorvo poignantly contrasts the overcrowded metropolis of Algiers, with its bustling streets, veiled women and overcrowded apartment buildings, against the manicured and securitized abodes of the French, capturing the duality of colonized life.
The depiction of women in The Battle of Algiers has been a topic of considerable controversy. In one of the film’s most famous scenes three women coordinate three simultaneous bombings of French civilians. The film suggests the campaign is successful because of the unique ability of women to adopt a Western aesthetic and flirt with French soldiers, thus avoiding capture. These scenes recall the work of Franz Fanon, whose chapter “Algeria Unveiled” in A Dying Colonialism analyzes the role of veiling and unveiling in anti-colonial struggles. Fanon, an avid supporter of the Algerian freedom struggle and member of the FLN, said of violence in his later text, The Wretched of the Earth, “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect” (1963:94). The Battle of Algiers is based on real men, women and children who took destiny into their own hands—hands that were often bloodied by the battle. The film leaves viewers feeling simultaneously inspired and conflicted, questioning the role of violence in the struggle for social justice.
by Shannon Shird, Progressive Pupil Intern, M.A. Candidate in International Affairs at The New School