November 15, 2016
By Philippe Clifton, William Gao, Oskar Zimowski
A battle for independence in Algeria, a battle against censorship in France
The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a historical film depicting the resistance efforts of Algerian national groups against French colonial authorities between 1954 and 1957 (Shapiro), during which Algeria was still a colony of France. The opposition was led by the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which used guerrilla warfare tactics to attack French troops and civilians alike (Horne). Much of the film concentrates on the fighting that took place in the Casbah neighborhood of the city of Algiers, the Algerian capital. Among the reasons for the movie’s controversy is the vivid and brutal scenes depicting torture of Algerian nationals at the hands of the French military.
Figure 1 – Bombed house in the Casbah
The inspiration for the movie came from the letters Saadi Yacef, one of the leaders of the FLN, who was arrested in 1957. These letters, written during his time in prison, discussed his experiences as a political prisoner and the events preceding his arrest. The award-winning film was co-written and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, an Italian filmmaker. Produced in a fictionalized documentary, neorealist style, the film is still viewed as a masterpiece for its expert cinematographic features, such as its Italian-style newsreel footage.
Figure 2 – Gillo Pontecorvo, co-writer and director of The Battle of Algiers
The movie opens with the last surviving member of the FLN leadership, cornered in a hideout and surrounded by police. An increase in guerilla-style attacks by the FLN leads a regiment of French paratroopers, commanded by Colonel Mathieu, to hunt down the opposition in the Casbah. The movie focuses on Mathieu’s systematic hunt for all of the FLN’s leadership, and after a series of successful arrests by the French security forces, the film seemingly closes with the dramatic killing of the leadership’s last member. However, the movie ends with massive demonstrations by Algerian citizens, reminding the audience that although France won the battle, it ultimately lost the war and Algeria gained its independence.
Following its release, Pontecorvo’s film went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and garnered positive attention from many critics around the world. Outside many cinemas there were even “vast queues, half a kilometer long,” with some bystanders “[dying] in the crush” (Yacef). However, despite the film’s international acclaim and the positive feedback from the Algerian people, French officials were not so receptive to its release. At the Venice Film Festival, the French delegation did not attend the screening of The Battle of Algiers and, upon hearing that it had won the coveted prize, left the festival in protest (Bignardi 22).
In France, there was opposition toward releasing the movie. The strongest voices came from those who fought in the Algerian War, known as repatriates and pied-noirs, French nationals born in Algeria (Stora 4). The French government was “obliged to assure the associations of pied-noirs from Algeria that the film would not be distributed [and consequently] the Battle of Algiers was banned in France for one year” (Bignardi 22). In addition, there was much uproar from people in the press and from far right segments of the population. In Aspects de la France, a royalist newspaper at the time, both the lead-writer and Pierre Pujo, an author of an article in the paper, expressed their criticisms of the movie. They argued that “passions were still running high” and that the movie was a slur on the nation of France (Stora 4).
However, even when the official ban was lifted, the movie was still not publicly screened for another four years. Various cinemas tried to show the film but many were debarred by bomb threats from various hardline groups within France, among which were the Secret Army Organization (OAS), a militant group founded by French Army officers and French colonial settlers who were opposed to any surrender of French control over Algeria (Haspell 40-41). There were calls to withdraw the film from theaters, such as those made by Mr. Ottaviani, Secretary General of an association of returnees. Many, including Mr. Ottaviani, had not even seen the film, and in a 1970 interview, Mr. Ottaviani defended his position on the withdrawal from theaters by arguing:
It’s because we had the feeling that it is still premature to screen it in theaters. Given thirteen years, this may appear long for some, for us it is still too short. Many repatriates still have such fresh wounds that they felt at the time and it seems to us to be some sort of provocation for us to screen this film at the moment…I would very much like this if the story wasn’t angled, wasn’t one-sided. According to what we know of the film, according to what we’ve read, it is very obviously biased and it glorifies certain fellaghas [negative catch term referring to Algerian militants] who play themselves as the stars of this film (Ottaviani).
From Ottaviani’s statement, the censorship of The Battle of Algiers, in addition to being mandated by government officials, was also carrier out by individual theater owners themselves. This type of post-official “self-censorship” had somewhat of a populist tinge to it, and in many ways, the populist movements to stop the film made a stronger impact than the government’s effort by prolonging the ban for another four years.
However, even though the events were a touchy subject for many people, the film was not universally regarded, even by the French, as one-sided. When the cinemas finally released the film in the early 1970s, many recognized it as a candid portrayal of the historical event, if not perhaps too nice to the French. Claude Mauriac, a French journalist, went so far to say that the movie was “too sympathetic to the French army officers” (qtd. in Stora 4). Many in the press were also surprised, as Irene Bignardi argues in her paper, “The Making of The Battle of Algiers”:
What finally also happened after the release of the film is that the French press realized the fact that The Battle of Algiers was not a film offensive to France, but rather one that observed the Algerian revolution with such balance and respect towards the French–witness the portrait of the controlled and lucid character of Colonel Mathieu–to justify, as in the most extreme left-wing criticism, a few extravagant claims of moral ambiguity (Bignardi 22).
The Battle of Algiers was a masterpiece of contemporary film and just as divisive. It’s censorship was multi-faceted, complex. Nonetheless, the attempt to appease particular segments of the population also ran its own risks, both to the French government and to French society.
By censoring The Battle of Algiers, the French government ran the risk of increasing the film’s popularity. This phenomenon, where censoring an artifact or event to keep it out of the public view achieves the reverse, increasing its popularity, is called the Streisand Effect. The government also risked the possibility of being criticized for official censorship of information, although this did not deter it from doing so. The government had a vested interest in suppressing the scenes in the film which depicted the French military committing war crimes such as torture against Algerian opposition members. By allowing such revelations to be brought to light, France risked liability in international courts of law.
The censorship of The Battle of Algiers provides a unique perspective into decolonized France. Although Pontecorvo attempted to create a politically neutral film, the work challenged France’s popular social and cultural values (Cowie 172-173). The French people had only had thirteen years to recover from an ugly guerrilla-style conflict with Algerian independence groups who ultimately succeeded in ending French colonial authority. The 1950s and 1960s saw other colonial conflicts in French territories overseas, such as French Indochina (modern day Vietnam), and many veterans were still recovering physically or mentally from the time they spent in conflict zones. It is vital to add that although the battle depicted in The Battle of Algiers took place between 1956 and 1957, a more prolonged war of attrition in Algeria lasted until 1962, only four years before the film’s release, and ended with the French completely withdrawing from Algeria. Thus, it is quite likely that the emotional attitude in France toward Algeria had not had ample time to recover to a point where the French people could bear to watch a film depicting the killing of French soldiers.
The French government’s official censorship was directly linked with its desire to protect its military servicemen from charges of war crimes. Yacef stated that the character, Colonel Mathieu, is based on the French general Marcel Bigeard. Although not shown in the film, the general was known in French-Algeria for “Bigeard’s shrimps,” referring to the corpses of Algerian opposition fighters whose feet were covered in concrete so as to prevent them from floating when tossed into the ocean (Telegraph). By censoring the film, the French government kept information on potential war crimes from public scrutiny, attempting to protect military members who fought during the battle from prosecution in an international court of law. Whatever the reason for censorship, France would not be the first country to censor an artifact that depicted its nation as being guilty of war crimes such as torture.
Figure 3 – General Bigeard in 1996 standing before a photo of his younger self
In recent times, the film has enjoyed a small revival. Because the movie shows, in stark detail, the covert methods and guerrilla warfare tactics the FLN used in their struggle for freedom, the film has become a reference guide on guerrilla warfare. It has been used by guerrilla and insurgent groups around the world, most famous of which were “the Black Panthers of the 1960s and later the IRA” (Parker). Capitalizing on the intricacies of irregular warfare portrayed in the film, the Pentagon in 2003 renewed interest in the film by privately screening it for forty civilian and military authorities. Pentagon officials hoped that the film’s realism would better enable the US to understand and combat the urban guerrilla warfare employed by insurgents in the wake of the coalition invasion of Iraq, and later Afghanistan. Pontecorvo’s 1966 classic is indeed quite old, yet its effects are still felt to the modern day.
The official motto of the Republic of France, something that the French people take great pride in, is “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité”: Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. By censoring The Battle of Algiers, the French government belied its motto and commitment to liberty.
• Algerian War
• Battle of Algiers (1966)
• Guerilla warfare
• National Liberation Front (FLN)
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