Instant movies on Netflix, streamed through my son's hand-me-down xBox (he's traded up) brought me to the teeming streets of a North African revolt a few weeks ago, in my insanely prescient choice of The Battle of Algiers for a night of solo viewing on my nifty home office screen while the family chose alternate entertainment downstairs. In truth, I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's masterwork as a follow-up to a semi-recent jag through Camus, particularly The Plague and its terrifying social descent into ever-narrowing tribal circles of survival and sacrifice in the walled Alergian city of Oran.
The Battle of Algiers, with its verite style, incredible locations, and cast of mostly non-actors felt like the perfect documentary, the inside story of revolution and vicious urban guerilla warfare that even Al Jazeera couldn't possibly tell. It's rightly famous for its clear-eyed depiction of violence, and for its uncondescending portrayal of the Algerian revolutionaries. There is a "right" side in Pontecorvo's film, and the director's heart lies with a poor, debased majority under the French colonial heel - yet there is no sentimentality about the killing on either side or the brutal cycle of terrorism and reprisal; indeed the film nearly succeeds in making the viewer understand the methods of torture employed by the infamous French paratroopers brought in to quell the revolt. The lone professional among the cast was actor Jean Martin, who played a composite character, Col. Mathieu, the French commander and a veteran of both Indochina and the Resistance. He's decisive, cold, and the picture of authority and colonial arrogance - yet he seems to sympathize with the sheer bravery of the men and women he must hunt down and kill.
Made in 1966, after the Algierians won their independence, the film depicts the period before 1960, when the French succeeded at least partly in putting the rebellion down. Based on the memoirs of Saadi Yacef, a National Liberation Front commander who fought the French, it remains a crucial cultural document both in the history of North Africa and in guerilla struggles against oppression. As the Self-Style Siren noted a few years ago, The Battle of Algiers was reportedly screened by Bush Administration planners before the Iraq invasion: "Did the Defense guys really watch the full two hours of French forces torturing, interrogating, cracking down, going house-to-house and throwing their full military might at Algiers? I do hate to post spoilers, but I think Pontecorvo's film should be screened again for Mr. Cheney and the Pentagon, with special attention to the part near the end."
Watching the rebels in Egypt this week, I couldn't help but be reminded of The Battle of Algiers and its whitewashed back alleys; it's not a colonial struggle, yet it clearly involves large numbers of frustrated, under-employed, economically-depressed young people willing to die in a longshot throw of the dice for political freedom. And as Mubarak's police mounted their own violent counter-demonstrations today, I remembered the scenes in Pontecorvo's film of huge crowds overwhelming armored cars and tanks, swarming and disarming troops, and marching on government buildings. Like Mubarak, Col. Mathieu also wondered about the mob and the majority, and the knife's edge between a country's desire for order and an insurgency's desire for freedom.
"There are 80,000 Arabs in the Kasbah," Col. Mathieu told the French journalists gathered in his office. "Are they all against us? We know they're not. In reality, it's only a small minority that dominates with terror and violence. This minority is our adversary and we must isolate and destroy it."
Mubarak, an important ally of the United States until approximately Sunday at 9 am Eastern time, may be thinking the same thing.
Here's the trailer for The Battle of Algiers - if you need a break from the live images on Al Jazeera, this is the clear choice.