Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967) recounts the story of a Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) unit and their struggle for the liberation of Algeria from French colonial rule. Originally written in a French prison by an FLN rebel leader Saadi Yacef, the film highlights the anti-colonial struggles which were spreading throughout the Third World at the time of the film’s making.
The Battle of Algiers was made only four years after Algeria’s independence and three years after the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) at the 1961 conference of Belgrade where Third World nations created a united platform to challenge American, European and Soviet neo-colonialism.
It was during this renaissance of the colonized and neo-colonized world that two Argentinian filmmakers, Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas wrote Toward a Third Cinema. Published in Cuba’s Tricontinental, a journal dedicated to “solidarity between the peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin America,” the piece spoke of a new filmic language that was emerging out of the liberation movements of the Third World: a Third Cinema.
Getino and Solanas write: “Third Cinema is... the cinema that recognizes in that struggle the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation of our time, the great possibility of constructing a liberated personality with each people as the starting point-- in a word, the decolonization of culture.”
The name ‘Third Cinema’ was inspired by the notion of the ‘Third World,’ a concept coined in the 1950‘s by Alfred Sauvy as a reference to the French revolution and its ‘Third Estate:’ the marginalized revolutionary masses. The term was proudly adopted by those leading anti-colonial struggles or by those recently liberated from the direct grasp of the imperial powers.
Similarly, Third Cinema is a concept that parallels this post-colonial sense of empowerment, it is a cinema of decolonization-- an art for the oppressed revolutionary masses. As Getino and Solanas write: “A new historical situation and a new man born in the process of the anti-imperialist struggle demanded a new, revolutionary attitude from the filmmakers of the world”.
Pontecorvo’s film materialized during this historic unshackling of the Third World as a collaboration between the Italian revolutionary left and Algerian anti-colonialists. To this degree, The Battle of Algiers qualifies as an example of Third Cinema-- the question this piece evaluates is to what extent does the film fit the concept thematically and aesthetically.
Thematically, one of the most important features of Third Cinema is the “destruction of the image that neo-colonialism has created of itself and of [the Third World], and [the] construction of a throbbing, living reality” which seeks to empower the masses. This is evident in The Battle of Algiers and its portrayal of non-European characters and their relationships with European characters.
Pontecorvo rejects White supremacist illustrations which were normalized by American and European films that portrayed MENA peoples (peoples of the Middle East and North Africa including Arabs, Amazighs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians and Iranians) in a racist and orientalist fashion which either involved their dehumanization as barbaric antagonists or their use as stereotypical side-kicks to a white European protagonist.
For example, one can find a vast difference between the manner by which Algerians are portrayed in The Battle of Algiers and the way Levantine Arabs are illustrated in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1961). This is despite the fact that the two films were made around the same time period.
Lawrence of Arabia is an example of what Getino and Solanas would call First Cinema, film made with the purpose of profit and the promotion of Western imperialist ideals. In the latter case the protagonist is a white British officer who must unite the helplessly barbaric Arab tribes for the purpose of fighting the Ottoman empire with the hope of self-determination. This hope was to the benefit of the British empire-- a benefit which materialized in real life with the Sykes-Picot betrayal.
Pontecorvo’s portrayal of Algerians is a great departure from the Orientalist norm exemplified by Lawrence of Arabia. In The Battle of Algiers, the FLN leaders do not need the help of Europeans to conduct their own struggle for freedom, in fact it is Europeans who stand in their path to emancipation. The protagonists are not Europeans, but instead the Algerians rebels: men, women and even children who contributed to the fight.
Despite their use of violence, Pontecorvo’s illustration of these protagonists, is not a brutish one. He paints an image of the Algerian rebels as a rational group who weigh their decisions and who avoid using violence when it is unnecessary. This is highlighted during the Eight Day General Strike and particularly during the scene where a rebel leader explains to Ali La-Pointe: “Acts of violence don’t win wars nor revolutions. Violence is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act. That’s the rationale behind the strike.”
Hence, the use of violence by non-Europeans was contextualized: Arabs, Africans, Asians and Latin Americans are not inherently violent-- they are rationally responding to colonization and the oppression that comes with it.
This stands in contrast to the racist vilification of indigenous peoples as irrational violent actors in most European and American films which also emerged in the 1960‘s, including The Unforgiven (1960), Zulu (1964), Africa Addio (1966) or Cast a Giant Shadow (1966). The Battle of Algiers stood out as an exception and a challenge to both Hollywood (First Cinema) and European art house films (Second Cinema).
This contrast of films effectively reflected the tug of war between Western imperialists and anti-colonialists in the real world onto the screen. At the time of the film’s release, the audience watched the struggle for decolonization unfold on the screen while simultaneously being aware that similar events were actually taking place globally.
In this situation, The Battle of Algiers takes on a new dimension as an agent of change with an impact on the real world. As Getino and Solanas explain: “revolutionary cinema is not fundamentally one which illustrates, documents, or passively establishes a situation: rather, it attempts to intervene in the situation as an element providing thrust or rectification. To put it another way, it provides discovery through transformation.”
For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the film was banned by two states: France and Israel, both of which were (and continue to be) colonial states with their political and economic interests at stake in the face of the sort of anti-colonial message conveyed by Pontecorvo. The film was also used by the Black Panthers as a training video. But it is precisely this aspect of the film, as an agent of change first and an art piece second, that makes it an example of Third Cinema.
“Insert the work as an original fact in the process of liberation,” writes Getino “place it first at the service of life itself, ahead of art; dissolve aesthetics in the life of society: only in this way, as Fanon said, can decolonization become possible and culture, cinema, and beauty-- at least, what is of great importance to us-- become our culture, our films and our sense of beauty.”
Indeed, we find that aesthetics have been “dissolved” in The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo discards the formalistic approach in favor of a more realistic documentary-style film which was convincing enough for the U.S. distributor of the film to include an introductory title card which read: “not one foot of newsreel or documentary film has been used.”
In trying to capture the Algerian revolution, Pontecorvo effectively rejected the Hollywood aesthetic where “the image of reality is more important than reality itself." Instead, we are exposed to an Italian neo-realist approach. Marcello Gatti’s cinematography includes pan and zoom-to-reveals (instead of dollies and jibs) handheld camera work and unfocused shots.
The imagery in The Battle of Algiers matches well with the imagery used in both films cited by Getino and Solanas as examples of Third Cinema: Mario Handler’s short film Me Gustan los Estudiantes (1968) and Getino and Solanas’ own film La Hora de los Hornos (1968). A comparison between Handler’s work with the final scenes of The Battle of Algiers reveals striking similarities, despite the fact that the former was documenting the actual Uruguayan student protests of 1968 and the latter a well-choreographed re-enactment of the Algerian revolution.
The realism in the film was not always motivated by Pontecorvo’s direction. It also emerged from the real-life context of de-colonization in which the film’s production crew found itself, heightened by Pontecorvo’s use of non-professional actors-- a feature of his work that is in line with the Italian neo-realist tradition.
According to Yasmin El-Derby, co-founder of the London Middle East and North Africa Film Festival, “given the speed at which [the film was] produced from the time of the uprisings [it is] focusing on (Algeria had only been independent for 4 years when Pontecorvo’s film was made) it is sometimes hard to distinguish what is ‘real’ and what is acted. In fact, it was probably hard to distinguish for the actors themselves.”
This is not only true for the actors but also for the shooting locations: the events portrayed in the film played out in those very same locations only a few years earlier. Very little had changed since the last tricolor flag was lowered in the Algerian capital: it is captured as it was.
The apartheid that existed in Algiers is still evident in the contrasting images of the impoverished, winding, hilly and narrow streets of the Casbah with the wealthy, flat and spacious architecture of the cité Européene. The contrast here serves well to demonstrate the ramifications of colonization as a deeply discriminatory system which marginalizes the indigenous majority for the benefit of a colonial minority.
This is further emphasized by the images used by Pontecorvo to illustrate the vastly different life styles of the pieds noirs (French Algerians) in the Cité Européene: laughter, dinner parties, clubs and cars; and the indigenous Algerians in the Casbah: tears, violence, torture, prostitution and struggle.
However, despite its clear (ideological and aesthetic) attack on colonialism, Pontecorvo’s work can hardly be qualified as a propaganda piece for the FLN nor can it be seen as a normal combat film. On the contrary, Pontecorvo did not dehumanize the French colonizers-- he maintained the viewer’s sense of sympathy for all those targeted by violence in the film.
This was particularly obvious in the scenes where the women from the FLN placed bags with bombs in a dance club, a bar and an Air France office. The camera closes in on each of the faces of the soon-to-be victims and gives us an honest illustration: we are reluctantly sympathetic to the white French man smoking a cigar (a profiteer of colonization and therefore an oppressor of native Algerians) but we are entirely sympathetic to the innocence of the infant who is eating ice cream and the woman with a sad face.
The final scenes of the film, where non-violent demonstrators storm the lines of the French Legion complete the non-violent message carried by this very violent film. In the end, it is non-violence that gained French citizen’s sympathy, according to the radio voice over, bringing colonialism to an end.
The Process of Production
Finally, it is important to examine the very process of production that led to the film’s creation and how it pertains to Third Cinema. In Toward a Third Cinema, Getino and Solanas explain that filmmaking has normally “been synonymous with show or amusement: in a word, it was one more consumer good." The Battle of Algiers breaks this mold.
Written by Yacef in a prison, the film was not necessarily seeking to amuse but to spread a message and empower those who were still seeking liberation from imperialism whether it was in the form of colonialism or neo-colonialism. Yacef’s involvement continued beyond the writing as he also acted as producer and acted as one of the protagonists.
Pontecorvo, as an outsider can hardly claim being an auteur to a film that was largely the reflection of the Algerian struggle or at the very least-- Yacef’s personal experiences. New York Magazine’s Peter Rainer writes: “The existential ramifications of this casting are breathtaking: When we witness the bombings of civilians in the cafés and dance halls of Algiers’s European Quarter, or the hit-and-run assassinations of French policemen, we are seeing re-creations of what Yacef himself perpetrated. When Jaffar is trapped and about to be blown up by French paratroopers in the casbah, Yacef is acting out his own arrest."
According to Getino and Solanas, cinema’s “role in the battle for the complete liberation of man is of primary importance. The Camera then becomes a gun, and the cinema must be a guerrilla cinema." Hence, while Guerrilla wars were being waged against colonial forces throughout the world, Getino and Solanas were calling for a different type of war.
The struggle for self-determination of peoples throughout the world necessitated a cultural revolution. This necessity arises from what Iranian poet and political critic, Jalal Al-e-Ahmad calls gharbzadegi, the cultural onslaught of the West which imposes itself and its culture as being more superior to the rest of the world. Getino and Solanas’ Towards a Third Cinema was a guide to end gharbzadegi, and The Battle of Algiers one of the many attempts to stop it.