Top Ten Politically Effective Films: #3

by Anthony Kaufman
September 2, 2011 1:36 AM
1 Comment
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After "Do the Right Thing" and "Roger and Me" made my list of top politically effective films, I thought it was about time to broaden the scope of my developing list, both in terms of history and nationality. And with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, it seemed appropriate to pick a film dealing with war, terrorism and the extent to which countries compromise their morals and standards in their fight against subversive elements.

If you haven't seen Gilles Pontocorvo's 1966 Italian classic "The Battle of Algiers"--or it's been a while since you've seen it--I can't think of a better film that resonates with America's 21st Century state of perpetual war.

And it's guerrilla filmmaking, par excellence, both in its urgent, verite camerawork on the labyrinthine streets of the Algerian capital, and, of course, in its story about Algerian freedom fighters and their violent attempts to liberate their country from colonial rule--and the French military's brutally horrific attempts to stop them. The film's torture scenes--with blowtorches, electric shocks and partial drowning (initially censored from the film's initial release in Britain and the U.S.)--are harrowing reminders of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" still being defended by American politicians. (See Dick Cheney's recent book.)

"The Battle of Algiers" shows the horrible cycle of escalating violence in such conflicts, and it's one compelling yarn, with an absorbing cast of nonprofessional actors and a powerful immediacy that grabs the viewer.

And I'm not the only who thinks the film is relevant. Even The Pentagon would agree: In 2003, if you remember, they held a screening of the film as an illustration of the problems facing the U.S.'s intervention in Iraq.

According to the New York Times, a flier for the screening read: "How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film."

Forty-five years after "The Battle of Algiers" was released, it seems, we still don't understand.

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1 Comment

  • Bruce Broomhall | September 6, 2011 8:37 AMReply

    Dear Anthony,

    I just want to point out to you and your readers that there is more than thematic resonance between the treatment of suspected independance fighters in the Algerian war and the treatment of suspected islamist extremists post-9/11. There is a current in historical research that tries to demonstrate how French torture techniques migrated from Algeria to the dictatorships of Latin America to the incubator of the American national-security apparatus of the Cold War, where they were refined until deployed in the post-9/11 War on Terror. I refer you to the 2003 French documentary "Death Squads: The French School" (Escadrons de la mort: L'école française) and to Alfred McCoy's book, The Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation from the Cold War to the War on Terror (2005).


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