Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers has experienced a remarkable resurgence since the Pentagon organised a private projection of the film in 2003 to discuss ‘the challenges faced by the French’, in particular ‘the problematic but alluring efficacy of brutal and repressive means in fighting clandestine terrorists in places like Algeria and Iraq’ (as reported by Michael Kaufman in the New York Times). While the Pentagon had its own twisted motives to watch The Battle of Algiers, the film’s lucid dissection of colonial conflict certainly makes it essential viewing in our neo-colonial times.
Based on the memoirs of former FLN (National Liberation Front) leader Saadi Yacef, The Battle of Algiers charts the rise of the Algerian nationalist movement from 1954 until independence was declared in 1962. While it explicitly describes the brutally repressive methods – which included intimidation, torture and summary executions – used by the French Army against the insurgents, it also unflinchingly depicts the indiscriminate bombing of civilians perpetrated by FLN militants. Despite awards at the Venice and Cannes festivals it was banned immediately on release and when the ban was lifted in 1971 screenings were marred by such intense violence that the film was withdrawn from all French cinemas. This effectively buried the film for decades and it was only in 2004 that the film was screened on French TV for the first time.
Now 79, Yaacef, who produced and starred in the film, is a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Algeria’s struggle for independence has shaped his life and his memory of events that took place over forty years ago remains very sharp. When he evokes his violent activities as a guerrilla fighter, it is clear that he is acutely and painfully aware of what he did, and that this awareness has not been blunted by time. Warm, soft-spoken and extremely articulate, Yacef comes across as a passionate humanist who was led to commit violent acts from which he would have recoiled in any other circumstances.
Virginie Sélavy: After remaining unseen for years The Battle of Algiers has attracted a lot of interest recently. What do you think of that resurgence?
Saadi Yacef: I think it’s a completely natural thing. France recognised recently that what happened in Algeria was a war, which they had denied until then, saying it was just insurgents and terrorists. As soon as they recognised that they realised that there was no hate in The Battle of Algiers. It’s a very even-handed film that shows the violence of both sides. Each side is fighting for something, the ones to reinforce the French empire, the others for independence. And the generation who protested against the film at the time has begun to disappear now. The climate was right to release the film. And it had already been revived by the American press who had talked about it in relation to the occupation of Iraq. So in France they thought, the Americans have seen it, everybody has seen it, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t see it too.
VS: What do you think of the fact that the Pentagon organised a screening of the film to find out what they could learn from the French strategy in Algeria?
SY: They had planned the occupation of Iraq but they needed information so they looked through all of the political, revolutionary films to see if they could find anything they could use when they occupied the country. And among a number of films they chose The Battle of Algiers. When the officers watched it, it was only for information – France colonised Algeria then left, why, what did they do, what was the reaction of the insurgents, etc. They wanted to draw lessons from that that they might be able to use in Iraq. I don’t know what conclusions they drew from the film. I think they’re bad pupils because they haven’t learnt anything. They also had Vietnam and obviously didn’t learn their lesson since now they’re even building walls to resolve the situation in Iraq.
VS: Do you see any links between what’s happening in Iraq and your film?
SY None at all. The Latino-American or Vietnamese guerrilla style is not comparable to Iraq from a geographical, social or economic point of view, and neither is it comparable to the kind of guerrilla that we practised in Algeria. In our case it was about colonisation, about a population that had been displaced for economic reasons and came to Algeria to turn it into a French territory.
VS: It is clear from watching the film that you tried to remain very balanced and French soldiers come across as very human. It must have been difficult for you to try and see things from the point of view of people who were your enemies at the time.
SY: No, we wanted to let them express their side of things. I thought about the films that the French or the Russians made about WWII. The Germans are always the bad ones; they’re idiots and murderers whereas the others are victorious and noble. So I thought that we had to show the atrocity of war, how it causes damage on both sides, and we had to make things balanced so that the film would be credible. If we’d shown the Algerians as the victors and the French as the idiots, people wouldn’t have believed it. We even went a bit further. We had a scene in which a bomb [planted by the FLN] explodes even though there’s a baby there. I thought that it was too easy to just blame the French. They were fighting to maintain Algeria under French domination and we were fighting to get them out. Each side had their own reasons but it caused damage and destruction for everybody.
VS: You’ve tried to be so even-handed in the film that in a way I feel you have been quite lenient with the French. There is an extraordinary restraint in the way you depict torture: in the film torture is something that the Colonel decides to use for rational, strategic reasons rather than something sadistic, uncontrolled and hateful.
SY: A man capable of torturing another human being, even if he’s scum, feels something break in him, the most important thing that he has, his humanity, his soul if you want. Torture is something that happens between two people, the torturer and the victim. The victim is made to taste death without actually dying. He is subjected to atrocious pain and begs his torturer to kill him. He’s even ready to forgive the torturer as long as he kills him. Torture is abominable, things like ripping out someone’s nails, or burning someone with a blowtorch. And those who practise it feel a certain power but it’s suicidal. They will never get over what they’ve done. And it creates sadists.
VS: Were you tortured?
VS: But you know people who were tortured?
SY Oh yes, many. I wrote reports on torture and gave them to various personalities. It was something terrible. And I wrote about the methods of torture in my book.
VS: How did you become an FLN militant?
SY: I was born in the Kasbah, the old Algerian quarter in Algiers. It has 80,000 inhabitants. The density is unimaginable – 40,000 inhabitants per square kilometre – which doesn’t even exist in China. When you left the Kasbah to go in the European part of the city you could see the difference straightaway and you realised how poor the Kasbah was. I joined a party called Party of the Algerian People, which was demanding independence for Algeria. I was precocious and at a very young age I was writing inscriptions on the walls and distributing tracts, until the events of 1945 after the fall of Nazism. On May 8th the whole world was celebrating victory but the French killed 45,000 Algerians [in reprisal for the killing of a hundred Europeans following clashes with the French Army on VE day], including soldiers who had come back from the front after fighting for France. The 45,000 dead gave me the energy to fight. I joined the armed branch of the party. The French empire had crumbled; they had lost Indochina, Tunisia, Morocco. Their weaknesses allowed us to get organised and I was among those who took up arms in 1954.
VS: What was the first violent act that you committed?
SY: I killed. (silence) Well, I killed. (silence) Then I started making bombs. I felt I was forced into this because there were 400,000 Europeans who lived in Algiers as well as 400,000 soldiers. We were forced to use guerrilla tactics because we didn’t have the same weapons as the enemy. Some of the more extremist French people who lived in Algeria planted a bomb in the Kasbah that killed 75 people and injured many more. And the population was just starting to believe in us so we had to show that we too had weapons that were as cruel as those of the French. That’s how I started making bombs and planting them. It was in order to tell people, we’ll avenge you, you’ll see, we’re fighting for you, so please help us and support us. That’s how we started using bombs. It was efficient. As soon as the French did something, we retaliated with a bomb. It was a question of blood calls for blood.
VS: So the character of Djafar that you play in the film is very close to your own experience.
SY: Yes, Djafar was actually my war name. We were in hiding and we didn’t use our real names to avoid being identified so we had pseudonyms and mine was Djafar. Later I changed it because the enemy knew that Djafar was me.
VS: How did you meet Gillo Pontecorvo?
SY: When I was in prison in France I wrote a book called Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger in which I described the most important events that I had experienced. I published it when I was released from prison in 1962 and I travelled to Mediterranean countries in order to look for a director because those countries were ahead in the domain of cinema, with neo-realism in Italy in particular. I went to Rome and I learned that there was someone called Pontecorvo who was a former resistant. I went to see him and explained what I wanted to do. He himself wanted to make a film about Algeria but he abandoned his own project in favour of mine. I hired him and the script-writer [Franco Solinas], offered them a reasonable fee and invited them to come to Algeria to do some research, to immerse themselves in the Algerian soul and understand what had happened. They stayed almost a year and became experts on urban guerrilla – they knew the question better than me. They were insistent that I should play in the film because they liked my face. At first I refused but then I accepted, to make sure that events would be depicted authentically. I thought that if I acted in the film I would always been present either as producer or as actor and I could stop them if they wanted to embellish the film or add things that were not true. This is why the film is so truthful. And there is not one image in it that comes from any other source.
VS: That’s one of the most remarkable features of the film. It looks like a documentary but everything in it has been recreated. Why did you decide not to use news footage from the period?
SY: Because the war had just ended three years earlier and the wounds were still open and it was possible to film that truth. In order to make it look like a documentary we did things to the images, altered their quality, so they would look like documentary images.
VS: So for you it was more truthful to recreate events than to make a documentary using newsreel footage?
SY: I had the possibility of making this film in reality without relying on fiction because the events were so recent and true. I wanted to use historical truth to preserve it. That’s why I made this film – to give the events a filmic language that would resist time and would later show future generations how we freed ourselves.
VS: Did you shoot the whole film in Algiers?
SY: Yes, everything.
VS: The Kasbah is a fascinating place, with its intricate labyrinth of streets.
SY: That was thanks to Marcello Gatti, an excellent cinematographer who was very good at filming without a tripod. He knew how to use the camera in those tiny streets and that’s what gave this result.
VS: Was it difficult to recreate certain things?
SY: No, not really because I know the Kasbah like the back of my hand so I knew what had been destroyed during the war and what it looked like before. It cost us a bit of money but we reconstructed what had been destroyed and then we destroyed it again on film and that gave very truthful results. We recreated the cafeteria and the milk bar, which had existed. The house where Ali-la-Pointe dies is the same house. The place where I was arrested, that’s where we filmed. Everything was real. There was no need for fiction. It was fascinating.
VS: Was it sometimes difficult to go through these things again?
SY: Sometimes. But I really put myself in the actor’s position and that made it easy, it wasn’t a game of death. I had never acted before, but Pontecorvo was pleased with the result.
VS: Most of the actors were not professionals, is that right?
SY: None of them were professionals apart from two, two stage actors who played extras and one French actor who played the role of Colonel Mathieu. He was a stage actor and had been chosen by Pontecorvo.
VS: How did you select the non-professional actors? Were they people that you knew?
SY: The war had just ended so they were all still marked by it. They didn’t need to go to film school; when they saw French paratroopers they remembered what it was like, it took them back to the war. If we had filmed ten years later it would have been different. I had 15,000 people to film the demonstrations so we just couldn’t have 15,000 actors. They were all ordinary people.
VS: There must have been an extraordinary atmosphere when you were shooting.
SY: Yes, we felt very motivated.
VS: The film focuses especially on the years between 1954 and 1957, which ends with the strategic victory of the French. The film then quickly sums up the events that followed, which led to the victory of the FLN and the independence of Algeria. Why did you choose to focus on those years rather on the events leading to the FLN’s victory?
SY: We filmed almost eight hours of material. But if we had made three films people would not have been interested. We had to limit the film, try and make it two hours long, so that the audience could watch it. So we chose the most important events. That’s why we started with 1954, the beginning of terrorism and the results.
VS: But why focus on the beginning rather than on the final victory?
SY: In order to explain how it all started, how you start a guerrilla against a country like France, which had NATO and the Americans on its side. We didn’t have the same weapons. So we had to show the whole process of how we started.
VS: In the film the character of Ben M’hidi says something very striking. He says that the difficulty is not to win the revolution, that’s the easy part; the problems start after, once the revolution has been won. Do you still agree with that?
SY: Ben M’hidi was a friend. I lived with him for several months. While we were fighting he had problems with some of the FLN leaders. It was about ambition, everybody wanted to be the boss. When we talked in the quiet moments he said ‘you know, there are people who want to take over power even now as we are fighting the war. So what will happen later when we’re free?’ And he was right. As soon as we got independence everybody wanted to govern the country. I wanted to put that in the film to show people that the real difficulties start after you’ve won the revolution. You need financing, intellectuals, engineers, you need everything to build a country and that’s difficult. In the film I also made him say something else. When the journalist asks, ‘don’t you think it’s a bit cowardly to use women’s baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people?’ he replies, ‘give us your planes and we’ll give you our baskets’. I put those words in his mouth because he’d died anyway, but the rest, that was something that he’d actually said. He was a character, not like Che Guevara, but a real revolutionary.
VS: And what about Ali-la-Pointe?
SY: Ali-la-Pointe became an excellent fighter, conscientious, loyal, brave, I could go on. He was illiterate, he was one of the victims of colonialism, and to earn a living he was forced to resort to street card games and to mix with pimps. He was always in a fight with the police and he was condemned to eight months in prison for hitting a police officer. While he was in prison he met FLN militants. He asked them why they were there and they explained that they wanted to throw the French out of the country so that later his children would be able to read and write. It was a real education for him. He swore to escape from prison and to join the fight and that’s what he did. He came to stay with me and became a great strategist in the guerrilla.
VS: Even though the film is full of extraordinary characters there is no unique hero. It’s really about a group of characters.
SY: It’s about the people. That’s why we recreated the eight-day strike, the demonstrations of December, all that, to show the people who rose up. It’s not my film. I told Pontecorvo that I didn’t want to make a film about myself because it was the people who fought the war, it’s thanks to them that we freed ourselves so the only hero is the people.
VS: In the film we also see that women played a very important role in the struggle for independence.
SY: Algerian women had been relegated to the background before the war started but there was an evolution in the revolution. Women changed during the war. They made us food, they were our look-outs, they really supported our actions and it’s thanks to them that we succeeded. Even recently when there were terrorist bombings in Algeria, women were the first ones to protest in the streets.
VS: We also see them plant bombs.
SY: The women who planted the first bombs were students. The universities were on strike and they joined us and said they were prepared to do whatever was needed. We chose them because it was easier for them to get into the French area, by changing their clothes and hair. That’s what we show in the film.
VS: You are now a senator in the Algerian National Assembly. Is it important for you to play a political role in your country?
SY: I will do whatever I can to help my country until my death. At the Senate I try to devise laws that fit in with the way people live, and I give my opinion. And I will always do this, even if I leave the Senate. I will always try and be useful.
VS: Working for your country is your life, is that it?
SY: Yes, it’s what gives it meaning.