20 July, 2007

"The Battle of Algiers"

I saw well-known film The Battle of Algiers again recently. This is a piece of political cinema about the Algerian war against the French, focusing on events in Algiers. It is in two parts – firstly the FLN rebels begin their campaign, effectively taking over the old city of Algiers and striking outside it against French military, police, and civilian targets. The second part shows the French response – the Paratroopers are deployed to crush the rebellion with the most uncompromising of methods. It is often said of fictional things that the villains are more interesting than the heroes; that is certainly true of this one, as the commander of the paras is by far the most charismatic and fascinating character in the film, and probably the one who gets the most individual screen time. This is not to denigrate the FLN characters, but merely to emphasise how the colonel gets all the best lines.

People often talk about how there are parallels between the Algerian war's uncompromising savagery and current events in Palestine and Iraq. As a result this film has enjoyed a new lease of life, reputedly being watched by Pentagon officials and US military types as a counter-insurgency training film (presumably they forget that the French lost in Algeria). If you have ever been to Hebron or, particularly, Jerusalem, the film will have resonances for you, if only for the look of the streets and their almost chthonic feeling.

I wonder sometimes, though, whether people learn the wrong lessons from the film. I particular think this of the left, or of people broadly supportive of Palestinian militancy and the various insurgencies in Iraq. The Battle of Algiers is very sympathetic to the FLN's armed struggle, not merely when it is directed against the security apparatus of the French, but also when French civilians are being targeted. The film presents the blowing up of caf├ęs, airline offices, and teen hangouts as unfortunate and distressing, but also necessary as a means to terrorise the French into granting independence to the Algerians. Yet, as someone on ILX points out, the FLN's violent campaign is revealed by the film to be a complete failure. It provokes a massive response by the authorities, who break the FLN as a military force, killing or arresting their activists. What finally breaks French will is not more terrorism, but an outbreak of mass agitation against colonial rule. I feel that this is something that people in Palestine could reflect on.

The discourse around the Palestinian struggle is often based on the idea that the imbalance of forces between Israel and Palestine is such that asymmetric war against Israeli civilians is the Palestinians' only option. This analysis never steps back to pondering whether killing Israeli civilians actually advances the cause of Palestinian freedom? I think not – if anything it retards it, providing a smoke screen for the Israelis to justify greater repression and land theft in the name of security. In any case, the Israelis, like the French, have succeeded in more or less totally defeating the Palestinian militants. The ability of Palestinians to strike at Israeli targets is now extremely limited, apart from those targets within rocket range of the Gaza strip. I cannot but think that like with Algeria, it is necessary for the Palestinians to try something else.

There is a poignant bit in the film where two FLN activists are talking. One says to the other "The real struggle begins when we achieve independence". Given Algeria's miserable post independence history, it is hard not to think "Jesus, you FLN guys really fucked that one up".

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