PONTECORVO’S “THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS” (1966-67) Artefact Report
PONTECORVO’S “THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS” (1966-67)
DESCRIPTION OF THE FILM
“The Battle of Algiers” was shot in 1965 and released in 1966-1967. Directed and co-written by Italian Gillo Pontecorvo (1919-2006), it represented select incidents during the Algerian war, a nationalist uprising against French colonialism in the North-African nation. It focuses on terrorism, colonialism, and military suppression, depicting tactics of urban guerrilla warfare that were employed by resistance fighters (led by the National Liberation Front) against French colonialist forces. The dramatic narrative details the changing fortunes of the NLF between 1954 and 1957.
Despite its superficial appearance of neutrality, one may argue that the very act of making such a film is inherently political. This film, in fact, was made after discussions with NLF leaders and most sources belonged to the NLF. (Whitaker, 2017) The director himself was a declared Communist and, hence, no advocate of colonial rule.
In terms of content, this film is seen as an example of post-colonial cinema. Stylistically, it is treated as an exemplar of Italian Neorealism which was interested in the everyday lives and struggles of the ordinary individual. It resonated with American audiences during the time of protests against the war in Vietnam. This film has also had a great influence on military strategists. (Ebert, 2017)
“The Battle Of Algiers” is particularly well-regarded for its convincingly realistic depiction. In fact, the director included a disclaimer stating that no documentary or newsreel footage was used. (Ebert, 2017) I am interested in how the construction of ‘truth’ can take place through such cinematic realism.
In this case, realism was achieved partly through casting choices and fine attention to detail. Most of the actors in the film were locals with no professional background in the performing arts. (Ibid.) Scenes were shot on location and using grainy black and white film for verisimilitude. The cinematography made pioneering use of hand-held techniques that are now treated as standard for documentary-like cinema.(Classic Art Films, 2015) The director effectively used these techniques to tell a story from a viewpoint (not overtly) sympathetic to the cause of the resistance. The strong impact, emotional appeal, and widespread reach of cinema as a medium ensured that his version of the events become powerful enough to oppose the hegemonic colonialist narrative, thus influencing world opinion.
When a film has the outward appearance of reality and refrains from overtly displaying its ideological subjectivity, it has a greater impact on the minds of audiences. It appears neutral and impartial. Audiences are more willing to accept it as unvarnished truth. In this way, a filmmaker can influence the minds of his audiences and, arguably, the course of history.
As with any artefact, there are multiple possible avenues for exploration of meaning. I have treated this film as an entry point into investigating the issue of realism in cinema and the impact that this can have on audiences’ perceptions. In this film, cinematic conventions typical of the documentary form have been successfully employed to promote a subjective viewpoint beneath the veneer of objective factual accuracy.
Ebert, R. (2004). The Battle of Algiers Movie Review (1968). [online] Rogerebert.com.
Classic Art Films. (2015). The Battle of Algiers. [online]
Whitaker, S. (2017). Gillo Pontecorvo. The Guardian. [online]
Duncan, D., 2008. Italy’s postcolonial cinema and its histories of representation. Italian Studies, 63(2), pp.195-211.
Lawton, B., 1979. Italian Neorealism: A Mirror Construction of Reality. Film Criticism, 3(2), pp.8-23.
Lorcin, P.M., 2006. Algeria & France, 1800-2000: identity, memory, nostalgia. Syracuse University Press.
Nichols, B., 1991. Representing reality: Issues and concepts in documentary (Vol. 681). Indiana University Press.
Ruberto, L.E. and Wilson, K.M., 2007. Italian neorealism and global cinema. Wayne State University Press.