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A little something about 'Battle of Algiers'

History is shorter or the Ecuadorian Embassies water bill

Recently there has been a lament to the lack of truly political musicians, those who release music that reflects and confronts the politics and causes of modernity. I don’t entirely agree that there is a lack of these musicians, sure at the superstar level there isn’t but in the lower echelons I don’t think it’s a lack of individuals that’s the problem more the universal fragmentation of media and thought, and simultaneously (and somewhat paradoxically) the homogenising effects of globalisation, that creates a million causes and ideologies but labels and groups them as such to make them all appear the same. It is disorientating and tiring, and many find it best to ignore it or even better pretend it doesn’t actually exist. How could a singer possibly be heard over this, running the gauntlet on a tiny label or self-releasing, playing a diminishing number of venues that have not consumed by Live Nation or O2, competing with a million more on online….no wonder they can’t be heard

Film is a lot louder medium, political films are made, even in Hollywood, but still the noise does not abate. Films about recent political stories or conflicts are rattled off with disturbing immediacy, concerned it seems more with the money making power of being fresh in the public’s mind rather than the measured contemplative effects of reflection and perspective. Remember it took American filmmakers 3 years after the conflict to make any major statement about Vietnam (and no I’m not including Green Berets in this), now we get Zero Dark Thirty so soon after the event (from a script rewritten after Osama’s death), a slew of Afghan movies while we can skip channels and watch it in real time and a Wikileaks film while Julian Asange is still cleaning his socks in the Ecuadorian Embassies sink. We are inundated with the political and those professing to be political, propaganda, blockbuster documentaries, military product placement, conflict fetishism, west is best, left is best, right is right, pity the poor people, snake oil blending seamlessly into the commercial break.

So they are there, in whatever form you wish to attribute to them, but the noise is so much that we do not, or choose not to notice them. We do not notice the political because for all the shouting we’re not exactly sure what it is anymore, where does the truth lie when there is so much pushing and pulling?

We are now such cynical creatures (and much of the time justifiably so) that we see agendas rather than clear-headed attempts at portraying the truth. So take for example Gillo Pontecorvo, communist, resistance leader in Fascist Italy, idol of Third World cinema and orbiter of social circles that included Stravinsky, Sartre and Picasso. What would we expect if he took on say La Violencia and FARC or Xanana Gusmão and José Ramos-Horta? Propaganda for the left maybe? A rose-tinted view of Marxist politics?

Well in 1966 took Saadi Yacef’s account of Algeria’s National Liberation Front’s (FLN) struggles against the French, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger and made Battle of Algiers, and after juggling through title changes, differing protagonists and Paul Newman, he produced a film that had the wisdom to realise that when either side is favoured the truth is brought into question.

It’s hard for modern audiences to know how to react to film so balanced, so stubbornly unjudgmental and although its famed style could easily have it mistaken for a newsreel (if not for Morricone’s predictably excellent score) this objective fashion also gives Battle of Algiers a sense of fable, a warning from history, a caution spread out either way from one of dozens of colonial wars rewritten and rethought, from wars that consume continents to grudges that destroy families. How we repeat mistakes, how we are doomed to become what we oppose, how violence breeds violence and tragedy more tragedy. The French deny independence to the Algerians, they retaliate with the assassination of officials, the French turn the Kasbah into a ghetto and terrorise its inhabitants, the FLN bomb restaurants and bars, killing both French and Algerian in a truly chilling sequence, the French bomb back killing children and mothers which precedes a scene of hysteria and mayhem that could have been Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, Pakistan or tragically modern day Algeria, the Algerians riot, the French torture and so on and so on. Patterns emerge that could be applied on varying scales to all conflicts past and present. It’s boring to say there are no winners, but Battle of Algiers at least rescues this remark from soundbite status and reveals to us why this is.

It is also telling that the film doesn’t conclude with Algeria’s independence in 1962, but concerns itself with events in the capital between 1954 and 1957. As the film doesn’t have a conclusion as such, it prophetically illustrates that violence on this scale very rarely has a conclusion, the repercussions and traumas resonate throughout cultural and personnel memory. The vacuum left by colonialism leaves space for warlords and fundamentalism, revolutions lead to power struggles, which in turn lead to tactics learned from the oppressors used on the newly oppressed in the name of a nation once demanded by a now tyrannized people, who now cry for help and welcome the former conquers back in the name of whatever buzzword so fits the time, who in time tighten their grip on the country unable to leave due to resources or land or pride, winning battle after battle but blindingly losing the war, radicalising the people who rise up against the colonisers and as they have the greatest weapon of all, time, drive them out, leaving a vacuum to be filled by……..

There are thousands of good films, there are many great ones, but there are very few important ones.

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