La Bataille d’Algers was released in 1966, four years after Algerian independence from France. It was an Italian Algerian co-production, directed by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo, and won the Lion d’Or at the Venice Film Festival. It was initially banned in France and wasn’t shown generally until 1971 and not until 2004 uncensored.

Algeria had been invaded in 1830 and had become a part of France in 1848. The war for independence was started by the FLN in November 1954. By late 1957 the army had succeeded in dismantling the FLN organisation in Algiers but demonstrations broke out again in 1960. Tanks were deployed and civilians were shot in the street but, dismayed by the brutality of the methods used and the breadth of support, France conceded independence in 1962.

The film covers events in the city of Algiers between late 1954 and late 1957. It is shot in black and white and some of the scenes might easily be newsreel or documentary. It was filmed mostly on location in the Casbah. Ali la Pointe is shown grafting on the street and then in prison watches the execution of an FLN fighter. Radicalised by the experience he is recruited to the FLN by El-hadi Jaffar and rises in the organisation. After a sequence of bombings and shootings and reprisals, French paratroopers under the command of Colonel Phillipe Mathieu are deployed to restore order. Mathieu’s strategy succeeds. Jaffar is captured. Ali la Pointe’s hiding place is betrayed and, refusing to surrender, he is blown up. But at the end of the film this is shown to be only a temporary victory.

These characters have different origins. Ali la Pointe is a fictional character. Jaffar is based on Saadi Yacef, who wrote the memoir on which the film is based. Mathieu is a composite of different leaders of the anti-insurgent forces. The cast is almost entirely non-professional. Brahim Haggiag who plays Ali was chosen because he looks the part of the rebel. Saadi Yacef plays the role based on himself. The only professional actor is Jean Martin who plays the part of Mathieu. But the filming is not art-less.  On the soundtrack FLN actions are accompanied by Algerian drumming, singing and chanting while army actions are accompanied by gunfire and the clatter of helicopters and trucks. The film is not partisan in an obvious way. Both sides are shown committing atrocities and both sides are given the opportunity to put their case. At street level, so to speak, the film doesn’t take sides. But it isn’t neutral either.

There are two sets of relevant questions I think. Firstly, is Algeria a part of France and does therefore the French state have a legitimate interest in suppressing a rebellion or is Algeria a colony with a legitimate claim to self-determination. And how is a legitimate claim for self-determination to be distinguished from an illegitimate attack on the democratic process? The second set of questions is connected. Which actions may be taken by a legitimate state and which ones may not? A basic function of a state is to keep the peace and administer justice. The two are closely connected. The administration of justice is dependent on there being sufficient order that justice rather than force prevails in conflicts and keeping the peace and maintaining order are functions which allow the administration of justice to prevail. What happens when a state cannot keep the peace and the army rather than the police is deployed?

There are two important scenes that dramatize these questions. I don’t know whether this is what Pontecorvo intends, but they are placed either side of the one hour mark and, therefore, exactly halfway through, they create the crux of the film.  In the first, the newly arrived Mathieu briefs his officers. He says that he knows that they dislike the word but military action is secondary to policing in this situation.  The FLN has a cellular structure so that any combatant knows only three others: the one who recruited him and the two he recruited. The army cannot know who the enemy is because the enemy doesn’t know who they are. In order to eliminate the enemy therefore the army must investigate and investigate through interrogation. And interrogation must be by methods that ensure a response. Humane considerations can only lead to despair and confusion. Carte blanche has been requested but this has been hard to obtain. Laws are still in force as though Algiers were a holiday camp rather than a battlefield. An opening for these methods would have to be created unless the enemy were to provide such an opportunity. Fortunately, by calling a general strike, the FLN has created just such an opportunity.

The other scene follows almost immediately. Larbi Ben M’hidi, an FLN leader, is in the city ahead of the strike.  Ali la Pointe escorts him to safety over the rooftops and they discuss the strike.  Ali has been against it because it means suspending armed action. M’hidi say that violence doesn’t win wars. Terrorism is only a starting point. To succeed, the people must take up the cause. The Algerian question has reached the UN. The strike is designed to demonstrate to the UN the level of support the FLN enjoys from the general population. Starting a rebellion is hard, but not as hard as sustaining it, and not as hard as winning it. And after the victory things become even more difficult. M’hidi tells Ali that while the strike is necessary to win international support he should also understand that it provides the army with an opportunity; it gives them an enemy with a face, because everyone who supports the strike becomes visible as an enemy.

These scenes function as a kind of hinge in the film. The FLN, by calling a strike, seeks to demonstrate that it has the public support that alone will justify its actions as a fight for self-determination. And the state, by deploying the army, surrenders a part of its claim to be a proper authority. Mathieu’s officers are correct to dislike the idea of policing because armies are by their nature combatants not law enforcers. By adopting the strategy that it does, including the use of torture, the army makes the conflict one of combatant against combatant rather than authority against rebel.  If this is right, the function of the two scenes is to show the two sides moving in opposite directions, the FLN towards legitimacy, the French state away from it. In this way, the ending of the film, and the way actual events turned out, are shown not to be arbitrary.