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“A Big Job”: A Conversation About The Battle of Algiers with Saadi Yacef

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By John Duncan Talbird.

The Battle of Algiers (1966) is one of the essential postcolonial texts of the 20th century. It complicates many of the assumptions that too often get taken for granted even now, fifty years later: the essentialism of race, the terrorist/freedom fighter binary, the ethics and efficacy of torture to name just a few. Like Battleship Potemkin before it, Algiers makes the crowd a character, the extras coming alive to take part in a cast of thousands. No one who has seen Algiers will forget the sequence with the three unnamed women who remove hijab and chop off their hair, passing as French/white so that they can pass through the checkpoints and plant bombs in a bar, restaurant, and the airport. The sequence simultaneously points up the artificiality of “race” while humanizing these terrorists as we watch them watch their neighbors who they know will die or be injured in the coming attack. It’s also simply good cinema, using rapid cuts overlaid with music to create suspense as we wait for the bombs to explode.

Gillo Pontecorvo had already made a name for himself as a director and leftist by the time he began work on Algiers. His first narrative film was the short Giovanna (1956) which he called “a feminist film before there was feminism.” It was a natural fit when FLN leader Saadi Yacef arrived in Italy in 1964 looking for a politically like-minded director to make a film about the struggle for Algerian independence. Yacef carried with him a copy of his memoir, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger (1962), about his experiences in the battle for Algerian independence and life in a French prison with a death sentence on his head. Although Yacef plays a role modeled on his own life in the film, ultimately, Algiers became a bigger story than just one man’s. The film was a mammoth project and took nearly two years to make, but the results speak for themselves. The Battle of Algiers won three awards at the Venice Film Festival, including the Golden Lion, and was nominated for three Academy Awards in the US.

It is difficult not to see recent history in the film – struggles for independence and democracy in the Arab Spring, debates over the use of “enhanced interrogation,” the ham-fisted interventions of Western powers in developing countries – even as the film remains a pure distillation of a specific time, place, and people. The importance of this film can’t be overstated and, appropriately, Rialto Pictures has just released a 50th anniversary 4K restoration of the movie which is crisp and clear in both sight and sound. It’s beautiful to watch in a quiet theater and drives home how this film can simultaneously be both political and suspenseful.

In association with the anniversary of Algiers, I had the opportunity to sit down with Saadi Yacef in New York City’s Film Forum recently with two other journalists and a French translator. The eighty-eight-year-old actor is just as charismatic as the rebel leader he plays in the film, indoctrinating the young hero, Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), as an assassin in the FLN. The following is an edited account of our conversation.

Have you ever done promotion for The Battle of Algiers before?

algiers-02-yacefI came to Los Angeles right after the film was released in the United States and the film had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Because of that, the film had developed a reputation. I went to a lot of the theaters showing the film and what I noticed was that the American audiences really responded to it, that they appreciated what was being told, and they also, in a sense, adopted the film. It was on that basis that the film became so well known. Many years later, I was requested by CNN to give an interview about my view of the coming war in Iraq and what this kind of war would mean in general for the United States, what was involved and what they might expect.

The interviewer at CNN asked me if I could explain why it was that I had made the film in the first place. So I explained why I had made it and why I had committed myself to the struggle for liberation and combating the monster that was France which, at the time, was the most powerful country in the world. The interviewer at CNN was trying to draw parallels to that situation and what this possible situation might be in Iraq. Incidentally, this may or may not be true, but I heard that President Bush invited some of his military officers to view the film. So I gave it to them and they saw it. But I told the CNN interviewer that you have to understand that geographically, economically, and from the point of view of how the local population behaves, Iraq is a very different place from Algeria. I was visited by agents from the FBI and the CIA in Algiers who came to talk to me about what was involved. I said, “You can draw examples from many situations, Vietnam, for example. But Vietnam was not Algeria either. You’re going to see some similarities, some indications that things are the same, but you can never compare the one with the other.” But what I did tell them, and I stated this quite clearly to them: “If you go into Iraq today, this is the day that you will lose the war. Because whether it’s done for the reason of some weapon of mass destruction that’s being pointed at Israel or whatever your motive is, eventually you’re going to face a population like us where it was people with knives with the possibility of ultimately humiliating you and you’ll lose on the very day that you invade.”

It’s interesting to me about what you’re saying concerning the differences in countries. But I think it’s very natural for viewers to look at, for instance, the arguments for torture in the movie, the local population rising up against an occupying army, the checkpoints controlling population flow, and for those viewers to try to make connections in the world today. I wonder what you think contemporary audiences all across the world can learn from your film now.

It’s very difficult because it’s never the same situation. For instance, it is very difficult to make comparisons with Iraq because the situations are so incredibly different. So I’m going to speak a little about what our experience was, then so you can get an idea. At the time, we were looking at what was once the French empire which at that point was zero times infinity – it was on its way down. It was very, very weak and we felt that this might be the appropriate time to take action against France. To give you a brief background: the French had a consistent record of trying to take over places and failing. Over the course of the years, they were first in Madagascar. They failed. They were in Vietnam. Vietnam, for them, ultimately failed. In the Second World War, the Germans occupied Paris within thirteen days. The French also went into Tunisia and you had the Bey of Tunisia who was overthrown on the grounds that he collaborated with the Germans and the French were then overthrown. They attempted to go into Morocco which was bordering on the ridiculous and they overthrew Sultan Mohammed V. Basically what you had was a colonial empire that was desperately trying to remain an empire and was failing.

And after 132 years of colonization of Algeria, we decided that this was our time to move and so we did. And you have to understand that what’s called our period of “terrorism” was pretty much only a span of ten years. But we decided to take advantage of this weakness of France’s. There was a political party in Algeria that had been in existence for about thirty years. Algeria and the Algerians had been promised that they would be rewarded in some way, perhaps with independence because of their assistance during the Second World War and it didn’t happen, so the time came. The people made a choice and I was among that group of people. We decided it was time to declare war against France and so people began to join us. Explosions would take place and gradually we would take over certain areas. I was in control of Algiers, that was my area of responsibility. You had four hundred thousand foreigners who had been put into Algeria to “populate” Algeria for France and we had those people that we had to deal with, too. So you had a colony that didn’t want to be a colony anymore. We had a handful of people – old people, young people, women. All of these people joined us because they realized it was the time to do it.

The Kasbah is a major feature of the film. It was a communal effort of the inhabitants of Algiers to make the film. Considering all the changes that have taken place since, do you think that a film like this could be made today by foreign directors coming from outside Algeria?

Never. Because they would have to invent everything and I lived it. I have three bullet holes in my thigh that will give proof of that. I am the last one of that group of Algerians still living. Algerians today, the people in power, are not particularly happy with us because we made the war and they didn’t. This is true, world wide, of any time period, of any kind of battle. The inhabitants of any country are almost like a war horse, something that’s quiet and calm until something comes to incite it to action, then it moves. I think this is a lesson that could be taught to a lot of the world leaders, this idea of the war horse. Because if the war horse is calm – and the people are calm – then everything will be fine. But once the war horse is aroused, then the people will not be happy and the war-like behavior will follow.

In America now there is this sense of fear, especially with candidate Trump talking about terrorists and Muslims. In your movie, terrorism is accepted and the world “Muslims” is very rarely used. Can you talk about the use of the word “terrorism” as opposed to “freedom fighting”?

algiers-03We did not consider ourselves to be terrorists. Regarding connections between terrorism and Islam: In our own country in the last ten years we’ve fought our own fight against Islamic fundamentalists and we finally got rid of them, because there should not be any direct correlation between Islam and terrorism.

I’m going to just digress here a little to say that one of the most important things for us now, and what everyone in the world wants to find, is peace. I’m going to take the example of the United States. The US was a country that never had a black president. But if the United States can accept a black president quite easily and quite successfully, then I think the United States is a country that can set about doing things to bring about world peace and that involves other things than just talking about it. Human beings have evolved to the point where the wolf is eating the wolf, to quote Socrates. Human beings have a lot to be proud of: they’ve come up with brilliant inventions. We have electricity, we have telephones, we have all kinds of inventions, but human beings also invented explosives and the ability to kill. I think that slowly, over time, the wolf began to kill the other wolves and this is something that would have been unimaginable in nature. We have to be aware that we’ve created situations that have brought about a Nagasaki, a Hiroshima, and if you want to talk about peace and bringing about peace and putting an end to terrorism then the important thing is that you have to stop building weapons and selling them.

What is the importance, then, of the scene where Ali is told by the more moderate revolutionary, the one who hangs himself, that acts of violence don’t win wars or revolutions. How important is that scene in the movie?

That’s a very important scene because he’s recognized Ali’s ambition to dominate. He’s understood it and, in the end, he doesn’t want to be a part of it and so he hangs himself. He realizes that violence is something that was necessary to begin the struggle, but it was not necessary to maintain it. I’m going to give you an example: So you live in New York and I come to your apartment and I want to take your apartment away from you. Well, you’re not going to let me take it away from you. You’ll want to get rid of me. So, in that scene, the revolutionary is seeing a foreshadowing in that scene with Ali. He’s imagining what things will be like after the war has been won.

A few years ago I was here in America at a conference and there was a gentleman there, I think he was a professor. We were talking and he said, “You know, the Algerian war was won by General de Gaulle.” And I looked at him and said, “Well, you know, if France had won the war, the French would never have left Algeria.” The very fact that they couldn’t get out of there fast enough is pretty good proof that they didn’t win.

Your memoir is hard to find in English. I was curious: a memoir is personal by the very nature of the genre. It’s one person’s view of a life, of historical events. The movie, though, has a documentary, “objective” feel. For instance, there’s more than one voice-over narrator, a French one and an Algerian one. We see the French “side,” we see the Algerian “side.” So I’m curious about what you feel was lost in the translation from the book to the film.

60% was lost. As far as The Battle of Algiers was concerned, I lived it. I was the head of Algiers so I know everything that was happening. And nothing that appears in the film is made up. I doubled the size of the crowd that Cecil B. DeMille would have used in showing the December demonstrations.

Do you love the movie?

algiers-04As I said, everything that was in the film: I lived it. But the film has a lot of gaps in it for me. Pontecorvo and I argued about a lot of things. He’s a good director, but he would insist that the guns were shot this way (He demonstrates.) And I would say, “No, we shot it this way.” He would say the bombs were built this way and I would tell him, “No, that’s not how we built the bombs.” And he would say, “No, well it’s good to do it my way for cinematic reasons.” But that was not how it was done and I wanted it to be true to reality.

You know Ali La Pointe is blown up in the house. So that house is a house where my nephew and his daughter – Djafar’s family in the film – were blown up and killed. So when we were gong to film that scene, I rebuilt the exterior of the house so that we could blow it up on camera. And in that scene where you have the bomb that goes off in the Kasbah where there were 75 people killed, we also rebuilt that café so that it could be blown up again. Pontecorvo didn’t want to do that, but I felt we had to do it because that’s what happened.

I actually went to the local hospitals and found all the local children who were missing a limb, an arm or a leg, and I brought them and they were extras in the film to show the reality of what had happened.

I was wondering if Pontecorvo had any thoughts about the legacy of the film. Is there anything you can share with us about your friendship with the director?

He was a good guy. He died in 2006, but he came to Algiers [a few years prior] and it was almost a sort of pilgrimage for him because he wanted to go back to all of the film locations. The people there loved him. He did a good job and he was a very good director.

As an aside, when we started production on the film, I actually paid Pontecorvo and Franco Solinas who was the scriptwriter half in advance and the balance when the film was done. And I also paid to have them come to Algiers. They spent eighteen months in Algiers at my expense. They got to really know the people and become part of the community. I helped with the small details, but he really had the big job to do.

John Duncan Talbird is the author of the limited edition book of stories, A Modicum of Mankind (Norte Maar) with images by artist Leslie Kerby. His fiction and essays have appeared in Ploughshares, Juked, The Literary Review, Amoskeag, Ambit and elsewhere. He is an English professor at Queensborough Community College.

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