Day By Day

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lies of the Left -- The Battle of Algiers

I remember the first time I saw the Battle of Algiers. It was in the early seventies at a university venue and it scared the Hell out of me. I had heard a lot about the film through the late Sixties and was eager to see what all the fuss was about. I was shocked, not just by its in-your-face anti-western tone and its brutality, but more by the reaction of the audience (overwhelmingly privileged young Ivy League lefties) who cheered on the Arab terrorists with bloody enthusiasm.

Battle of Algiers is a sympathetic depiction of the emergence of an Islamist revolutionary movement in North Africa and it is a shocker. It is one of the most terrifying and important films you will ever see. It is available free on the net. If you haven't seen it yet, check it out here.

Made in 1966 by Italian Marxist, Gillo Pontecorvo, the film is based loosely on the Algerian war of independence from France that took place from 1954 to 1962. The film has been screened by the Pentagon as an illustration of the kind of warfare being waged by Islamist radicals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it supposedly has been used as an instructional and recruiting film by al Qaeda. It has purportedly inspired radical movements from the IRA to the Black Panthers. That's how relevant it is in these troubled times.

Many people, especially among our cultural elites, have viewed this film and taken its lessons to heart. And that is a tragic thing because it's main message -- that radical Islamism is an unstoppable, authentic, and virtuous force against which weak-willed and corrupt Western democracies cannot stand -- informs much of the opposition to both American and Israeli efforts in the Middle East. But, as Robert Averich argues [here], that perception and the strategic doctrines that flow from it are false and may well prove to be a fatal to the Islamist insurgency.

It is clear that radical Islamists have tried to recreate in Iraq and Afghanistan the conditions that, according to Pontecorvo, brought victory in the Algerian War. So too the tactics -- brutal terrorist attacks that spark even more brutal reprisals from the West, reprisals that victimize and radicalize the local population and enlist them on the side of the radicals.

But Pontecorvo's account of the Algerian insurgency is far from accurate -- Battle of Algiers, after all, is a propaganda film that focuses more on romantic and poetic rather than factual understandings of what went on in Algeria, and far more important America is not France. The actions of the American military and George Bush's administration are far different from those of the ill-fated Fourth French Republic. The American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have been prosecuted with far greater sophistication and determination than anything undertaken by European powers in the age of anti-colonialism. And, as we are seeing in Iraq, the results are quite different.

Read Averich's piece [and this followup]. It makes for interesting reading, and it sparks some important lines of thought, not the least about the relationship of film and film-makers to political culture.