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That Was Then, This Is Now: The Battle of Algiers and After
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Radical History Review 85 (2003) 133-149

Reflections and Reports

The First Algerian War


Back from South Asia where I had gone to avoid being sent to Southeast Asia, I saw The Battle of Algiers (La battaglia de Algeria, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). In San Francisco, in the Fillmore district, a bright sunny Saturday afternoon, on a double bill with Buñuel's Belle du jour (1967). From Catherine Deneuve to Ali la Pointe. After four hours, senses pummeled in the movie theater, I staggered out onto the street, shop fronts locked tight behind accordion-style metal gates drawn shut, liquor bottle broken glass littering the sidewalk. Streetfighting Man. Goat's Head Soup. Got to Revolution.

There and then, I knew I had to write a Ph.D. dissertation on Algeria, and that it could also be politically progressive, even radical. On Algeria, colonial Algeria, the story of colonialism in Algeria. And the more I read, the more I learned about what could be termed an "Algerian syndrome," analogous to a "Vichy syndrome," both defining moments of twentieth-century French history, both historical blind spots, freighted combinations of willed forgetfulness, collective denial, misremembering, and, first for Vichy and now increasingly for Algeria, the return of what has been repressed, occluded, ignored, put away. Imbued with Thompsonian social history from the bottom up, I began by posing Lenin's question, who: whom? I rapidly realized a disconnection between the paucity of historiography on the European settlers, the pieds noirs, and the important historical role they had played. Where were the settlers in the literature? Answer: too big to be seen. The title of Pierre Nora's 1961 book, Les français d'Algérie, was right down the alley; at first I feared he had beaten me to it. Confirmation of my thesis choice came on visiting Algeria in 1975. After viewing Pontecorvo's film, in solidarity with the Algerians, I had to stay in the lower Casbah just off the Place des Martyrs, the former Place du Gouvernement. A hole-in-the-wall, the cheaper the better, Turkish-style toilet, dank, gray. From the Casbah I went to the still imposing French Gouvernement-Général building just above the spot where the May 13, 1958, army-settler demonstrations led to the fall of the French Fourth Republic, got my letter from the Conseil de la Révolution authorizing unlimited access to the Algerian archives without a hitch, and then celebrated by eating lunch in a popular café run by pieds noirs and frequented by Algerians.


Teaching at a Midwestern university, I regularly screen The Battle of Algiers; I still say to my students, "this movie is gonna knock your socks off." The opening sequence still rivets me, the army truck tailgates go down and the soldiers jump out, all while the rhythmic, pounding soundtrack accelerates the tension (no light pop Nina Rota soundtrack, this). Then blowing up Ali la Pointe and the other three: "Captain (off): 'Make up your mind, Ali? Do you want us to wall you in, or do you prefer that we blow you to pieces? . . . Alright. So much the worse for you.' Ali's expression is still firm; his stare is dark and sullen." After, the soundtrack slows, thickens, descends in tone, the film grinds to a halt as if a hole burned in the film stock; then we flash back to November 1, 1954, the outbreak of the revolution. The torture sequence still makes me want to look away. Even with the slow stately soundtrack, plaintive classical chords, the sequence seems interminable.

An Algerian is lying down on the table, his arms and ankles bound with belts. . . . Electrical wires wrenched from their outlets, a generator with crank, . . . the tops of the wires held between two prongs, the pliers applied to a naked body, the most sensitive parts. . . . Faucets, tubing, buckets, funnels, a mouth forced open, held open with a wooden wedge, tubing in the mouth, rags scattered around, water, a belly that is swelling. (127; emphasis original)

In an earlier scene we have already seen the Casbah blocked off, Algerians checked for papers, one by one, and the tension mounts: will the...