The Battle of Algiers: reality, war, cinema and toilet bowls

One of the ideas I always try to convey is that reality is too weak for cinema. There is something about the cinematic fiction that tells us about reality itself.
In 1966, Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo made what probably has become the archetype of political art-house cinema. The Battle of Algiers takes place in French Algeria during the Algerian independence war. It is a sublime film, there is no doubt about it. It is the ideal film. It works as a political message, as an art film, as a commercial film, it speaks internationally and it inspires reflection and bewilders. It is unique in that sense. However, I think the film’s real strength lies in it’s relevance in time, not only today but in our recent past. If you look at the film today, you would undoubtedly see an obvious relevance between the story of the Algerian independence and the wars that go on currently in Muslim countries. Although Pontecorvo’s film is clearly anti-imperialist and sympathetic with the Algerian struggle it is at the same time not anti-French, if you look closely at the film, it stands in the very middle of the war. The protagonist is Ali la Pointe, a young member of the National Liberation Front that through acts of violence and terrorism, struggles for Algerian national independence. The film shows sympathy for the Algerian struggle but never falls into becoming a demonizing view on the pied-noires. Instead, it does something mush more radical; it shows how genocide is international. Loosing a son, a wife, a father or a sister has no nationality. There are two scenes in the film which I think are crucial: the first is when the two French officials place the bomb in Casbah killing hundreds of Algerians, and the other is when the three women of the National Liberation Front take action in avenging the death of the Casbah bombings by placing bombs in the cafe and bars of the city, killing also hundreds. However, there is a catch; the music heard in both scenes is exactly the same. In a way, Pontecorvo is telling us how murder is murder no matter what side you’re on. Wouldn’t this be a perfect film to show today? It is not a coincidence that this film has been popularly compared with the Israeli occupation in the West Bank, the American war against Iraq…etc. It’s clear that today we live in a world where the difference between nationalism and right-wing fundamentalism has unfortunately grown slim. Why can’t one be part of Palestinian struggle without compromising with anti-Semitism? Why can’t one sympathize with the Arab uprising without being accused of Muslim fundamentalism? These questions are still relevant today. They belong to our current political reality. We shouldn’t tolerate violence or racism in any situation. The Battle of Algiers, not only makes a political statement but also makes a humanistic study of the effects of oppression and war. For Pontecorvo, is not enough showing a bunch of people rebelling against French occupiers, the film must also show the human as well as the emotional condition that one would go through under such oppression. Any film that starts with a torture scene, you already know there will be no break, no moment of peace, no sigh. The cinematography of the film could possibly be an example of the beginning of cinema verité, it reminds us of newsreel footage from the late 50s, the type of footage that they would show audiences in movie theaters before they started the movie. The film was released in 1966, so the impact and relevance of that kind of newsreel style was quite effective. Nonetheless, it has not lost its impact and its relevance. In the middle of the film, you almost forget you are watching fiction. It’s almost as if the reality of the film becomes so powerful you think you are looking at real war footage. In a very simplistic and obvious sense, that is what I believe cinema was really made for. Any film you look at (any good film) whether it’s science fiction, horror or a realistic drama you always allow yourself to be “tricked” into thinking you’re watching something real; perhaps even something more real than you are willing to admit.You know very well that it’s a movie, that it’s fiction…but somehow it fills in that space between the audience sitting down on their seats and the light that’s being spilled on the white screen. The experience is as if we are staring into some sort of void. So, as members of the audience we finally eliminate any obstacle between what goes on the screen and ourselves. Of course, nobody knows this better than Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, in his documentary “The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”, draws a rather tasteless analogy between cinema and a toilet bowl. In this vulgar analogy, Zizek argues that the experience we get when we sit in front of a screen, as soon as light is projected we are witnessing in a way, excrement coming back out from the toilet. Let me explain: when one goes to the toilet and flushes, it is in a certain way as if we are sending these “excrements” away to another dimension, somewhere away from our psychological space. We forget about them. They leave our reality as it were. In the movie theater, Zizek claims that the process is reversed: “Aren’t we, in a way, just waiting for shit to come out from the screen? But always from a safe distance.” Once the film starts, the void is opened, so we could probably expect almost anything to come out of it. That is what’s most traumatic in the film experience. Life is too comfortable for film, not the other way around. Cinema opens up something that is perhaps is too real even for reality itself. I think The Battle of Algiers is a perfect but simple example of that phenomenon. The reality is shit, it’s a series of terrible and unpleasant events, but the experience is somewhat magical. It is a fictional story yet it shows us something about ourselves and would so even if the film weren’t based on real historical events. The experience would still be real.

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One thought on “The Battle of Algiers: reality, war, cinema and toilet bowls

  1. Zizek is wright, flushig toilette its one of the most incredible real and ireal experience, every time you flush a new life begins. Reality hides what cinema cant hide, thats whay i like to go to the movies, you see a naked reality.

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