"For No Particular Reason That Anyone Could Explain"

There are two films called The Battle of Algiers. One is a cult film of the late 1960s, shot on newsreel stock and depicting the 1950s struggle of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN) against the French colonial occupation. Despite its skilled use of non-actors and its gritty neorealist feel, this movie contains "not a single foot" of documentary material (as director Gillo Pontecorvo often pointed out). Nonetheless, it was embraced as a training film of sorts by radicals from Berkeley to Belfast.

The other Battle of Algiers is a hot contemporary property, reportedly screened at the Pentagon in September 2003 and now available in a 3-disc set replete with retrospective documentaries and interviews with interested parties from Pontecorvo to Richard Clarke. This film's depiction of Arab radicals assassinating police and planting bombs in public places could not be more timely.

The two films are the same, of course. Only the world is different.

Or is it? With cold objectivity, The Battle of Algiers shows how the French authorities undertook to "decapitate the tapeworm" of the FLN, when that organization was assassinating policemen and planting bombs in public places. Because each FLN cell had only three members, the French found it necessary to torture hundreds of prisoners before cornering and killing the last two.

The film ends with a postscript: "For no particular reason that anyone could explain," there was an uncontrollable popular uprising two years later, which led to Algerian independence in 1962.

If you detect a note of tragic irony here, then perhaps you'll detect the same note in Clarke's comment that "it surprised the hell out of me" when Al-Qaeda seemed to grow two new heads for every one cut off. After 35 years, shouldn't counterterrorism experts be able to tell the difference between a tapeworm and a hydra?

January 31, 2006 8:38 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by Martha Bayles published on January 31, 2006 8:38 AM.

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