Déjà vu in a Documentary: History's First Take in The Battle of Algiers

If history repeats itself, can we at least find some decent DVD's to follow suit? While we wait for the answer, and a sequel to Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 The Battle of Algiers, we can at least glean some serious hindsight from this déjà vu documentary.

It may be misleading to equate France's 130 year colonial slog in Algeria with our nation's swift tragedy of errors in Iraq. And yet, by ignoring the lessons of the former--a lengthy occupation ending in a grueling eight year guerilla war--our political Deciders have surely worsened our situation in the latter.

Last week, tens of thousands of Iraqis marched in what The New York Times called an "extraordinarily disciplined rally" in Najaf. The protest, notable not only in size, but in its nonviolence, commemorated the fourth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad. Days later, two massive explosions rocked the capital of Algeria with Al-Qaeda claiming responsibility. The press wisely avoided drawing connections--numerous as they are speculative--between the events. In such a maze, it's helpful to turn to history, and in the case of Algiers, film.

Based on the book by captured Algerian insurgent leader Saadi Yacef, The Battle of Algiers recreates, with remorseless clarity, the cost of one of the 20th century's bloodiest anti-colonial revolutions. Yacef parlayed his fight into a book and the book into the documentary style film. He cast himself a leading role, playing, more or less, himself.

Shot on site in the newly independent city in 1965, The Battle of Algiers catalogues three years of atrocities committed by both sides. The National Liberation Front (FLN), encamped in the Algiers Casbah, gets the violence ball rolling in 1957 with targeted attacks on the French police. Officers are stabbed in broad daylight. Precinct stations are ambushed by fighters indistinguishable from innocent civilians. The French response is ferocious: an innocent street merchant is arrested and, once the police learn his address, his house is promptly bombed and a good chunk of his neighborhood is leveled in the process. The rebels retort with still more brutality: bombs planted in crowded French cafes and the airport. The French seal off the Casbah and call in the paratroopers. The war is on.

With the cycle of retribution thus cycling, the verbal and visual lexicon is nearly identical to our current "Mess O'Potamia," as John Stewart calls the Iraq quagmire. First is the obvious cultural clash, paired with the inevitable symptomatic outbreaks of occupation: clogged checkpoints, angry mobs, and then torture.

Torture becomes central to the anti-insurgency: "Interrogation conducted in such a way to ensure that we always get an answer," explains Colonel Mathieu, French commander. "Humane considerations will only result in despair and confusion...Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is yes, then you must accept all consequences."

Without the lens of an international media focused on them, the French had some wiggle room for open criminality in Algiers. But compared to this, does Alberto Gonzales' stated "quaintness" of the Geneva Conventions seem more compassionate? Does Abu Ghraib seem progressive? At the end of the day, torture is torture and Pontecorvo does not shy from depicting the myriad ways information can be extracted from human bodies: water torture, electric shock, blowtorches, etc.

The Battle of Algiers is not a slow film. But the action comes not in climactic eruptions of adrenaline, as in our blockbusters, but instead with the persistent anxiety of a terror campaign. As the camera moves us through the labyrinthine Casbah, we become innocent bystanders to the horror. Pontecorvo builds the tension with a nerve-wracking soundtrack of lone guitar notes, women's ululations and chanting crowds.

The Black Panthers supposedly mined The Battle of Algiers for revolutionary tactics. Facing a growing insurgency in 2004--the same year the film was re-released in the U.S.--Pentagon war planners held their own screening. Pontecorvo was vexed by this. The film should "teach how to make cinema, not war," he said.

But because we live in an insane time, tragic mistakes of the past are repeated with different outcomes expected. In this mad cycle, where war is marketed and sold as art, it perversely follows that war-makers would reflect on film to guide their war.