One scene from the film, the Battle of Algiers, stands for the dilemma in which we all are transfixed. A disco is taking place with French expatriates, kids who are having fun, dancing. A pretty girl in the corner swings her hips to the rhythm of the song and drops her bag- fifteen minutes later the dancers come onto the street having heard an explosion- a gas bottle one assumes, they go back in- the music starts again and they sway in time and then a bomb goes off, you hear screaming, the screen is filled with smoke which clears to broken rubble and crews of ambulance men carrying away the bodies of young innocent French boys and girls who had gone out for a date little realising that their date was with eternity. Its a scene I watch again and again to try and understand the realities of terrorism- to try and detect in a flicker of an actress's eyebrow the motivations of Osama Bin Laden.
The Colonel, Colonel Mathieu, sent to repress the terrorists arrives to tell us the true story of 'an unknown, unrecognisable enemy which blends in with the people' that is 'everywhere, in the cafes, in the streets of the Kasbah, in the streets of the European quarter, in the shops, in places of work'. Showing this- demonstrating it through a camera film of the checkpoint through which the girl who blew up the dance floor went, the colonel demonstrates that there is no way of knowing who blew up the dance floor. Furthermore he demonstrates that the suspects can only be marked out by their ethnicity and yet the majority of those with that ethnicity are innocent- and even those who look suspicious are not neccessarily those who were the perpetrators. The Colonel singles out a man who stopped his case being searched- but we know its the pretty girl flirting with the guards who is the perpetrator.
The director shows us the opposite way round- he shows us how the racism of the French at the beggining of the film turns from a casual response to the Algerians to a vicious anger against them. Kicking and beating up a young kid merely for the crime of looking like a potential bombing. The soldiers on the checkpoint behave with brutality. Our terrorist protagonist, Ali La Pointe, running from a petty theft is casually tripped up by a young French man who thinks its funny to get an Algerian arrested. The FLN seek a liberty from colonialist oppression- that's at least how the radicals of the sixties for whom this was made would have seen it- the French to tyrannise over them- as one of the terrorists says to some journalists, you have your bombs, we have our baskets, if you give us planes and bombs, you can have our baskets. Its a vivid explanation of what Sartre called the boomerang of terrorism- the way that a deficit in power turns into a terrifying instrument of revenge.
The film was made by a Marxist, Gillo Pontecervo, but its acute observations of the way that terrorism and counter-terrorism work is an amazing piece of work- still shown in the Pentagon to train specialists in counter terrorism going to Iraq. Colonel Matthieu is sent to Algiers to repress the FLN- and declares that he has the answer interrogation under torture. The first scene of the film (the film is strictly a flash back demonstrating how we got to this point) shows Colonel Matthieu's men casually torturing an Algerian to force him to lead them to the headquarters of Ali La Pointe. We see Algerians submerged in water, attached to electrodes, hung upside down and whipped and burned with flame throwers in order tot extract information. At a press conference, Mathieu makes his strategy clear interrogation is the only 'valid method' against a clandestine terrorist organisation, 'it' he says 'is a vicious circle', the problem is that the French want to stay and that this is the method to stay by. Matthieu a veteran of the Resistance reminds the reporters that he served against the Nazis and in Buchenwald and that if they are going to resist terrorist movements the only way to proceed is to torture to get information. From the legality of the police, to the brutality of the army, to the organised torture of the paratroopers policy responds to circumstance and grows more vicious.
And what is the consequence on the other side? Superficially there is very little. The FLN is a coalition in the film of petty thugs, elevated by events into self proclaimed national heroes, and totalitarian semi-intellectuals who wish to move society by force not argument. Their violence is restrained only by their lack of capability but they are willing to bomb, to drive cars into civilians, to dash out onto the pavement killing and shooting people with machine guns. The violence does perhaps escalate with police violence but you remain confident that these guys would commit it anyway. Their organisation revels in violence and blood- perhaps the most symbolic moment is when a group of terrorists are trapped in a house. Matthieu offers them a guarentee of a trial- they want it in writing and lower down a basket to get it, but inside the basket is a bomb which goes off killing a soldier. This is a society of the inhuman- but it is flanked by the normal Algerian populace and melts back into them- the difficulty lies in extracting the terrorist without loosing the support of the Algerian.
That is where ultimately Colonel Matthieu fails- he extracts the terrorists- by the end of the film he has captured all of them- but at the end of the film the Algerian population themselves take to the streets in spontaneous protests against the French adn hence the French are forced out. The terrorism has provoked an escalating reaction that in the end has led to victory for them. Matthieu's strategy has convinced the Algerians that they are different from the French and need to be independent and the FLN has succeeded.
Ultimately that is our dilemma too- because every false arrest and accusation of torture creates problems. Both in that as Matthieu comments it creates Sartres who criticise the West more than the opposing side, and because much deeper it creates new movements to aid the old movements against us. Its the problem of what to do about a bully- leave him be and he creates victims of his crimes, the bodies of the young French boys and girls above call out that what happened to them must not happen again, but torture him and you create a victim yourself. You transfer a terrorist into a martyr. There are no easy answers- Colonel Matthieu's analysis of why interrogation is important, why you have to work out the membership of the organisation is absolutely right- but it leads to disaster. Always policing walks on a tightrope- and faces a problem in dealing with terrorists.
Gillo Ponteverco was a Marxist and very sympathetic to the Algerian cause- but this film watched in the light of 9/11 and 7/7 avoids the easy answers. Ponteverco may have beleived them- in an interview he says that Ali La Pointe is a hero- which he isn't but the work of art that he created leaves us in the end with as many questions as answers- it is a fascinating film about a terrifying issue. Ponteverco's use of his non-proffessional cast, his choice of camera shots to make the film seem like a documentary and his ability to get at the streets of Algiers and shoot them in a way that conveys the setting wonderfully- demonstrates a film maker truly in command of his art. Cinematographically this is one of the great films- and deserves to be seen if only for that reason- beyond the issue that it illuminates.
Ultimately though whenever I think of the film and I've seen it both on a big screen- if you are in London the Institute of Contemporary Arts is showing it for a few more days and its worth seeing on that size of screen- and on a little- I think of the issue of terrorism. And I think of that girl dancing slowly and inconspicuously, beautiful with a sympathetic face casually dropping her bag and leaving it there to blow the French kids to oblivion and think there but for the grace of God go I- and hope we can find a way to stop her without giving her the status of a martyr, a way of stopping her that doesn't turn her death and the death of her helpers into excuses to create even more terrorists.