Tuesday, March 17, 2009

World Movie Series - 5 - Battle of Algiers

How will a country attain freedom? Is it by means of violence or by following non violence? There are many battles throughout the world, for freedom, and there are many stories behind the battles. What will happen if an entire country surges along with the quench for freedom? What if an entire community of oppressed people rise and demand freedom? What will be the consequences?

Battle of Algiers is one such epic tale about a country achieving freedom - the birth of a new country Algeria.

The movie begins with the military just having finished torturing a person. They enquire whether the person will now be able to help them, and he reluctantly shakes his head in agreement. We see Colonel Marcel Bigeard, a veteran who has participated in World War II and in many other wars. He hands over a uniform to the person telling that he won’t be identified at the place they are going. The person stands still, and suddenly lets out a huge ‘NOOOO’, tries to run away but they catch him and warn him. He finally agrees, and they leave.

We see the titles, and paramilitary forces rushing in the streets of Algiers, the capital of Algeria. Loads of military forces are summoned in front of a building, and all the people are evacuated and captured. The general summons the traitor, and he walks towards a wall and points it. The Colonel stands in front of the wall, and issues warnings to the people hiding behind it. He addresses a person inside by the name ‘Ali la Pointe’, and commands them to come out and surrender. We see four people hiding in the secret chamber behind the wall. Two men, a women and a boy. The Colonel tells that the entire organization has been destroyed, and Ali la Pointe is the last man standing. He threatens he is going to blow the entire building, if they are not coming out. We see Ali La Pointe’s face in a close up, and the events of the past start flowing in his mind.

The year is 1954. We see Ali la Pointe betting in a street. A woman points him to a policeman, and Ali starts to run. But he is captured, and put in prison. We learn that he is an illiterate, having spent many petty sentences in prison earlier. In the prison, he witnesses a citizen of Algeria being executed in the guillotine. This makes him to hate the French, who rule the country. He decides to join the National Liberation Front (FLN), which fights against the French.

Once he is out of the prison, he is approached by a boy, who hands him a note. Ali asks the boy to read it out, and it says he has to kill a cop, and a woman will hand him a gun at the right time. He starts following the particular cop, and a woman joins him. She hands over the gun to Ali, and when he shoots the cop, there is no bullet. The cop catches Ali and Ali beats him up. They both run and hide in a house, where Ali bursts out on the girl, for cheating him. She calmly takes him to one of the leaders of FLN, El Hadi Jaffer, a fictional character in the film.

Jaffer tells Ali he wanted to make sure Ali is not a French traitor, and hence he arranged the gun without bullets. He tells he is sure about Ali now, and he can involve himself in the FLN henceforth. Ali plays a vital role in FLN and soon becomes one of the top leaders.

The FLN places bombs in public restaurants, clubs and pubs and many French people die. As a result, the French government recruits Colonel Marcel Bigeard. Marcel Bigeard soon gains knowledge about FLN. It is structured in a triangular way that each person in the organization knows only the person who recruited him and the two people he has recruited. In this way, no one knows about the layers above him, and hence the FLN is effectively able to launch attacks.

The Colonel begins to target the lowest layer of the FLN first. The FLN orders the Algerian Arabs for a week long strike, to make the UN realize about the power of the people of Algeria so that the issue will be spoken in the UN, which might result in talks about its independence. Hence, the entire Algeria stops working for the French. The French get irritated and they decide to break the strike. They attack the homes and shops of the people and make them work. During the attacks on people, the Colonel is able to capture many of the lower layer people, and through them, gradually, one by one, the upper layer people are also captured.

The captured people are tortured. The military eventually captures Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the top leaders of the FLN. A case is filed against M’hidi for involving in terrorist activities. During the trial, a lawyer questions M’hidi why did they plant bombs in public places murdering many innocent people, for which M’hidi replies that the causalities they faced was even more than the causalities they inflicted, and why did the French government dropped bombs from the planes on innocent people? If they have stopped, then the FLN would have also stopped. The next day, the French government announces the ‘suicide’ of Larbi Ben M’hidi inside the prison. They say he hung himself, by tearing his shirt and using it to strangle his neck.

The reporters question the Colonel about how did this happen, as M’hidi’s hands were cuffed and he was tied town inside the prison. The colonel replies that if the French people want to stay in Algeria and if Algeria must be a French colony, those questions must not be raised.

Ultimately, the French are able to kill everyone in the FLN except Ali la Pointe. But, because of the traitor, the military is able to surround the house where Ali is hiding. Just when the military arrives, Ali hides inside the chamber in the wall, which he built earlier.

Ali comes back from his memories in to reality and hears the Colonel’s warning. But Ali bravely decides to stay inside, along with his counterparts. Finally, bombs are planted on the wall, and the building gets destroyed completely.

The military thinks it has smashed the FLN completely. Two years pass by, without any agitation or issue. But, suddenly, there begins a mutiny on the mountains surrounding Algiers, and all the Arab citizens rouse against the French government. A huge protest is underway, and no one is able to deduce how it was organized. The military shoots most people, but they keep on coming like waves in a sea.

After two years of the agitation, finally Algeria becomes a free nation. All the people celebrate the freedom, and Ali’s dream comes true.

Battle of Algiers is a thumping attempt on Algeria’s freedom struggle. The film touchingly shows how Algeria suffered under France and finally how it was granted freedom. All the characters shown in the film are true people who lived and died, except El Hadi Jaffer who recruited Ali, initially. Larbi Ben M’hidi is still considered to be a legend in Algeria, and it is true that he was executed by the French in the prison.

Gillo Pontecarvo is the director of this Italian movie which was released in 1967, and it won many awards. The entire movie is filmed in Black and White and it beautifully represents the feel of a documentary. It is said that the initial versions of the movie carried disclaimers that not even a single reel of the movie was taken from the news archives.

Ennio Morricone again has done an excellent work as the music director. The camera is stunning and the acting is brilliant. The actors were real Arab citizens of Algeria, and not professional actors. This movie was banned in France in the initial years of release. Read more on the Algerian war of Independence at this link.

It is dangerous to oppress people, and when they react, it creates havoc. Battle of Algiers is one such upsurge against colonialism, and the thirst for Independence has made heroes out of the ordinary people, and ultimately resulted in freedom. See the movie, and get to know about the bloodshed.

See the trailer here.


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