The Battle of Algiers is a pivotal film in the political and war genre. It was one of the first films to deal with the ethics of depicting torture on screen at a time before Western scholars were willing, or ready, to talk about it. The film has recently become even more relevant as the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, has admitted earlier this year to the French use of torture during the Algerian War of Independence. Algiers has been revisited to answer questions that it has raised since its release in 1966:
Why are we fascinated with the depiction of torture on screen?
Who is allowed to witness these event?
Why should there be witnesses among the torturers?
Is torture being depicted to satisfy the audience’s voyeuristic nature, or is it a greater meditation on the ethics of using torture?
What is the true purpose of using torture?
Is it really just an information gathering practice, or is it a way to apply force to the colonized?
J.M Coetzee addresses these questions in his essay Into the Dark Chamber. It is worth looking at his analysis in order to gain a better understanding of the true purpose of The Battle of Algiers as well as the greater implications that the film has.
Into the Dark Chamber:
Into the Dark Chamber is an essay written by J.M. Coetzee in which he explores the South African novelist’s fascination with depicting torture in writing. He also wrote this partially as a response to the film The Battle of Algiers. He criticizes the novelist for, “Presenting the world of the interrogator with a false portentousness, and questionable dark lyricism…” (Coetzee BR13) and then goes on to say that Gillo Pontecorvo, the director of The Battle of Algiers, should also be criticized for his portrayal of the torturer in the film.
In his essay, Coetzee identifies two main reasons why the writer is so fascinated with torture:
- Relations in the room of torture are a direct representation between authoritarianism, through the French military personnel in Algiers, and the victims of this torture, in this case the Algerian Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN).
- The location of torture is almost always inaccessible to people other than those involved.
What is Coetzee Missing?
While Coetzee does bring up interesting points on how torture is portrayed on screen, he fails to recognize the greater ethical implications of the torture scenes in The Battle of Algiers. Pontecorvo is not sympathizing with the French. Pontecorvo is not justifying the actions of the French in The Battle of Algiers, nor is he trying to diminish the human rights atrocities that the French committed. He is presenting a story that depicts the reasoning of both sides in a way that condemns French military logic with a more accurate representation of the Algerian resistance than what had been understood previously. The Battle of Algiers presents the ethical dilemma of using torture rather than a pacification, justification, and mitigation of the French use of torture.
Strategy on Both Sides:
These two scenes are extremely important in understanding how both sides justify their use of torture and violence. After viewing each scene, the meaning the rest of the movie gains a new perspective. The other scenes of torture throughout the film gain a new meaning as acts that are part of a larger strategy. These scenes are pivotal in revealing how Pontecorvo feels about the strategies of the French and the FLN.
This is the scene directly after the arrival of the French paratroopers in Algiers. Colonel Mathieu is explaining the French strategy to his soldiers in a way that is almost academic. This scene shows that the French viewed their use of torture as strictly strategic, as a way to maintain law and order. He has a clear plan that depends on only one strategy: interrogation. Interrogation includes any actions necessary to get information out of FLN members. He never explicitly states this, but “by any means necessary” means torture.
His refusal to admit to the use of torture is in line with the French government’s refusal to admit to torture until the present day. It was not until 2018 that “France formally acknowledged its military’s systematic use of torture in the Algerian War” (McAuley). Colonel Mathieu’s strategy did not include anything other than interrogation. There was no plan after interrogation that the French would use. Their plan was to continue to torture Algerians until they gave the French information so they could eliminate anyone who went against France’s colonial power, a colonial power whose military was given the right by the French government to do whatever they thought was necessary to stop the conflict.
The most important part of this scene is Ben M’hidi’s (the leader of the FLN) justification for the FLN’s use of violence. M’hidi says that “Acts of violence don’t win wars. Neither wars nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful as a start. But then, the people themselves must act. That’s the rationale behind this strike. To mobilize all Algerians, to assess our strength.” (The Battle of Algiers 01:04:50-01:08:21). The FLN recognized that their movement could not be sustained through violence. They knew that ending a revolution in violence would mean that their new independent government would be born into violence, which is a dangerous cycle. The French had no plan to stop the violence as long as the conflict continued. Even if the FLN stopped using violence, the French would continue and they would expose themselves as hypocrites of the Western values that they preached. FLN leaders knew this and Pontecorvo makes sure that the audience knows this in order to advocate for the Algerian cause. It is this scene in particular that shows that Pontecorvo did not justify actions of the French or dampen the impact of their use of torture. Pontecorvo intended for this film to be a critical analysis of the dangers of the use of torture.
Why is this important?:
The ethics of torture are still relevant in a modern context, and even in the context of the Algerian War for Independence. As mentioned before, it was not until this year that the French government admitted to using torture in the the Algerian War for Independence.
Even in a contemporary context, we are still questioning how torture should be portrayed. How much information about various atrocities should be released to the general public? How productive is it to share this information and who has the right to share it? How do we discuss terrorist activities and the murder of journalists around the world? Other than more relaxed censorship norms, why has the portrayal of torture become more common? What does the consumers’ desire to view torture say about the human condition?
Discussing the depiction of torture in The Battle of Algiers is a gateway to discussing the greater ethical implications of torture and violence in the media. The film is important because it made people think about all of these questions regarding the portrayal of torture in the media. It made people think about the impact of torture before the end of the colonial era and before Western scholars were willing to think and write about it.
When thinking about human rights atrocities that occur today, people should still use the questions posed by The Battle of Algiers to consider how these atrocities should be depicted to the public.
Coetzee, JM. “Into the Dark Chamber: The Novelist and South Africa.” The New York Times, 12 Jan. 1986, p. 13, archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/97/11/02/home/coetzee-chamber.html?
McAuley, James. “France’s Macron Admits to Military’s Systematic Use of Torture in Algeria War.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 13 Sept. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/frances-macron-admits-to-militarys-systematic-use-of-torture-in-algeria-war/2018/09/13/6b0e85cc-b729-11e8-94eb-3bd52dfe917b_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.4208c09b9301.
The Battle of Algiers. Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, performances by Jean Martin, Saadi Yacef, and Brahim Haggiag. Antonio Musu and Saadi Yacef, 1966.