I first saw Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 feature La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) at Berkeley’s UC Theatre sometime in the mid 1980s. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement: here was a ‘war movie’ that told its story from the perspectives of both sides. Who was I supposed to root for?
I didn’t see the film again until the Criterion Collection released their outstanding three-disc DVD edition in 2004. Criterion’s timing was perfect: the then 40-year old film was about to become an unexpected hit at the Pentagon, where America’s generals used it as a training aid to combat Iraq’s growing urban insurgencies.
Newly restored, The Battle of Algiers begins a weeklong run at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 21. Restored or not, though, it’s a classic of modern cinema that always rewards another viewing.
Recreating the simmering street wars of the 1950s, Pontecorvo’s film follows a cell of FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) fighters in their effort to terrorize the French government into granting independence to Algeria. The bombs and assassinations worked – France cut its losses in 1962, ending its 130 year-long stewardship of the North African territory.
At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is a perfect film. Marcello Gatti’s grainy black and white photography lends The Battle of Algiers newsreel authenticity (hopefully, the new restoration won’t remove all the grain!), while Ennio Morricone’s stunning score is nerve-jangling one moment, deeply mournful the next. Most critical to the film’s success, however, was Pontecorvo’s decision to cast it almost entirely with non-professionals.
His choice allowed Algerians to recreate their liberation struggle only a few short years after it had happened. The memories were fresh, the passion undiminished, and you see that on screen throughout. Though oft mistaken for a documentary, there’s not a single frame of archival footage in this film.
The Battle of Algiers doesn’t flinch, acknowledging the crimes committed by both sides. It’s hard not to watch a state execution by guillotine and not think of the modern day crimes of Daesh; it’s also hard not to see echoes of the 21st century in the bombings of youth clubs and bars and in the torture of suspects. Few fifty year-old films remain as powerful as this one.
For a genuine documentary, consider Do Not Resist, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Oct. 21. Directed by Freakonomics producer Craig Atkinson, it’s a brief but powerful verité style examination of the militarization of American police forces.
Beginning with footage from the Ferguson uprising of 2014, Do Not Resist gives insight into the warped reasoning of many law enforcement officials. One police chief wants to prepare for ISIS and WMDs (unlikely threats that he conflates with ‘unruly crowds’), while professional cop trainer and apparent psychopath Dave Grossman proudly addresses a roomful of police officers as ‘men and women of violence’.
In one respect, I do understand the quandary facing the police: with restraints on weapons ownership minimal at best, they probably are in greater danger than in the past. Of more concern is their lack of interest in civil rights and free speech, and the impunity of their behavior. When taken in concert with the military grade weaponry on display in Do Not Resist, it becomes all too easy to say ‘fuck the police’.
Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.
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