The Battle of Algiers: Still Looking Good at 50

Here in Chicago, the Music Box Theater’s presentation of the 4K restoration of The Battle of Algiers offers an opportunity to revisit the faux-documentary, aged a solid 50 years. Disturbingly, and remarkably, the film feels more relevant than ever.

That phrase seems like a cliche hook (and it probably is) but I want to sit on it for a minute if for no other reason than to emphasize that I really mean it. Watching The Battle of Algiers now is a bizarre experience where, every fifteen minutes or so, your jaw drops a little lower as you hear relevant headline after relevant headline. For example: one Algerian FLN fighter tells another it’s hard to start a revolution, harder still to keep it going, and hardest of all to win it — and then, if you do, the real work begins. From Tunisia to Egypt and on down the line, there’s hardly any country that hasn’t come out of the Arab Spring knowing this adage all too well.

Or another example: at a press conference, a reporter pushes on the French Colonel in charge of shutting down the resistance, asking something he says his fellow journalists are too afraid to ask — what is going on with torture here? The calm bait and switch of the Colonel is all too familiar, as are the excuses and complaints he offers up — lives are on the line, the halls of justice move to slow. Even the sardonic rebuke of the reporter seems recognizable: the law can really be a nuisance sometimes.

But what is most remarkable about the film 50 years down the line is what is not relatable about it. And what most sticks out like a sore thumb — refreshing and daring to the point of being, even now, thrilling — is the portrayal of the Muslim revolutionaries. It is for this reason alone that it seems impossible to try to imagine a modern day remake of the film. It’s not just that the Arab freedom fighters aren’t treated stereotypically, a thing shocking enough when you consider how conditioned we’ve become to a one-note, uniform portrayal of such things. (Can you think of one time in a film or TV show where you have seen an Arab with a weapon and it hasn’t been accompanied by that cliche, undulating, high-pitched whine singing, by an extreme long lens shot with heat-wave distortion?) What is especially remarkable is that the Muslim revolutionaries are the heroes of this story, they are revered as such. The film attempts from time to time to take a balanced approach, but it undeniably leans toward the FLN. As a modern American viewer, it’s not just remarkable and unprecedented to see such a thing, it borders on being confusing. So ingrained is the stereotypical Muslim fighter in our collective media unconscious, that to see a portrayal like this which rebuts it so completely is almost baffling.

It feels like here is where, in my position, one is supposed to draw a distinction. There is a difference between the Arabic freedom fighters of the FLN and the terrorist organizations of our day. One is fighting for liberation, freedom, the other oppression. But The Battle of Algiers does not draw such a distinction,or at least not so definitively. While it unarguably favors the FLN, it does take time to document their atrocities, and resists presenting these atrocities as the work of heroes or martyrs. Compare the bombing sequences, first when the French bomb the Arab quarter, then when the FLN bomb back. Yes, when the Arab quarter is bombed we see the children’s bodies being carried away. But we see more of the French victims before the explosion — including a young boy eating ice cream. This significantly changes how we sympathize with both sides.

50 years later, the most remarkable thing about the Battle of Algiers — aside from its perfectly paced editing and its decades-ahead, phenomenal sound design — is that it presents to a Western audience a view of an Arabic community that feels still, tragically, far too unique. Importantly, my appeal here is not for sympathetic portraits of an Arabic community (or others), but a different portrayal, one which pushes against the traditional Western view. The most heartbreaking thing about The Battle of Algiers is that we seem not to have learned from it, that we seem to have fallen on the crutches of stereotype rather than exerting the energy to lift ourselves off of them. Perhaps it’s not too late for the film, though. Perhaps we just needed a few decades to catch up with it.

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