Friday, May 11, 2007

The Battle of Algiers

Guardian has a list of "top foreign films" as selected by its readers. The word "foreign" is also defined accordingly. English language is mainstream, everything else is foreign. Anyway, I was a little annoyed, if not surprised, to see films at number 1 and 2. Both utterly soppy, if also harmless, films. And then there is no Antonioni anywhere! Arrrgh!!

I was also very glad to see The Battle of Algiers in the top 10 which I saw some time back and which is absolutely awesome. The Guardian has a review on the occasion of re-release. (Another more detailed article here.)

Most of the recent reviews of the film talk about its continued "relevance" specially in the context of war in Iraq. And indeed it is actually shocking to see it and realize that it is almost half a century old. Asymmetric warfare, use of torture to extract information, state terrorism, using Islam and religious identity as anti-colonial resistance, everything is there.

Having said that I was myself not very convinced with the parallels that other reviewers have drawn. I find it depressing the way religious fundamentalists, along with many radical commentators in the west, have appropriated anti-colonialist idioms and vocabulary in recent times and it has resulted in lots of confusion.

Incidentally today India is celebrating the so-called "first war of independence" and it is surprising to see such nationalist fervour generated over a movement which was essentially regressive, reactionary, revanchist and which was fuelled more by petty personal grievances against the British and which was devoid of any overarching progressive socio-cultural vision. I am not sorry that the uprising failed. Indian independence movement did become a progressive ideological movement, though still somewhat elitist, later and in this sense it is somewhat unique among the anti-colonial movements.

Also worth reading is this very strange article by William Dalrymple where he is arguing about the "relevance" of 1857 uprising using some really dubious analogies. Specially this:

"The Forward Policy soon developed an evangelical flavour. The new conservatives wished to impose not only British laws but also western values on India. The country would be not only ruled but redeemed. Local laws which offended Christian sensibilities were abrogated - the burning of widows, for instance, was banned."

British stopped Indians from Burning their widows! Horrors! How oppressive and racist!! Just notice the unironical use of "western values." Strange logic of multiculturalism indeed.


Cheshire Cat said...

Movies 21-40 are much more interesting than the ones in the top 20...

I wasn't aware of the celebration. With my distaste for nationalism of any kind, maybe I just tend to filter these things out.

Alok said...

I am not a fan of nationalism either but I find it interesting as a phenomenon.

Space Bar said...

dammit! my comment got chewed up!

I started a post yesterday about the top 40 list, and got too tired of the whole thing, so I abandoned it. I agee with Cat that in general the second half of the list was more interesting, but I'd like to have known who voted and what the criteria were.

I also liked that the writer was shaking his head in disbelief at the crass tastes of the Guardian's readers: as if to say, you read the Guardian and you didn't know better than to vote for this crap?!

Szerelem said...

Battle of Algier is one my favourite movies too. Its just so powerful and wonderfuly shot. The guy who plays Ali La Pointe was exceptional. It was also so very disturbing. Not just at the methods the French use but the tactics the FLN used as well. I also like that the movie ended with the French victory...they lost the battle though.

Btw, have you seen Z? I think you would like it.

Ummm and I like Amelie too much to crib about its second on the list status :)

Alok said...

space bar: yes it is the legacy of that nineties era when foreign films became a genre unto itself. Amelie, Il Postino, Life is Beautiful, Cinema Paradiso and so many others, all pandering sentimentality, all of which became very popular.

szerelem: No, I have not seen Z. Have heard about it, will look for it sometime.

I agree it is very disturbing. it really doesn't fit the stereotypes we have of anti-colonial struggle. In fact that Col Matthew is a wonderful character too. I also loved the background score, specially how it used.

You are very promiscuous in your film tastes it seems, Battle of Algiers side by side Amelie :)

mr waggish said...

Pretty poor list; as expected, it seems like the list of top box-office foreign film draws more than anything else. I'm with you that Battle of Algiers is easily the best of the top twenty. (Andrei Rublev and Rules of the Game have it beat, though.) It's a fantastic movie.

I don't think it necessarily has a lot to teach people about insurgencies, but it is extremely effective pro-revolutionary propaganda. Pontecorvo was a hardline Marxist, and I think this was his best effort at selling his views. Have you seen Godard's Le Petit Soldat? A very different take on similar themes.

Z is excitingly well-made, but much less politically coherent than Battle of Algiers. It's closer, I think, to action films like Melville's Army of Shadows (which I love).

Alok said...

No I haven't seen Le Petit Soldat yet. I don't know why but many of Godard's films are not easily available on DVD. I will get Z soon. (I love Army of Shadows too.)

the criterion dvd of battle of algiers contains a wonderful documentary about Pontecorvo presented by Edward Said. It gives a lot of context to the film.

It is definitely pro-revolutionary but it is also chilling. Those bombing scenes are not easy to watch. There is also a scene where reporters ask the leader of the FLN if he had any moral qualms about using bombs hidden in women't baskets. He says give me your planes and we will give you our baskets...!

It is even more disturbing to watch now when most of the radical revolutionary movement specially in the Islamic world don't enjoy the kind of legitimacy they did in the fifties and sixties.