In May 1989, Edward Said arrived at the Rome apartment of Gillo Pontecorvo, eager to press the Italian filmmaker on the connections between The Battle of Algiers and the First Intifada that was then raging in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In his account of the interview, Said presents the discussion of these connections as the climax of his conversation with Pontecorvo: “Finally…I was able to get to what seemed to me to be the logical contemporary extension of the political situations represented in The Battle of Algiers”.
In his eagerness to relate Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece to Palestine, Said was voicing a much wider fascination among both Palestinians and Israelis with establishing the film’s relevance (or irrelevance) to the contemporary Middle East. The potential parallels are there for all to see. From the brutality of France’s colonial occupation (complete with checkpoints, house demolitions and separation barriers), to the FLN’s targeting of civilians and urban warfare tactics, The Battle of Algiers seems to invite comparison with Israel’s on-going military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But what are the more specific, historical factors that tie the film to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how deep do these connections really run? To answer this question we need to appreciate the film’s wider role as a visual marker of the entire Algerian War of Independence. However inaccurate or selective the film may be (see articles by Martin Evans and Walid Benkhaled) in its treatment of the war, successive generations of anti-colonial movements have drawn inspiration from the tactics and themes it portrays.
The inspiration the PLO drew from the FLN in the 1960s and 70s, for example, often conflated Pontecorvo’s film with the real-life Algerian resistance, particularly in terms of the film’s portrayal of the FLN structure of command and methods of urban warfare. In a reflection of Stefani Bardin’s insistence that “the visual shows what is actually possible”, The Battle of Algiers has become inseparable from the events themselves. It has served as a type of documentary guidebook for anti-colonial struggle in a way that written texts cannot, showing what such campaigns might look like in an aesthetic as well as logistical sense.
Reception in Israel
But to get to the core of the film’s specific relationship to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we also need to appreciate its reception within Israeli society. The film was initially banned from public screening in Israel, and it was only in 1975 that it became legally available. Whatever the motivations behind the banning of the film (most likely fear of its impact on Jewish public opinion played the biggest role), this decision only served to reinforce the parallels between French Algeria and Israel’s post-1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, not least because the film was also banned in France until 1971.
The outbreak of the First Intifada in the Occupied Territories in 1987 greatly increased interest in The Battle of Algiers within Israel. Famously the Tel Aviv Cinematheque screened the film for several months in 1988 as the Intifada reached its peak. Left-wing intellectuals used it as a warning signal for what might happen if the occupation continued, while the political right dismissed the film as irrelevant to Israel’s “historic claims” over the West Bank and Gaza.
But it was during the Second Intifada (spanning roughly 2000 to 2005) that the film seemed to assume most relevance to the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Some of the tactics employed by the Palestinian resistance during the Second Intifada more closely resembled the FLN methods portrayed in Pontecorvo’s film, most notably letting off bombs in public places in order to bring the war to the doorstep of the enemy’s civilian population. Likewise, the types of justifications for these actions used by Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad often mirrored Larbi Ben M’hidi’s famous retort in The Battle of Algiers: “Give us your bombers sir and you can have our baskets”.
Equally important in establishing The Battle of Algiers’ reputation as a metaphor for Israel/Palestine during the Second Intifada was the ruthlessness of Israel’s military response and its reliance on the discourse of terrorism. It was during this period that daily life for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories increasingly came to mirror that of Algiers’ Casbah as it was portrayed in the movie. Israel’s construction of the West Bank Separation Wall (beginning in 2000), the multiplication of military checkpoints and the frequent use of house demolitions as collective punishment all brought the drama of Pontecorvo’s film closer to home for Palestinians during the Second Intifada.
Operation Defensive Shield and Jenin Jenin
All these factors seemed to converge in April 2002 when Israel launched ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ – the largest military operation carried out in the West Bank since the 1967 War. The brutality of this campaign was at its most apparent in Jenin where the Israeli army entered the city’s refugee camp, declaring it a closed military area. For ten days all access to the camp was denied with a 24-hour curfew imposed, provoking comparisons with the French army’s treatment of the Algiers Casbah during the 8-day strike of 1957.
One of the Israeli military commanders involved in Operation Defensive shield, Moshe Tamir, even went so far as to suggest that The Battle of Algiers was a valuable source of information for his troops, seemingly missing Pontecorvo’s wider point that military victories cannot suppress a people’s cry for freedom.
Against this backdrop it seems inevitable that when Palestinian director Mohammed Bakri decided to make a documentary on the Israeli invasion of Jenin, parallels were made with The Battle of Algiers. Like Pontecorvo’s 1966 production, Bakri’s film, titled Jenin Jenin, was initially banned by the Israeli Film Ratings Board on the grounds that claims of a massacre made by local Jenin residents in the film were libellous. Although the ban was later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court, Bakri continues to face legal challenges whenever his film is screened to audiences sympathetic to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
While the censorship debate surrounding Jenin Jenin makes the film particularly relevant to the Algerian case, a look at the bigger picture indicates this is just one of a steady stream of Palestinian and Israeli films that draw comparisons with The Battle of Algiers. Whether it is Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now (2005) or the more recent 5 Broken Cameras (2011), reviews of films dealing with the nitty-gritty of Israel’s occupation invariably fall back on Pontecorvo’s film as a point of reference.
This is undoubtedly the most powerful legacy of The Battle of Algiers. It serves as a universal standard bearer for all anti-colonial filmmaking – a kind of generic emblem that largely divorces the film from the specifics of the war it portrays. Whatever the particular points of comparison between the Palestinian and Algerian national movements, it is this symbolic value that ties Pontecorvo’s film most closely to the Palestinian experience. In the archetypal and longest-running of all anti-colonial struggles, that of Palestine, it should come as little surprise that the archetypal anti-colonial film is so frequently invoked.
This article is part of the Algeria and the Arab Revolutions: Pasts, Presents and Futures partnership, funded by the University of Portsmouth and the University of Sussex. Read more about openDemocracy's editorial partnerships programme.
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