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First encounters with the Battle of Algiers

Algeria partnershipOn February 6, 2013, the University of Sussex History Department held a special screening of the Battle of Algiers, followed by discussion with Yasmin El Derby from the Middle East and North Africa Film Festival in London. Here are three reactions.   

After seeing the film I now know why it was such an important film for institutions in the 1960s like the Black Power movement. The realistic style really makes the guerilla tactics seem like an instruction manual to fight oppressors. Over 45 years after its production this movie is still sheer dynamite. You can feel the tension throughout the whole screening.

What really struck me was that the French are not shown as the bad guys. The leader of the paramilitaries is a character you can actually have sympathy for. I did not really know on which side I was on since the conflict was not caused by the generation who fought in that film. That made the film exciting until the last minute. I definitely would recommend the film to anybody who is interested in independent films and history.

One point of criticism has to be made here: the subtitling is not really good. I know a bit of French and could tell that some passages were either left out or just translated badly. In that respect the discussion was really helpful because the Arabic-speaking discussants could give me further insight into the translation of the film. Especially in the end the people singing in Arabic were not translated. Although I could imagine what they were singing, the discussion here helped a lot to actually get to know what was going on.

 Karl Siebengartner:  MA student in Contemporary History at Sussex University.   

Thoroughly enjoyed the Battle of Algiers. Knowing very little about Algeria’s recent history, the film’s intimate documentary style thrust me right into the middle of the revolutionary 1950s.

As mentioned in the discussion at the end, some of the reactionary violence proves depressingly redolent of the current situation in North Africa. The scene outside the milkbar - where the survivors hear the airport bomb going off – also called to mind my own experience of hearing the Tavistock Square bus explosion, from my workplace in London 2005. 

My most abiding memory of the film though is Morricone’s music, particularly in the scenes of violence and its aftermath; poignant, spellbinding and brilliantly suited to Portecorvo’s alternation between tension and sadness. Thanks to all involved for arranging the showing at Sussex.

Richard Geoffrey Hall: MA student in Contemporary History at Sussex University.  

Thank you for screening the Battle of Algiers on Wednesday. Both film and discussion were stimulating. Here's my response to the film. At some points in the film, especially in the final mass protests scene, the Arabic chants of the protesters are neither translated not subtitled. In the last scene the French occupation soldiers ask the protesters via megaphones what it is that they want? The response comes clearly and unequivocally, but in Arabic. The protesters chant for independence, freedom, and shout at the French soldiers to 'leave our country'. Some of the characters in this final scene are ones we have witnessed speaking perfect French during the film. However, they choose to voice their demands in Arabic, and standard Arabic at that. I wonder if this is a cinematic device to point to the difficult or even impossibility of dialogue between these two different discourse genres, between radically different cultures and clashing interests, where the two sides do not share a language, not on the linguistic level, but on the level of politics and perspectives.

Dr Heba Youssef: Associate tutor in International Development at Sussex University.  

About the author

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern History at the University of Sussex.  He was formerly Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Portsmouth. He is the co-author (with John Phillips) of Algeria: Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press: 2007) and the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press: 2012). 

Read On

Read more from our Battle of Algiers debate, part of our Algeria and the Arab Revolutions editorial partnership with Martin Evans of the University of Sussex.


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