A Movie Stoked Political Movements Across the Globe

‘The Battle of Algiers’ influenced the Black Panthers, the IRA and the U.S. war in Iraq

A Movie Stoked Political Movements Across the Globe
During the Battle of Algiers in June 1957, French paratroopers march through the city / Nacerdine Zebar / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

An object can have many lives and many uses, including the transformation of the historical and political contexts it enters. A book, for instance, can be used, over the centuries, for pleasure and for educational purposes before becoming a tool for propaganda and then even its victim: burning in a fire as a consequence of censorship.

One such object, although intangible, that has had a surprising political journey through the events of the latter half of the 20th century is the film “The Battle of Algiers” (1966) by the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo was active during World War II as a communist partisan in southern France and northern Italy, witnessing great suffering and fighting alongside many in the resistance who would go on to help preserve French colonialism in Algeria. Indeed, Pontecorvo’s experiences during the war led him to obsessively revisit the same themes — violence, politics, torture, morality and power — creating several films on insurgency including “Burn” (1969), which explores a Caribbean slave revolt, and “Operación Ogro” (1979), a retelling of the bombing campaign of the Basque separatist group ETA.

However, Pontecorvo’s 13th film, “The Battle of Algiers,” unlike his other efforts, has retained a large influence. Banned in France for a decade, it has shaped the politics of anticolonial movements, the American and European New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and counterinsurgency discussions generated by the War on Terror. Indeed, many articles, across magazines, journals and websites, claim “The Battle of Algiers” was a major influence on the Black Panthers, the IRA and the Pentagon’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The aim is to try to chart the film’s afterlife and dig into these often-repeated claims about its use as an insurgent and counterinsurgent instruction manual.

The film retells the history of an urban conflict between the FLN (National Liberation Front) militants and a French contingent of paratroopers led by Gen. Jacques Massu. The battle was waged in the tight alleyways and streets of the medieval casbah and involved violence against citizens: It lasted a year, from 1956 to 1957. While the French forces won the battle, they would go on to lose the political war, with Algeria gaining its independence in 1962. The urban insurgency was led by Ali la Pointe, who died in the conflict, and Yacef Saadi, who died last September. Saadi would go on to publish a book, “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” (1962), about his experiences before starring as himself in Pontecorvo’s film and becoming an Algerian senator.

Pontecorvo took Saadi’s writings and transformed them into a work of cinéma vérité inspired by the neorealism of Rossellini’s “Rome Open City” (1950). The film was shot on black-and-white newsreel film. Surviving FLN commanders were invited to play themselves. Many from the city’s population were drafted as extras and untrained actors. Almost immediately, Pontecorvo’s directorial efforts suddenly collided with political reality, setting a precedent that would shape the perception of the film up to the present day. The start of filming coincided with Col. Houari Boumediene’s 1965 coup against President Ahmed Ben Bella. The coincidence of the two events led to widespread confusion about what was fact and what was fiction, what was part of the coup and what part of the film.

“The presence of enormous tanks in the center of town on June 19 was thought to be décor for the film,” notes Elaine Mokhtefi, an American translator, journalist and radical activist who lived in Algiers from 1962 to 1974 and took part in the movie. “I remember driving through the center of town, where the Grand Poste is located, and noticing the tanks. … I remember thinking that there was much less traffic than usual.” Mokhtefi, who at the time was working for the Algérie Presse Service, the Algerian government’s official national press office, was asked to play herself, a foreign journalist, during the famous press conference scene where French Col. Philippe Mathieu justifies torture by arguing that if France was to stay in Algeria, then “you must accept all the consequences.”

“The offices of Algérie Presse Service were located in the small streets leading to the casbah. They were in the same neighborhood as the offices Pontocorvo was using for his film,” Mokhtefi told me, adding that “a few days later, someone appeared in the press room and announced that there was a film shoot … and that they needed volunteers for the day. I shot up my hand. … It was an amazing day.” She recalls that Pontecorvo was instantly recognizable as an auteur in complete control of his project. He “stood all day long on a box set up in one corner facing the journalists in the room. He … was on a higher level and looked over us. [Pontecorovo] not only took in everything, but he also gave orders for everything and everyone, the dialogue, the cameras, timing, the actors, even the food and its distribution. It was an extraordinary performance.”

Mokhtefi was not just a journalist but also an influential activist within New Left circles in America. During the late 1960s, she was instrumental in setting up and aiding the Black Panther Party (BPP) chapter in Algiers in 1970. The Panthers had started migrating to revolutionary Algeria after Eldridge Cleaver, an early BPP leader, had fled to Havana and then Algiers after being charged with ambush and murder in the U.S. “I was informed of his being in Algiers by the representative of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union, Charles Chikerema,” Mokhtefi tells me. “I visited Cleaver at his hotel and then alerted the authorities. He was immediately granted asylum and other Panthers, on the run or not, started arriving. The regime was very open to liberation movements and to backing them.”

The film already had some influence in America by this point. In 1967, Newsweek reported that at a showing on Manhattan’s East Side, directly after the Newark riots of that summer, “many young Negroes cheered or laughed knowingly at each terrorist attack on the French as if ‘The Battle of Algiers’ were a textbook and a prophecy of urban guerrilla warfare to come.” In 1969, 13 Black Panther activists, including Lumumba and Afeni Shakur, the stepfather and mother of the rapper Tupac Shakur, were arraigned on charges accusing them of planning armed attacks on police stations. During the trial, an undercover detective testified that Lumumba had told him that the movie was required viewing for activists. In 1970, the New York Times reported that the film was used as evidence by prosecuting attorney Joseph A. Phillips to convince the jury of the Panthers’ revolutionary intent. The reporter noted that “twice during the movie, when French authorities offered a rebel a ‘fair trial’ if he would cooperate with them, there were snickers from the defense table and from the audience.”

In 1970 Mokhtefi screened the film herself for several leading Black Panthers and New Left figures in Algiers: “I asked the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) office in charge of liberation movements to organize a screening of the film ‘The Battle of Algiers’ for the Black Panthers. … The FLN personnel set up a screen and projector in their offices.” Mokhtefi recalls that “at the showing were Eldridge Cleaver, his wife Kathleen, Stew Albert and Judy Gumbo of the Youth International Party and perhaps Sekou Odinga, Larry Mack, Don Cox, Pete O’Neil. Eldridge was sitting next to me. … I think they were all impressed both with the film and with the fact that they were seeing it in the city of Algiers. They probably learned a measurable amount about their host country from that film.” She argues that the movie’s legacy “is quite extraordinary” because “the film has been considered so close to reality that it has become reality.”

Indeed, the movie would find its way into a new political reality during the 1970s and 1980s, during the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The casbah, desert heat, and mosques of Algiers would be translated into car bombs, Protestant and Catholic churches, cold weather, and the closed-off working-class ethnic communities of Belfast, Derry and Omagh. I talked to Danny Morrison, a former volunteer in the Provisional IRA who was interned in the British Long Kesh prison before becoming editor of An Phoblacht (The Republic) and a publicity director for Sinn Fein.

Morrison embraced third-world internationalism while interned in Long Kesh reading Franz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” (1952) and much of Albert Memmi’s work. He adds that “when I was interned, in 1972, in the library in Cage 2 in Long Kesh Detention Centre were books on struggles in South America, and there was a famous book, which a friend of mine gave me, about the Battle of Algiers.” It seems likely that this book was Saadi’s “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger.” At the time, Morrison saw Algeria and Ireland as comparable: “What happened in Algeria and the parallels between the North of Ireland were clear in terms of the Pieds-Noirs [French settlers] and the Protestant plantation.” Although he adds the caveat that “it was easier for the Pieds-Noirs to withdraw to France. It would be impossible for people here who claim a plantation heritage to go back, because they’re here; this is their home.”

Morrison, after being released from internment, was introduced to the movie in 1974 by Liz Curtis and Alistair Renwick of the Troops Out Movement. Morrison, along with others in the republican movement, organized a series of screenings at social clubs in Belfast.

“We got the film, and it was on reel-to-reel and we showed it in a variety of clubs in Belfast including the Marty Forsythe Club, which was named after an IRA volunteer who was shot dead on an IRA operation in October 1971,” Morrison told me.

“Our audience was working-class,” Morrison adds. “The audience that watched it in the Marty Forsythe Club … were people who experienced high unemployment, poor housing, lack of investment, sectarian discrimination, and who had family who were in jail [throughout the 20th century]. They could identify with figures like Ali La Pointe. His death was a martyr’s death to those around him.”

Across the city, in the richer quarters surrounding Queen’s University in Belfast, stands the Queens Film Theatre (QFT), a local arthouse institution. Sam Manning, a film historian, told me that in 1971, “the cinema intended to show the film but then later withdrew it from the program given the escalating violence at that time.” However, the QFT did manage to screen the movie in 1975.

“I have no memory of the film being shown in mainstream theaters,” Morrison says. The movie was probably a curiosity at the QFT in 1975. However, in the working-class areas of West Belfast and the Short Strand, it was a “contribution to an understanding of struggle, of foreign power, the nature of conflict, how conflict can degenerate,” says Morrison.

The lessons of the Troubles, refracted through the film in terms of both insurgency and counterinsurgency, would be directly translated into the defining conflicts of the 21st century, including the War on Terror, the war in Iraq and the ongoing Israel-Palestine situation. “The tactics used by the IDF in the Second Intifada were identical to what the British military used in Northern Ireland. The IDF did, in the West Bank, exactly what the British Army did regularly in Belfast and Derry. … ‘The Battle of Algiers’ would speak to this,” says Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2004.

Hoffman penned an article in 2002 just before the start of the war in Iraq in The Atlantic urging American defense specialists to watch the movie, which he regularly showed to international relations undergraduates at the University of St Andrews to help them understand the ethical implications of antiterrorism intelligence-gathering. “I think [the article] started it. I have no empirical proof, but I suspect it did because no one was really talking about ‘The Battle of Algiers’ at that point,” Hoffman says. “Then Henry Kissinger recommended to President Bush that he meet with Alistair Horne, who wrote ‘A Savage War of Peace,’ which is the standard history [of the Algerian War of Independence]. So Algeria in the 2003 and 2004 timeframe was being thought about a lot, and that was because the situation was not going well in Iraq.”

While this was happening, an anonymous individual organized a screening of “The Battle of Algiers” at the Pentagon with a playbill describing the film as a lesson about how “to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. … Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafés. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar?” The influence of Pontecorvo’s film would soon find its way out of the halls of the Pentagon, influencing junior officers serving in Iraq. For instance, in an email released by the Pentagon, Roger Beaumont, a military historian and former military policeman in Iraq, describes how the treatment of internees reminded him that “reportedly they showed ‘The Battle of Algiers’ in defense circles before the Iraq war to sensitize them to these very pitfalls. Did they use it as a training film?” A few years later, as Wikileaks has revealed, defense analysts at global intelligence firm Stratfor were recommending the movie as a source that was “surprisingly open about the terrorist tactics used by the FLN.”

Hoffman tells me that he showed the film in counterinsurgency circles because “it speaks to people on a very practical level. So you could use it for training and understanding the enemy. But also, it’s profoundly philosophical about the nature of this kind of warfare.” He adds that he was “in discussions lots of times with people about [the film], because of basically [wanting to] avoid the same mistakes of the Battle of Algiers when you win militarily and lose politically.” Hoffman immediately saw the relevance of the movie as a tool for counterinsurgency training when he arrived in Iraq to an unprepared army.

“The U.S. was starting from scratch,” he said. “It was completely ahistorical about insurgency … I thought to myself in meetings, and I was in meetings with Ambassador Paul Bremer, that they must have tried all the standard counterinsurgency tactics and they didn’t work and that’s why they’re going back to these older tactics that clearly hadn’t worked. … Only after I was there for a while did I learn [that] no, they didn’t try any of the standard counterinsurgency techniques.”

In 2006, just after the Second Intifada, Hoffman screened “The Battle of Algiers” for IDF colonels at the Israeli National Defense College. He told me that “several of them had been battalion commanders in operations Determined Path and Determined Way, during the Second Intifada. There were IDF incursions into Jenin and Nablus. Both of these towns have casbahs. [The IDF officers’] reaction was amazing. They thought it was like a documentary. They said that ‘you could pick up the casbah in Algiers and just plunk it down as the old cities in either Nablus or Jenin.’ They said it was exactly what they were experiencing.”

How the film will inform, educate and inspire future conflicts and protest movements is an unanswered question. However, its future relevance is almost guaranteed, perhaps as an “exemplar of postwar postmodern insurgency” as Hoffman claims or as an object to “be studied … [that] will inspire, will be emulated by those seeking freedom and justice,” as Mokhtefi tells me, adding: “What could we wish for more, in a world where injustice of all sorts is rampant?”

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