**This was originally a class assignment that I had to submit online, so in order to not lose the original file as I have to delete it from my hard disk, I am posting it here!**
In the era of Hollywood whitewashing and the Muslim ban, one could not possibly choose a better time to watch The Battle of Algiers.
The 1966 historical drama directed by Gillo Pontecorvo scored a perfect 4/4 on Roger Ebert and no less than an unanimous 99% on Rotten Tomatoes, and for good reasons. The non-linear plot line grasps the viewer’s attention immediately, and right off the bat, you wonder to yourself “Who is this man hiding in the walls of a bathroom, and what has he done?”. By breaking away from the traditional linear narrative, Pontecorvo plunges his audience into a world that seems more real that one that is fabricated, the fictional one — because what happened on screen was not fictional. Stunning close-up shots of the characters are powerful enough to tell their story in the span of a few seconds and the low-key lighting intensifies every ounce of emotion these characters feel. We can see and sense the emotion, especially in the scene where Little Omar reads the letter to Ali. They are positioned almost perfectly in the centre of the frame, their bodies taking more than half of the space. It feels as if we were sitting there, waiting for Omar to read to us, feeling the same anticipation as Ali. I did not for a single second doubt of what Omar had been reading, although he could have easily lied to Ali. Yet, the sentiment of friendship and their body language proves to us, an audience in the dark, that Omar was on his side, and would not have betrayed him. The director’s choice of shooting in black and white is not only the right way in this case, but also the only way it could’ve been done. Black and white captures human emotion by creating a way, way more personal connection with the viewer, and for me, in a movie like this, human connection and the portrayal of emotion is crucial.
This movie evidently addresses issues of racism that are, sadly, still quite relevant today. The Battle of Algiers is based off the Algerian War of Independence that occurred from 1954 to 1962, and depicts the atrocities that were committed on both sides of this brutal war. Pontecorvo’s said neutral position was definitely conveyed through his film, with portrayal of what both sides of the war inflicted on each other, for example the bombing from both sides, however it is not hard to see that his loyalties rest on the side of the National Liberation Front (FLN). The director’s choice of using non-professional actors is a great, if not perfect, way of conveying his message, as these people have truly gone through what this movie is essentially about, and none other could express emotions as raw as theirs. This movie, although from the 20th century, manages to touch upon our current society’s fear of the other, and is scarily similar to Trump’s America, a nation that believes that in order to preserve their culture, they must fear the other — by installing more fear and oppression. Even further, this film addresses an issue that is way too present nowadays, and that is Hollywood whitewashing. Pontecorvo’s cast could not have been better, and my love for this film was deeply influenced by it giving the respect Algerians deserved, by not whitewashing their entire cast. Had this film been produced in 2017, I would not have been surprised if Ryan Gosling was cast as Ali, and Jennifer Lawrence as Fathia.
Despite having been nominated for three Academy Awards and many more awards, The Battle of Algiers did not receive unanimous positive critics— especially not from the French, who banned the movie for years. Again, it was quite obvious that Pontecorvo’s sympathies were on the side of the FLN, and that tiny hint of subjectivity is my only issue with this film. A fully objective point of view would have strengthened this movie’s motives even more, because of how raw it would have been. By leaning towards one side, whether or not it is the “good” side, the essence of the war was transformed into an opinionated, almost too personal piece, however, equally as important and relevant in terms of sociopolitical issues. Pontecorvo’s masterpiece can easily be compared to Battleship Potemkin, another great political film that managed to convey emotion and fear through a beautiful narrative and stunning black and white cinematography.
The Battle of Algiers is, and will remain, a film that I will recommend anyone trying to understand colonization, fear of the other, war, or simply, human rights. It might also be one of the rare films left where, you know, people of color are played by people of color.
Katherine ♥ Zhang
Read previous PoeticBookTours reviews here.