It’s been almost 50 years since Saadi Yacef, revolutionary hero of the Algerian war of independence, leapt across the terraces of the casbah in Algiers, fleeing from French forces. (Later, he’d play a character very close to himself in the legendary film he co-produced, The Battle of Algiers, which was based upon his memoirs.) But at 75, he’s still trim and fit; his passionate conviction, when he speaks of that era, also animates the film, and must have moved his followers half a century ago.
“That fight gave meaning to my life,” this son of a baker, born in the casbah, said of his role as a guerrilla leader in the FLN (the Algerian National Liberation Front). He was in New York for the 1965 film’s re-release by Rialto Pictures. “I had to help combat the injustice of a colonization that had lasted for 130 years,” he continued. “Of course, I was afraid. Directing a revolutionary movement while on the run is hard work. But when I was in prison, chained at the ankles and condemned to death, I wasn’t unhappy. I had fought. It was the price I had to pay. I kept thinking, let me be lucid enough so that when they lead me to the guillotine, I remember to shout, ‘Long live Algeria!’ ”
In The Battle of Algiers (currently at Film Forum), Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a petty delinquent, witnesses such a scene from his prison cell; released in 1954, he joins the FLN, whose struggle to wrest control of the country from the French was then beginning. Yacef plays his commander. The film details the escalating violence of those years, as French settlers and counter-insurgency forces resorted to increasingly desperate measures against a deadly, faceless enemy, hidden within the casbah’s narrow streets and among its 80,000 inhabitants. “The people won the war,” Yacef explained, of the film’s panoramic portrait of a civilian population in which every pretty girl might have a bomb in her pocketbook, “so you couldn’t just talk about a single hero. You had to talk about the people.”
Pardoned from a death sentence by French president Charles de Gaulle’s general amnesty in 1958, Yacef penned his memoirs while still in prison. Liberated after the war’s end in 1962, and aided by the new Algerian government, he created the production company Casbah Films, and hired the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo as director. Shot over five months in the streets of the capital, the film has the freshness and urgency of newsreel footage. “In 1965,” Yacef said, “the wound was still bleeding.”
Long banned in France, The Battle of Algiers has been studied by revolutionary groups from the IRA to the Tamil Tigers. Yet its portrait of the French occupier, embodied in actor Jean Martin’s charismatic Colonel Mathieu—a humanist who nevertheless understands the need for torture—is surprisingly nuanced and complex. (There were, after all, real fascists on the French side in Algeria; Jean-Marie Le Pen, now leader of the far-right French political party the National Front, was one of them.)
“I tried to make the film as balanced as possible,” said Yacef. “There was violence on both sides—torture on one side, and bombs on the other. In fact, it was a stalemate. History really won the war, in deciding for our independence.”
The Pentagon recently held an open screening of The Battle of Algiers for its staff, seeking to draw tactical lessons for the conflict in Iraq and against Al Qaeda. But the parallels, Yacef explained, are limited.
“The terrain is different geographically and socially,” he said, “even if terrorism with bombs and knives is pretty much the same everywhere.” (Algeria, where Yacef now serves as a senator, has also undergone recent waves of violence by right-wing Muslim extremists.) But suicide bombing is something his movement would never have condoned. “The Koran says that anyone who commits suicide goes to hell,” Yacef insisted. “People should cite that more often.”
Michael Atkinson’s review of The Battle of Algiers