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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Battle Rages in Kendall Square

Coming soon to Kendall Square, Cambridge is the 1965 black and white movie “The Battle of Algiers,” which was recently screened by Pentagon brass. Revamped with new 35mm print and more accurate subtitles, the Grand Prize Winner of the 1965 Venice Film Festival has been hailed as one of the most realistic anti-colonialism movies of all time.

The film is, in short, a re-enactment of the struggle of Algerian resistance fighters for freedom from French colonial domination, a struggle which constitutes the bloodiest revolution in modern history. The French had held Algeria as a colony, a prefect of Paris, for over a century. Algerian nationalism, however, reached critical mass in the 1950s. Although the French won the battle of Algiers in 1957 they lost the war and withdrew a short time later.

This film was controversial in all quarters when released: Algerians wanted more advocacy for their cause and it was banned by the French government at first, then later released in a heavily censored form.

The hand-held cameras and occasional near-but-not-quite focused shots combine to give a sense of documentary-like authenticity to “The Battle of Algiers.” The movie has a fascinating history, first written as a screenplay in a French prison by Saadi Yacef, a leader of the Algerian National Liberation Front, or FLN. Yacef is seen playing the part of El-Hadi Jaffar, who was the military leader of the FLN, and also served as producer. In the 1960’s the film was used as a training video for the U.S. Black Panthers.

The actors in his movies are all amateurs, recruited primarily from the streets of Algiers, with one exception. Professional actor Jean Martin plays Colonel Phillippe Matheiu, the French commander in Algiers and El-Hadi Jaffar’s nemesis, and portrays the man with a lizard-like coldness. Mathieu embraced torture in the suppression of the Algerian insurgency, as did others in the French administration. In a press conference scene, when questioned by reporters about French tactics, Mathieu replies that if they are to win the war they must be willing to accept brutality as a part of the price, saying, “We are soldiers. Our duty is to win.” Mathieu was later to denounce the torture he had embraced while military commander, saying it had been ineffective as well as inappropriate.

The horror of the war is enhanced by the youthful beauty of women who, after removing their veils to look “western,” deliver bombs in market baskets. When a captured terrorist leader is interrogated about the use of the baskets to leave bombs in restaurants and other public locations, the terrorist essentially replies, “We have our baskets. You drop bombs on us from airplanes. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.”

“The Battle of Algiers” will be playing at the Kendall Square Cinema starting February 27.