On the Frontlines of “The Battle of Algiers”
by Liza Bear
It’s rare that a revolutionary leader becomes a film producer, and even more rare that a fiction film becomes the gold standard of cinema verite filmmaking. “The Battle of Algiers” (1965) which recreates a key phase from 1954 to 1957 of the Algerians’ fight against the French colonialists, is unique. Its meticulously realized authenticity results from having been shot in the Casbah, exactly where the events took place; and also from the collaboration of Italian resistance fighter/ new realist director Gillo Pontecorvo and coproducer Saadi Yaacef, a former Front de Libération National (FLN) chief on whose experiences the film is directly based. Apart from the French paratrooper Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin), the sterling cast is made up Algerian non professionals headed by the Ali La Pointe (Brahim Haggiag) whose fiery intensity is the film’s animus. With remarkable evenhandedness and not a trace of moralizing, the film brilliantly articulates the escalating logic of attacks, mutual bombings, torture, and assassination that form the essence of guerrilla warfare and the misguided attempts to suppress it. “Not everything has been said,” Yacef says. But last week, indieWIRE contributor Liza Bear was able to speak to Saadi Yacef, who got both the insurrection and the film started. The film is now playing at New York’s Film Forum.
indieWIRE: What was harder, producing the film version of “The Battle of Algiers” or trying to lead a successful revolution?
Saadi Yacef: First of all [before I answer the question] let me say that during this fight for independence, I was arrested and betrayed by one of my lieutenants, which also happens to very important people. It’s always a relative or someone close who denounces you. I was condemned to death but in 1958, when [the French General] De Gaulle came to power, my death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment and I was transferred from a prison in Algeria to one in France. With plenty of time to reflect in my cell I wanted to write down the most important events of the war… I couldn’t have done that in Algeria, where there were still 400,000 pieds-noirs (French colonists). Some of them were prison guards who wouldn’t allow you to do anything. But as a leader and former colonel in the FLN in a French prison I benefited from the new political regime in France.
iW: Let’s backtrack: You were born in Algiers in 1928. What did your parents do?
Yacef: My parents were illiterate Berbers from the vast rural province of Kabylie. My father came to the city very young to make a living doing odd jobs, polishing boots, carrying bags. Then he opened a store and bought a house. But I was able to go to school until 1942 when the Allies landed [in Morocco and Algeria]. That’s when my education came to a halt because my school was converted into military barracks for the Allies. At the time the Casbah — where I was born — was a two-kilometer-square section of Algiers with 80,000 inhabitants. You won’t find this degree of overcrowding even in China. The Casbah was built on a hill like a citadel with lots of entrances and exits which was a big help during the fighting. It served as a “maquis,” a place we could hide like in the French Resistance. So, since the Allied soldiers had taken over our school the kids hung out on the street. To survive we sold chewing gum from the U.S. Army. We called it le bizness”. As we wised up we realized that the 80,000 people in the Casbah represented a kind of apartheid.
iW: At what point did you decide to try to change things?
Yacef: I was one of the first to fire a gun in 1954.
iW: But before firing the first shot?
Yacef: At 17 I was a member of PPA (Algerian People’s Party) which became the MPLTD (Movement for Triumph of Democracy) and did a lot of activist work. My parents supported me. The entire population of the Casbah wanted an end to social injustice. So we were preparing for an armed insurrection.
iW: That’s where the film starts, [in 1954] but I want to know how you prepared for that moment.
Yacef: Before that we had a clandestine training organization, for instance we threw rocks as practice for throwing grenades. We were preparing to liberate ourselves from the French. Now, why.
iW: Yes, why?
Yacef: During the Second World War the Society of Nations favored decolonization. But in practice that wasn’t happening. In 1947 the French had trouble in Madagascar. Then they lost Indochina. After that Morocco and Tunisia became independent. There’d already been serious uprisings in Algeria discounted by the French. While people were celebrating victory over the Nazis, the French killed more than 45,000 in Constantine. We were just waiting our turn. So we organized, a small team, which set off a series of actions throughout Algeria.
iW: When did you meet Ali La Pointe? [the hero of the film]
Yacef: I didn’t meet him until 1955. He was condemned to death for having fired an unloaded gun at a French policeman. In prison he was educated by the political prisoners awaiting the guillotine. They’d say to him, “You can’t read or write, you’re the first victim of colonialism.” He was so politicized that he escaped from prison. He hid in the Casbah and was looking to join the movement. Through a contact he reached me.
iW: Did you become friends?
Yacef: He became my deputy. Though illiterate he had a ferocious intelligence. [Note: the FLN communicated through written messages]
iW: People in the U.S. who are seeing the film for the first time may be surprised to find that there were children and women fighting amongst the FLN.
Yacef: In a word, evolution within the revolution. Normally women took the back seat. But when war broke out, we needed them. They fed us. They were lookouts on the terraces [of the Casbah]. The women were indispensable and totally implicated [in the action]. Among the women who gave me cover were law students who threw off the yashmak. They wanted to participate directly in the struggle — plant bombs, hide weapons, do liaison work. They were exactly like the men. Sometimes better. A woman who plants a bomb is better than a man who does nothing or just hands out flyers. They played a key role [getting past checkpoints where a man would have been searched]. Of course, there were some traditional women. Even now, 80 percent of Algerian women don’t cover their faces, except in the past few years these fundamentalists who pretend to be Muslims make demands on women.
iW: How did you meet Pontecorvo, the director of the film?
Yacef: He’s a genius who transferred what I wrote into cinematic language.
iW: But how did you meet him?
Yacef: When I got out of jail after independence my memoirs were published in France. But the French weren’t interested in making a film.
Yacef: At the time I was aware of Italian neorealist cinema. Pontecorvo had made a film called “Kapo,” about a girl in a Nazi concentration camp, which interested me. I already had the support of the new Algerian government. They said, “If you need anything we’re there for you.” I called my production Casbah Films because I was born in the Casbah. We’ve co-produced several films including an adaptation of “The Stranger” by Albert Camus and one about an executioner, the guy who cuts heads. When I finally met Pontecorvo in Rome he already wanted to make a film called “Para” from the point of view of a French paratrooper in Algiers with Paul Newman. I said, “Look, I lived there, I was a colonel, I know everything and I wrote this.” Pontecorvo read it and said, “Let’s call a screenwriter, Solinas.” Making the film became an immediate priority for them.
iW: Pontecorvo had fought in the Italian resistance and was a member of the Communist Party.
Yacef: For a while.
iW: Once on location, you knew the terrain. As a colonel in the FLN “knowing the terrain” meant that you could be efficient. But in terms of shooting the film, your knowledge enabled Pontecorvo to make the best directorial choices.
Yacef: Yes, I was his facilitator.
iW: Were you there elbow to elbow during the production?
Yacef: Yes absolutely. Pontecorvo wanted to make a “choral” film. I told him it’s because of the people that we got independence. Pontecorvo wanted me to be in the film as an FLN leader. But I hesitated.
Yacef: Because I had played that part for real. For real I had killed. It was difficult to act the part. Then I accepted. I told myself [that by being in the film] I would then be able to guide Pontecorvo, warn him when something didn’t ring true. All the events in the film, we shot them in the exact place where it had happened.
iW: For example?
Yacef: My arrest in the hide-out. All the details were recreated. The bombs (at the Milk Bar, the Cafeteria and the airport lounge) were exploded in the same locations. We chose women who looked a bit European so that they could get into those places. Where Ali La Pointe died behind the false tiled wall, we rebuilt exactly the same house.
iW: Some of Ben Mhidi’s key lines in the film — [paraphrasing] “It’s hard to start a revolution…”
Yacef: “…it’s harder to win it… Yes, those were my lines. It doesn’t matter. I give them to everybody!
iW: “…but the hardest is after you’ve won.”
Yacef: Well, that’s what’s happening in Algeria right now. Ben Mhidi was assassinated by [French General] Aussaresses. He shot him, then hung him to make it look like a suicide. I gave Ben Mhidi those lines because when we spoke in real life, he would say he didn’t want to be there after independence because there would be a power struggle. Algeria is unhappy because everyone wants to lead. He told me, “I hope I’m killed before independence.”
iW: He really said that?
Yacef: I swear, just like you speaking to me now. There were people who were arrested who talked. They confessed. Under torture obviously. Ben Mhidi would say, I want to know why people talk. Finally we figured: someone who can bear 50 kilos, if you give him 100 kilos, he collapses.
iW: Were you tortured by the French?
Yacef: A woman saved me.
iW: What woman?
Yacef: When I was arrested, I had discussions with her — I write about it in my book.
iW: Is it hard to think about all those things now?
Yacef: Euh… I made a tabula rasa. I wiped the slate clean, but I haven’t forgotten. I have a wound here (points), but the boy next to me died. So I always remember.
iW: What are you doing in life right now?
Yacef: For the past four years I’ve been a senator in Algiers. I have another three to go.
iW: To go back to my first question. Is it harder to make a film or to win a revolution?
Yacef: It’s harder to make a good film… You can kill someone but to educate him that’s something else. And during the war we destroyed. There was an enemy and we killed him. Creating something is very difficult.