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Sympathy for the Devil

(This article is the third post in a series of articles on Gillo Pontecorvo's film "The Battle for Algiers," a film portraying the battle of French Colonialists against the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algiera. The preeminent film on counter-insurgency (political war), we highly recommend it to all our readers.)

A strange thing happened to me when I watched Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle for Algiers for the first time, I felt bad for the terrorists. I pitied the insurgent rebels of the National Liberation Front (FLN), even as I watched them murder innocents with cowardly terrorist attacks.

This isn't because the films portrays the French negatively. As Roger Ebert writes in his review, aside from a mournful score for the dead Algerians, the film “shows the French leadership in a relatively objective light.” It doesn't sympathize with the FLN, or vilify the French. Both sides engage in terrorism, planting bombs intended to kill civilians. Both sides intimidate, bully and harass. Both sides justify their actions, to themselves and others. 

Why, then, do I feel bad for the nationalists? Why am I rooting for them?

Because nothing in this world is simple, least of all violence. I root for the the FLN nationalists because, as it is said, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. It depends on the point of view. Most of all, I root for them because I am an American. And because I am an American, I root against the bully and pull for the underdog. I root for justice.

And while the film dwells on counter-insurgency, it is really about a country fighting for liberation--liberation from a French takeover. Because I am American, I support the country fighting for its freedom, its inalienable, God-given right to freedom. The French play the role of the bully: the richer, meaner, more technologically-advanced country exploiting the weaker, poorer country. America and Americans started out as under dogs, a scrappy kid fighting for freedom from bullies. America or Algerians, we are cut from the same cloth in different centuries.

This dynamic plays out on every level of the film. In the opening scenes, when the protagonist runs from a cop down the street, a posh French teenager trips him. Later, a young Algerian couple is forced to marry in secret. After the start of the Algerian rebellion, the French lock down the Islamic quarters--the Casbah--and establish check points. When the Algerians go on a national strike, the French Army beats the Algerians, arrests them at random, and begins to use torture. They institute a police state. The powerful hurting the powerless. Oppressors torturing the oppressed. As a 20th century American taught since childhood to hate totalitarians, be they Nazis or Communists, all of this offends me.

Yes, the FLN are terrorists but they are also an occupied nation. America would act the exact same, if we too were invaded. We already have. We poured boiling tar over our enemies during the birth of our nation. We practically invented unconventional warfare at the start of our Revolutionary war. We started colonial rebellion. Do I agree with their methods? Absolutely not. Do I support their cause? Totally.

One last thought. Something came to me my second time watching the film. An ex-girlfriend of mine grew up in Morocco, and she told me once how it annoyed her that a family friend referred to Morocco as “French Morocco.” Hearing a French man refer to Algeria as “French Algeria” I realized how ridiculous it is. It isn’t France's Algeria, it is Algeria’s Algeria. And it is something some people will fight, or die, for.

five comments

V1ery good post!

And as a writer, this is what you deliberately play with.
I am currently proofreading a book where you also wonder throughout the book if the bad guy really is the bad guy, because you can see it with his eyes, feel for him and are sorry about all the unfortunate bad things that have happend to him, whereas the good character shows some very clear lines of strict leadership and deliberate thinking and this is absolutely NOT something the avarage public sympathizes with! To them it is the “poor victims” that are innocent and they identify with them and not those who with very strict, ethical conduct deliberately set the standard of how far one it’s gonna go.

But then towards the end it becomes more clearly and all of a sudden the reader realizes “Hej, wait a minute he’s just killed a guy – and in a way as if it was the most natural thing in the world – no remourse at all…” And then the sides are clear: the tough and rather cold-blooded seeming person is the constructive one – in spite of having a rather professional attitude!

But I did that deliberately. For one thing, the reader should be in doubt about who is who until the very end (suspense!), but more important: I wanted to give a realistic picture of how things happen and that excercising ethical, strict leadership is not something that characterizes a bad guy, but that it is a nescessity if you wanna live and get something done!

So for a writer it should be a deliberate choice. Every writer has to decide right at the beginning how he would like the audience to perceive the book or the movie.

That’s at least how it SHOULD be.
But when I f.ex. see “The english patient” I really wonder what has gotten into both the producer, director and the author. Why on earth would one present the main characters with such ethics flaws?! They naturally become completely dislikable. Because who wants to identify with such suckers? And there goes the movie completely down the drain!
I persobnally think they only thing that carried that movie were the beautiful settings, the authentic costumes and Juliette Binoche’s wonderful, compassionate performance.
She gave the movie everything that the other 3 main characters were missing. Not a smart choice – but one thing is for sure: she really deserved that oscar!

However there is another side to this and that’s why trash
like “Bridget Jones” sells: all those who never did get their ass up and who’s ambitions have always been killed by their own lack of ethics or intention to carry something out, they now feel really acknowledged for their lack of acheivement. the movie tells them: it’s not their fault for not trying any harder, it’s okay not to get one’s ethics in, others are no better and now let’s just all feel really sory for ourselves, because that’s how life is! – That’s the part where I need to leave the room fast, because I have to pu… well you know what I mean!

Re french Algeria:
well it works both ways, doesn’t it? At least some Algerians did make it to France that way and were able to start up a better life there…!
Everything has got two sides – one just has to know how to make use of any given situation in the most constructive way…

I just want to throw in my two cents on this issue. As Eric, and Ebert, and others have mentioned, it is very hard to say if Pontecorvo is rooting for anyone in this film. To bring it all back to Violence, our primary theme, I have to say the only real person or people to root for is the population and the only hope is that the violence ends with out ruining the country’s future a la Somalia for the last twenty seven years.

It’s a catch 22, you cannot support the bullying oppressive power, nor can you support the unconciable acts of terrorists. It’s reminicent of events in the past years in former Soviet territories like Chechnya. American policy condemned actions on both sides which effectually did nothing to end the conflict.

@ Sarah – I could (and probably will) write more int he future on the good guy/bad guy, protagonist/antagonist dichotomy, and the problems associated with it. As the old saying goes, no villain thinks they are the villain, they think they are the hero. It is one of the reasons I admire Steinbeck’s _The Moon is Down_and (wrote about its view of villians) It took a lot of courage to write about Nazis and not portray them as mindless thugs.

@ Michael C and Matty P – Or you can connect it to Palestine, which is just as dangerous.

That is the root of the problem – the French annexed Algeria as a province, not simply as a colony. For them, Algeria was as much as part of France as Marseilles, Toulouse, or, in another example of a failed nationalism, Corsica.

But they failed to treat the Algerians as actual Frenchmen, with all the rights of Frenchmen. The only ones who got this right were the white Christian settler minority, the pieds noirs, which had significant political power, equivalent with the settler lobby in Israel if not more so. The _pieds noirs _and, I would argue, the French metropole could not stomach granting millions of Muslim Algerians equal voting rights, and for this reason Algerian independence was never more than a foregone conclusion, even though the French won the war militarily, in that they managed to suppress the FLN’s ability to inflict serious attacks.

Morocco and Tunisia, OTOH, were never more than protectorates and had no significant settler population, and was thus let go much more easily.