“Cine Qua Non: The Political Import and Impact of The Battle of Algiers”

Professor Stephen Whitfield‘s new article, “Cine Qua Non: The Political Import and Impact of The Battle of Algiers,” appears in the LISA e-Journal, a peer-reviewed online journal for scholars “interested in pluri-, trans- or inter- disciplinary studies in fields including cultural ‎studies, literature, philosophy or the history of ideas, the visual arts, music, media studies, ‎sociology, history and anthropology within the English-speaking world although comparative ‎studies with other geographical areas will also be considered.”

An excerpt from his article:

“This is the day of the guerrilla,” Malcolm X confidently announced in 1964. “Algerians… took a rifle and sneaked off to the hills, and de Gaulle and all of his highfalutin’ war machinery couldn’t defeat those guerrillas. Nowhere on this earth does the white man win in a guerrilla warfare. It’s not his speed.”1

The generalization did not take into account the success of the British in defeating the insurrection in Malaya in the 1950s, or the evidence that even the French had won the military phase of their counter-insurgency in Algeria, only to lose politically in an era of decolonization. But “the day of the guerrilla” that Malcolm X perceived as having dawned was to inspire its most important cinematic realization the following year, with the release of La Battaglia di Algeri, an Italian-Algerian co-production (in French and Arabic). In portraying the struggle of urban insurgents (though not revolutionaries fighting in the mountains and hills), The Battle of Algiers has become in retrospect a work of exceptional prescience. In depicting the willingness of terrorists to murder civilians to pursue political goals, this film constituted a preview of a world of sudden, disruptive, and shocking violence, the world that we in the twenty-first century now inhabit.

But foresight is not the only claim that The Battle of Algiers can invoke. If an unscholarly but defensible opinion may be offered, this is quite simply the greatest political movie ever made. One criterion is the breadth of the impact that this film has exerted, the sheer range of an appeal that continues to be felt. From left to right, and from 1965 until the present, the scale of that attraction is the primary focus of this essay. It seeks both to describe that political influence and to account for it in cinematic terms. Briefly banned in France in 1965, and then infrequently shown in that country for the next few decades, screened by groups of political incendiaries ranging from the Irish Republican Army to the Tamil Tigers, praised by the Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said for “extraordinary… clarity and… passion,” even as units of the Israel Defense Forces were required to watch it,2 revived in the late summer of 2003 through the official sponsorship of the Pentagon’s Directorate for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict, The Battle of Algiers is peerless in the breadth of the fascination that it has continued to elicit.

Read the rest of the article here.

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