The Battle of Algiers / Black Friday koan

[ by Charles Cameron — a tale of two films, two conflicts, two cities ]

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Are these two positions — take one side, take both sides — reconcilable?

That’s the koan, the paradox that’s facing me, after seeing two terrific films by these two directors again, this time back-to-back. The two films their respective directors are discussing are Gillo Pontecorvo‘s Battle of Algiers and Anurag Kashyap‘s Black Friday.

Elie Weisel triggered this set of reflections for me when I saw his stark statement of the “one side” position:

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Let’s turn to the films.

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Pontecorvo’s Battle for Algiers is a rightly-celebrated classic, and it’s opening shot confirms the director’s claim to show compassion for both sides:

That’s an unexpected question from torturer to the victim he has just “broken”, and speaks volumes about the director’s intent — as does this quote from the french paratroop commander, Col. Mathieu, speaking of Larbi Ben M’Hidi, a leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) whom he has captured and questioned — and who in “RL” was in fact murdered, though his death was reported at the time as a suicide:

Pour ma part, je peux seulement vous dire que j’ai eu la possibilité d’apprécier la force morale, le courage et la fidélité de Ben M’Hidi en ses propres idéaux. Pour cela, sans oublier l’immense danger qu’il représentait, je me sens le devoir de rendre hommage à sa mémoire.

For my own part, I can only tell you that I had the opportunity to appreciate Ben M’Hidi’s moral strength, his courage and his loyalty to his own ideas. On that account, and without overlooking the immense danger he represented, I feel obliged to salute his memory.

That reads to me as the respect of courage for courage.

The Pentagon, FWIW, held a screening of Battle for Algiers in September 2003, issuing a flyer indicating their reason to be interested in the film:

How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

Yes indeed, it does sound a tad familiar.

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