“Battle of Algiers” director passes, lessons unheeded

Note the rather ironic last line of this account. Perhaps the real lesson US war-makers failed to glean from Pontecorvo’s film was, “Stay out—its hopeless.” From Italy’s AKI news agency, Oct. 13:

Gillo Pontecorvo, one of Italy’s leading filmmakers renowned for ‘The Battle of Algiers’, a realistic representation of Algeria’s independence war against France, died on Thursday night. He was 86. The Battle of Algiers, which Pontecorvo wrote with Franco Solinas and directed in 1966, won the Venice film festival that year and was nominated for three Oscars – best director, screenplay and foreign film. The documentary-style movie showed the plight of Algerians during the 1954-62 war, denouncing the bombings and torture of civilians by the French military. It was banned in France until 1972 and in Britain until 1969.

Born into a Jewish family in Pisa, Pontecorvo was a musician, a journalist, a political activist closely associated with Italy’s Communist party and its ideas who fought in the resistance during World War II, as well as a filmmaker.

He made few films all very politically engaging. Kapo, which came out in 1960, was set in a Nazi concentration camp while his 1969 work Qeimada (Burn) was an allegory of colonialism. The film, starring Marlon Brando, was reportedly a favourite with the US star.

In 2003 the Pentagon reportedly screened The Battle of Algiers for officers and experts who were debating US military intervention in Iraq, the New York Times reported.

A leaflet given to viewers reportedly read: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas.”

Another perverse historical irony is that Algeria’s own regime is now faced with an Islamist insurgency (somewhat in abeyance at the moment) which employs terrorist tactics.

See our last post on Iraq. See also our last post on Algeria 44 years after independence.