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Re-release of "The Battle of Algiers"

Aired January 1, 2004 - 21:00:00   ET


RICHARD ROTH, CNN ANCHOR: A classic when it came out, it may be just as relevant today. "The Battle of Algiers," next on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE.
Ambushes on security forces, bombing attacks on people and institutions, rebels demanding the departure of occupation forces. Sound familiar? Hold on there.

Welcome to DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth.

Insurgents fight the troops, on the program today, not in Baghdad but in Algiers, and in the movie theatre. This weekend the 1965 film "The Battle of Algiers" is re-released here in the United States and it's already had a private screening at the Pentagon where filmgoers were lured in by the possibility of learning lessons, if any, from the film for the Iraq experience of these days.

"The Battle of Algiers" tells the story of the struggle for independence from colonial power France in the late 1950's. First tactics, shocking violence against French policemen.




ROTH: The organizer of the military wing of the Algeria National Front is right here. Saadi Yacef did more than that. He is the Algerian co- producer of the "The Battle of Algiers." He developed the concept for the film, an idea that came from a book based on notes he wrote on an envelope while sitting in jail for five years.

Is the release of "The Battle of Algiers" timed to coincide with the Iraq War?

SAADI YACEF, FILMMAKER (through translator): Absolutely not. It's a pure coincidence. People are talking about it because of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I sold this to the distributor (UNINTELLIGIBLE) which had no idea, as far as I know, that there would be any occupation of Iraq which would continue until now.

ROTH: Are there lessons that you believe can be drawn from "The Battle of Algiers" to what is happening in Iraq?

YACEF (through translator): As you know, the style, the urban guerilla style, the Chinese style, the Latin American style, South American style, did not have the same human elements, geographic elements or social elements. There is nothing comparable. So Algeria really has nothing in common with all of that. That is the Iraq situation.

We had a colony, settlers, colonization, which goes back 132 years, colonized by the French, of course, and the French have some very bad experiences in the war of Algeria.

As for my part, I physically led and participated, intellectually and organizationally, the outbreak on the 1st of November, '53. I continued throughout the war and I conducted all of the events you saw. There was a permanent (UNINTELLIGIBLE) organizational structure in order to explain the clandestine nature of this organization (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 80,000 soldiers came from (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and 400,000 Europeans, known commonly as (UNINTELLIGIBLE), black feet or settlers.

And there was an administration in the capital, of course, of Algiers, which was the capital. I had to put up with dodgy strategy tricks. I had to win over the population. In the end they came around, as this will happen in Iraq too. The population will come around.

ROTH: We saw the beginning of the tactical attacks on French policemen there. The film does also portray what the other side, the French, were thinking. The leading man on the other side is a swashbuckling French military commander who defends the harsh crackdown which ensured in the Kasbah to the journalists.




ROTH: What was the reaction to this film when it came out, with scenes of French soldiers putting Algerians through torture to get information, something that some people say the United States has not yet done in Iraq, maybe so?

YACEF (through translator): It was a very simple reaction. The price had to be paid for independence, including the idea of soldiers, what the soldiers had to do for their own cause. They say, if you want us to stay in Algeria, you have to accept everything, all the bad things we have to do to the population, in order to win the war we are fighting.

The violence, not the enemy, who wanted (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and eliminate us at any cost, they had to maintain that. We needed to fight. Since the French Army had not won a battle since the Second World War, it wanted to find a way desperately to win this battle, including brutality.

So we paid the price. We had to pay the price. I don't see how the French Army could have acted in any other way under the circumstances. We simply had to accept this fact of torture and every soldier became a militant (UNINTELLIGIBLE) when he had tortured someone or killed someone. Automatically there was a massive recruitment as a result. There was an influx in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). When you killed someone, 10 more recruits flocked to our side. So we needed this kind of torture, this brutality, to destabilize France, eliminate the 4th Republic, and everything else involved in terms of brutality and cruelty.

ROTH: So you have no regrets about the bombings? I mean, is it true, as in the film, the Air France office was bombed. You see a caf‚ filled with mostly French people having a good time, a bomb is placed under the counter.

YACEF (through translator): When we got to the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bombing, the first bombing, I said there are 400,000 Europeans against us. The last bombing was '56, 18th of August, in part of the capital, where there were hundreds of people dead. There were many other bombs which I describe in the book I published, and they began, the settlers, began to eliminate us and we had to respond with violence by violence. That's the reason.

The regret is that when you see someone crippled, you really wonder whether it was really worth it.

ROTH: In the film, as part of that balance, there were disputes over tactics between your Liberation Front leaders, including yourself, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the muscleman, is seen urging immediate strong assaults while you, playing yourself in the film "The Battle of Algiers" counsel patience and worry about what would happen if the movement even wins.




ROTH: Is it strange that in effect an Algerian government has been harshly criticized for human rights abuses over the decades as too strict, and now Secretary of State Powell was in Algiers last December and reminded Algerians about respecting human rights, but asking for cooperation on terrorism. Can you have it both ways?

YACEF (through translator): Well, first, we had more than 10 years of terrorism. If the false Muslims -- there's the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) law that a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with his book and the new Muslims, who do not have recourse to Koran, like the Christians with the bible and the Jews with the Torah.

These are people who cut open, ripped open the bellies of women to kill the fetus and cut people's throats. Now what do you do about people who will cut the throats? Because these people, they're independent, and why are they fighting? It's hard to know.

This is a false Islam which is using all these pretexts. These butchers and executioners are doing this to destroy the Arab world or for their own inscrutable interests or just for the business of doing evil. We have to fight these people. We've had this problem for 10 years now. It's a virus.

You study democracy in school, but it just doesn't come easily. For hundreds of years, this has been happening in the Arab world. It's a kind of democracy which is becoming stronger in Algeria. I wouldn't otherwise be fighting against the enemy of that.

ROTH: Yasef Saadi, thank you very much for being here. You're the producer of "The Battle of Algiers." You star in a film that you created as you sat in a French jail at the time. The film was nominated for Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Foreign Film in 1965 and it also has the music, which we will discuss coming up, of Enrico Morricone (sic), great music.

Thank you very much for being here on DIPLOMATIC LICENSE.

YASEF (through translator): Thank you. We could have spent a long time discussing this to convince you that I really lived through this battle in the film and in the flesh and I've been continuing to fight for peace in whatever country. Thanks very much for inviting me.

ROTH: Coming up, an analysis of "The Battle of Algiers" from a film reviewer.





ROTH: "The Battle of Algiers" started raging in the cinema again this weekend at a downtown Manhattan theatre and in Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. We mentioned the movie had a screening already at the Pentagon. A Defense Department spokesman said the film offers historical insight into the conduct of French operations in Algeria and does prompt discussions on the challenges faced by the French. The U.S. military, the statement said, routinely studies the fight for Algiers in training sessions.

Our next guest is not buying a ticket. That's because he already saw it. He is a professional film critic. Welcome to Stuart Klawans. He writes for the "Nation" magazine.

OK. You're not a military strategist, but when you saw this film, didn't you think, well, this kind of could be Baghdad, somewhat?

STUART KLAWANS, FILM CRITIC: I think there is one thing that the Pentagon could learn from "The Battle of Algiers," but by the time they screened it, it was already too late to apply the lesson.

ROTH: They should have seen it before the March invasion, right?

KLAWANS: Exactly. Be careful about occupying Iraq would have been the one lesson.

ROTH: All right, let's stick to what you are an expert in, at least, the film. What was the impact of this film?

KLAWANS: It was tremendous. It had tremendous impact. It won the Venice Film Festival in 1966, which took everybody by surprise, including Gillo Pontecorvo, who was the director, co-screenwriter, co-music author and so forth.

It had tremendous impact in the United States. It was banned in France. The French officials were shocked and outraged that the film alleged that the French had used torture.

ROTH: And it was banned until 1971. And weren't theatres attacked, bombed, in France?

KLAWANS: I don't know about that.

ROTH: We've heard of films bombing, but that's a little bit too severe.

What about the type of film? It was a newsreel style.

KLAWANS: It was an entirely new type of film. That's part of the impact. I can think of three ways in which the film was unprecedented. The cinematography, which made the film look as if it had been shot as a clandestine documentary. You know, Orson Wells had had "The March of Time" newsreel imitation in "Citizen Kane," which was one segment. Pontecorvo kept this up for 123 minutes. So that was unprecedented.

Making such a huge film. I mean, it's really an epic film. And doing it with only one professional actor, more than 100 parts cast off the street in Algiers.

And the third way is that nobody had ever in a fiction film recreated so authentically recent world-shaking events. You put those three things together, and it was a tremendous film.

ROTH: This was filmed on the streets of Algiers, again, right?

KLAWANS: Absolutely. Right where things had happened.

ROTH: And what about the music? I said Enrico, it's Ennio Morricone. That music -- you can hear the theme from the 1986 film "The Untouchables," which I believe he did, that great percussive sound, as the troops are moving in.

KLAWANS: Right. The music also had tremendous impact. That percussive sound, the way it seems to lock on to the images. Only a few years ago, the New York avant-garde musician John Zorn released a tribute record to Ennio Morricone, and the music for "The Battle of Algiers" figures very prominently in that. It's been a very influential score.

ROTH: A few weeks ago on this program we talked and showed clips from the movie "The Fog of War," about the Vietnam era, also shot in a different style. Could we hopefully see more films, documentaries, and is there a link between these two films? They seem to be done very well and maybe will do well at the box office.

KLAWANS: Well, I hope they do well. I think they're very distinct.

You know, "The Fog of War," the Erroll Morris documentary, is very much an Erroll Morris film. He's almost established his own genre of documentary making.

"The Battle of Algiers," it's interesting. You know, the word docudrama was just coming into common use when this film was made. This is a docudrama the way the St. Matthew Passion towers over an advertising jingle. This is the most magnificent docudrama ever made. Something very different.

ROTH: What can young filmmakers learn from something like this?

KLAWANS: Young filmmakers can learn to do your research. Pontecorvo claimed that he pursued a dictatorship of truth. He would do that all out, which includes being as fair as he could be to the French in the film. He really strove to be fair to the French.

He and his screenwriter Franco Solinas did six months of research before they started writing the screenplay, so that's one thing. Pay attention to reality. And lesson No. 2 might be, make sure you get it right. Pontecorvo was absolutely fanatic about getting every detail of this film right. When it premiered at the Venice Film Festival, I think the print was almost wet from the lab.

Stuart Klawans, writer, film reviewer, "The Nation" magazine, thank you very much for assessing the "The Battle of Algiers" for us.

KLAWANS: Thank you.

ROTH: Also interesting timing regarding "The Battle of Algiers," the re-release comes just days after Algeria assumed a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

In the movie the Arab residents stage a peaceful general strike designed to show the United Nations of good intentions. Formal action and support, though, did not come from New York. Algeria's current ambassador, Abdullah Bali (ph), was all of 12 years old when the film came out.


AMB. ABDULLAH BALI (ph), ALGERIAN AMB. TO U.N.: I haven't experienced the French colonialism. I haven't seen anything from the Algerian resistance. It was the first time that I saw these Algerian people fighting this release of Algiers of the French, and that was a real shock to me.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Mr. President, I think the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) has already an indication to express its view of the unworthy attempts of the American administration to involve the Security Council in a provocative anti-Soviet spectacle.


ROTH: That's Oleg Troyanovsky, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations for nine years. Biggest moment, having to defend his country after a Soviet pilot shot down a Korean airline passenger jet in 1983. Behind the scenes, friends recall an affable representative, hardly an ideologue who championed Soviet doctrine.

Troyanovsky died the other day at the age of 84 and we thought we'd remember another big moment in his life. To do that we spoke with William Vanden Heuvel, once the United States deputy ambassador. He showed me a picture which captured the aftermath of that moment, Vanden Heuvel standing next to U.S. Ambassador Donald McHenry. Minutes earlier, Troyanovsky and Vanden Heuvel had been splattered with red pain by Trotsky and Maoist supporters on the eve of May Day inside the Security Council, 1980.


WILLIAM VANDEN HEUVEL, FMR. DEPUTY AMB. TO U.N.: We were covered with this red paint and all of us furious because he was a man very well-dressed and in a cultivated manner, and he did not enjoy being seen as he was being seen at that moment.

But also, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) went over and took his arm and said let's just leave the chambers here and address this situation. Meanwhile, guards have come on the scene and tackled the people who had attacked us, and they were in custody.

And as I was walking away with Oleg, a reporter called out, "What did Ambassador Troyanovsky say to you, Ambassador Vanden Heuvel?"

And just on the spur of the moment, I said, "Better red than dead."


ROTH: For years, even up to the obituaries printed after Troyanovsky died, the line "Better red than dead," was attributed to the ambassador. Vanden Heuvel says it helped the Russia who claims he was later called the resident wit inside the Kremlin.

That's DIPLOMATIC LICENSE. I'm Richard Roth. Thanks for watching.



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