Echoes of the Algerian War of Independence on Cinema

Echoes of the Algerian War of Independence on Cinema

Algeria celebrated the 67th anniversary of November 1, 1954, the day which the National Liberation Front (FLN) initiated its war of independence against French colonialism, at a juncture in which the relations between the two countries are once again strained.

French President Emmanuel Macron was the main focus of criticism after he tried to involve Turkey in the issue over its Ottoman past, by saying “Was there an Algerian nation before French colonization? There were some previous colonizers. I am fascinated to see Turkey’s ability to make people totally forget the role it played in Algeria and the domination it has exercised, and to explain that we are the only colonizers” on October 2, Algerian airspace was closed to French airplanes. “Macron’s remarks are an unacceptable insult to the memory of over 5.63 million martyrs who sacrificed themselves with a valiant resistance against French colonialism between 1830 and 1962,” a statement on behalf of Algerian President Abdelmedjid Tebboune said.

The North African nation of Algeria, which came under Ottoman rule back in the 16th century, was later on occupied by French forces in 1830, and the colonial era began under the rule of a military governor general. Soon after the invasion, more than 100 thousand westerners moved into this country to exploit its natural resources. The freedom movements that sparked in the middle of the 20th century gradually turned into a war of independence.

France, which had lost its war in Vietnam between 1946 to 1954 immediately after the end of the Second World War and had to withdraw all its powers from Indochina and recognize the independence of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, also fought a brutal war against Algerian revolutionary forces between 1954 to 1962. A 500,000-strong military force was gathered in Algeria, the resistance movement was violently suppressed and torture was being applied systematically, but the Algerian independence of July 1, 1962 could not be prevented.

It is also possible to see the reflections of this whole process through the art of cinema. The development of Algerian cinema also includes the history of the path to revolution for independence and freedom, and many films of the period reflect this.

Cinema under colonialist control

Algeria’s introduction to the art of cinema begins with Felix Mesguich, one of the cinema operators of the famous Lumiere Brothers. Born in Algeria in 1871 and died in France in 1949, Mesguich was known for his footage of various countries, including his home country of Algeria and even Turkey. Mesguich put his name on the history books as the filmmaker who filmed the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896, and also as the person who made the world’s first commercial advertisement.

Like in many other colonial territories, cinema in Algeria also remained under the control of the ruling nation for many years, and was stuck to strict ideological-aesthetic directives. The 1928 film “Le Bled” by Jean Renoir, famous as one the masters of French cinema, is a typical example of this situation. The film, which was about a French young lady who inherits her uncle’s properties in Algeria and her struggle with her jealous cousins, and the love affairs she had been into, simply offered a stereotypical exotic romance in this regard. Another famous French director, Julien Duvivier’s “Pepe Le Moku” (1937), gave the same stereotypical exotic atmosphere in the Algerian décor in-labyrinth alike Moorish neighborhoods as part of a gangster adventure. Two American films named “Algiers,” (1938) directed by John Cromwell, and “Casbah” (1948) by John Berry have also left their impressions as stereotypical examples of the Western perspective over Algeria.

Rene Vautier and militant cinema

In Algeria, where no local production was carried out during this time period, the first examples of Algerian national cinema could only be brought up in the process of revolution. A significant name stands out during this period: Rene Vautier.

Vautier (1928-2015), a militant filmmaker who was also a member of the French Communist Party, was known for his films that emphasizes the French colonialism, racism, the horrors of war and women’s rights in Africa, and for his films facing bans and censorship, and even taking a prison sentence for a year for the contents of his films. The cinema school he established as a branch of the National Liberation Front (FLN) in 1957, gave birth to a significant transformation in Algeria. Being the son of a factory worker father and a teacher mother, Vautier joined the French Resistance Movement during the World War II when he was just 15 years old, and received an medal of honor from Charles De Gaulle while also studying cinema. Vautier, whose 1958 short film “Saki et Sidi Youcef” reflected the realities of a small Tunisian village bombed by French airplanes, also made a film where he documented the daily lives of the revolutionaries, their clashes with the French colonial troops, the ambushes they prepare, and the bomb attack of a train in his 1959 film “Algérie en Flammes”, a film that got a lot of attention.

The birth of the Algerian national cinema

In Algeria, where a cinema directorate of the provisional government was established in 1960 and a radio-television institution is properly established in 1962, the documentary film made in the same year called “Yasmina” by Mohammed Lakhdar Hamina (one of the pioneers of national cinema and educated in Prague) showed footage of a little girl whose parents were killed by French bombers.

The year 1964 marked a significant turning point for the Algerian cinema. Movie theaters were nationalized, the Algerian Cinema Center (Centre Algérien de la Cinématographie) was opened, the Algerian Cinematheque was established with the contribution of Henri Langlois (born in Izmir, modern day Turkey), the founding-director of the French Cinematheque (along with the contributions of the cinematheques of the USSR, Bulgaria and Poland) were a massive influence on the country’s cultural prospect. The nationalization of American, British and French distributor companies in the same period, putting cinema under full state control, also paved the way for Algerian filmmakers of the time.

The first fictional film produced by the Algerian Cinema Center, “Une Si Jeune Paix” (1964) was a film about the efforts of the children of those martyred in the war of independence, to compel them to keep up with the new society. “Night Is Afraid of the Sun” (al-Layl’ Yakhaf al-Shams 1965), directed by Mustafa Badi, takes a perspective on the social contradictions of the revolutionary period. Hamini’s “Winds of Aures” (Rīḥ al-Awras 1965), in which he took a perspective of love and hope as part of the story of a family torn-apart in battle, won the best first film award at Cannes Festival, making it the first major international success of the Algerian national cinema. In “Dawn of the Damned” (L’aube des Damnes, 1965), director Ahmed Rashid used only amateur actors to showcase criticism for the colonization of Africa with a harsh narrative and accusatory language while also offering a striking political message on African identity.

Pontecorvo and the echoes of the “Algerian War”

Algerian filmmakers have not given up criticizing French society, while also revealing their own realities. Ahmed Rachedi’s film “Ali in Wonderland” (Ali au Pays des Mirages, 1980) takes a perspective on how the Algerian workers who went to find a job in France were humiliated in this country, while also displaying the perspectives of both the oppressed and the oppressor in every aspect. The 1960s can be described as the “golden age” of Algerian cinema. This period was dominated by films that emphasized that the Algerian people had managed to form their own nation, that Islam originally opposed colonialism and fundamentalism, and that advocated for the national unity of the country and emphasized patriotism.

On the other hand, the film that had the greatest success in the commemoration of the Algerian war of independence and the victory all over the world, was the Italian-Algerian co-production “The Battle of Algiers” (La Battaglia di Algeri, 1966), directed by Gillo Pontecorvo. “The Battle of Algiers” won the Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival,becoming a classic displaying the Algerian people’s revolution against the colonial overlords and the causes and methods of the war with an exciting narrative, reflecting the story of a nation that wanted to achieve its freedom and independence, without featuring any well-known actors.

Taboo of French cinema: Algeria

During all this time, things that happened in Algeria were a kind of taboo in France where a major movement like the New Wave in the art of cinema was born, and a remarkable silence was present in the industry. The Alain Resnais film “Muriel” (Muriel ou le Temps d’un retour, 1963) took the first step by reflecting the guilt of the young French soldier who returned from Algeria with a mental disorder, and the story of the young girl who was tortured to death as a side story. “They have a revolution they are chasing after, but what are we going to chase after when we get back to France?” the young man asks in the film, trying to tell the story of the young girl who was a victim of colonialism in the documentary film, but his fellow comrade’s warning is also quite touching: “This is not a story that can be told.”

Even the quote “One of the patrols ambushed last night, three soldiers died” by a French soldier was seen as a bold thing to show in Jacques Demy’s musical melodrama made one year after Muriel, named “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, 1964), which is about a young car mechanic who left his lover and went to Algeria for two years to fight.

Finally, let us talk about the film “Far from Men” (Loin Des Hommes, 2014) which is an adaptation of the story of famous Algerian-born writer-thinker Albert Camus, whose famous novel “The Stranger” with its Algerian décor, was adapted to cinema by Luchino Visconti in 1968. Directed by David Oelhoffen, the French film described the physical and spiritual journey of a teacher who once served in the French army, who was tasked with handing over a prisoner to the military officials during the Algerian war of independence. The film was described as an expression of Camus’s subconscious, who is known to not have taken a clear stance against colonialism.

Tunca Arslan

Journalist (Türkiye), served as a jury member at many national and international film festivals, became the president of the Cinema Writers Association (SIYAD) between 2010-2013, where he previously served as a member of the board for three terms. He worked as the editor for the Dogan Publishing House (2009-2014) and Kirmizi Kedi Publishing House (2014-2018). Columnist in Aydinlik Newspaper and in Kaynak Publishing House

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May 2024