.The Bitter Past

BAMPFA series tells stories from Algeria’s war of national liberation

Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers is generally recognized as the most important film about the Algerian War (1954-1962), a thrillingly realistic re-enactment of true events. However, it’s not the only film to cover the furious conflict between Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN) and France, which led to the decolonization of Algeria and seemingly endless political reverberations.

In addition to echoing Pontecorvo’s urgency and cultural meaning, “The Algerian War of Independence: Cinema as History” film series—now playing at the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)—provides valuable perspective on today’s turbulent world situation, in its accounts of North African people breaking away from their European colonial masters. 

Alain Tasma’s documentary, October 17, 1961, recounts in chilling first-person detail the events in the streets of Paris on that date, when French National Police engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat with FLN commandos—precipitated by a peaceful protest against police repression, but evidently anticipated behind the scenes by anti-Arab cops looking for revenge after terrorist attacks on them.

The “Paris Massacre of 1961”—taking place in the seventh year of the Algerian War—was personal for many of the combatants. The war had come home, pitting stressed-out police against hardened revolutionaries. Declared one FLN member: “The more the French feel the war, the more they’ll want peace.” Casualty estimates (including victims drowned after being thrown into the Seine) are still officially unconfirmed, and the incident was banned from French history books for more than 40 years. Tasma’s demoralizing yet essential doc screens Feb. 10.

The 1992-2001 British TV documentary, Drowning by Bullets, a virtual companion piece to October 17, 1961, ups the ante on that real-life recounted violence, as survivors of police murder squads describe the mayhem—torture chambers, piles of corpses on street corners, “disappeared” suspects, news reporters warned away, camerapersons arrested, etc. 

“Daily brutality” of colonial France arrived to a news blackout. No investigation, no inquiry, no historical record. All this reflected the irony of “French civilization,” according to witnesses interviewed by filmmakers Philip Brooks and Alan Hayling. 

Drowning by Bullets is part of a double feature on Feb. 12, alongside In Mansourah, You Separated Us, an exposé of the French army’s resettlement camps in the dry, rocky hills of Algeria’s Kabylia region during the war of liberation, where some 2.3 million suspected “bandits” (aka freedom fighters) had been forcibly sent into internal exile. Filmmaker Dorothée Myriam Kellou’s 2019 documentary investigation gathers testimony from victims of napalm attacks, as well as from villagers fenced in by barbed wire and exposed to cholera.

In one especially wrenching scene, a witness interrupts his remembrances to go behind a crumbled wall and weep. Another settler offers this succinct rationale for anti-colonialism: “A culture that does not defend itself is a lost culture.” Quite aside from everything else, Kellou’s film is a splendid piece of ethnography.

The Algerian War discombobulated France’s pop culture as thoroughly as its politics. One of the earliest filmmakers to feel the heat was director Jean-Luc Godard, who was already a critical sensation (Breathless) by the time Le Petit Soldat, his splintered spy-flick riff on the Algerian conflict, hit theaters in 1963—shot in 1960, French censors had delayed its release out of political timidity. 

Somewhat of an after-dinner mint compared to the other films in the BAMPFA series (although it contains its own sorrow and pity), the story of a callous government anti-terrorist hit person (Michel Subor) mixed up with a leftist woman (Anna Karina, Godard’s wife) is a gorgeous blast of cool black-and-white modernity, with the necessary slice of barbarism. This screens Feb. 17. 

Also in the retrospective and likewise recommended: Algeria, Year Zero (1962), a documentary on newly-freed Algeria’s post-colonial reconstruction, directed by Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Jean-Pierre Sergent (Feb. 19); Michael Haneke’s 2005 allegorical drama Caché (Feb. 24); and The Undeclared War, Bertrand Tavernier’s four-hour documentary wrap-up of the conflict and its effect on ordinary civilians (Feb. 26).

At BAMPFA through Feb. 26 

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