In many ways The Battle of Algiers has presented itself as a documentary. There are shots which could not possibly have been filmed in the moment, as when the self-styled freedom fighters are hiding behind a wall while the police search the house and the camera pans from one face to the next. Again, no camera man, no matter how influential, could have filmed both sides of a conflict so filled with hate (it is interesting that we never see a motive for the first of the attacks, we never see rancor, and we are left with something akin to understanding for all involved, which is a brilliant victory for Algerian propaganda); the camera flirts between a French colonel’s headquarters and the various homes of the Algerian rebels. In fact, upon reflection, it is hard to understand how such a movie could have the feel of a documentary, as it indeed does, and as I believe it is intended to have.
There are those elements which are absent which if they were present would bespeak a drama, and so their absence is helpful for not ruining the mood, even if they do not create it: there is no love interest, no slow motion shots of emotional angst, no demanded effect. But it is not the lack of dramatic influence which creates the mood, but that our understanding is intruded upon, that we are told to question whether this is a drama, by the barrier being broken between the camera and the people.
One intrusion, one rock removed from the foundation of our surety, is the unmasking of the drum beat we hear intermittently throughout the tense scenes following the beginnings of hostilities. We had believed it to be merely soundtrack (or just a racket), but it is given a source toward the end when in a tumultuous melee of a mob we catch the briefest glimpses of the drummer. This by no means relegates all the beating to the realm of the Algerians and out of the realm of soundtrack, for on many occasions there is no way the drums could be beating, and yet it is the source of some uneasiness concerning the narrative mood, and a revelation which jerks you suddenly into the midst of things and questions just how dramatized this film is.
The second instance is similar to the first: the quality of the shots, the camera’s ability to capture what it needs or wants to capture, the attention it asks you to pay to the one to whom attention ought to be paid, is too good for on-the-spot journalism. But here again a source, or in this instance, a counter-source, is given for the filming. You find yourself sitting with the French police watching film from hidden cameras at security checkpoints: the quality of the shots are superb; the focus is on the subject and the shots are even from nearly the same angle as the previous shots you’ve seen in ‘real time’; the subject stands out to the officers during the viewing, without them, however, having the least suspicion. So here we are shown film from within the movie, taken at the time, so to speak, and which is on par with the master-film itself, so why should we be so confident that this film is merely a drama? Because it has drumbeats and a little jazz motif playing instead of some French officer droning along in French?
The third is by far the most interesting, the least jarring, and takes place in the heart of the film, the scene which states the question at the heart of the film. Colonel Mathieu is holding a press conference and our camera is not out of place in the room, it belongs there along with all the reporters and microphones. This sense of belonging, for indeed it is nothing more, sets the stage for the most important statement of the film, upon which rest the whole import of the film (it is trying to give a message, and was produced, in fact, to do so), it does so with you sitting in a room full of other people also waiting with baited breath, and you find yourself also wondering with them (if you aren’t quite up on your history) what impact the speech will have on the outside world, particularly upon the U.N. …And so look at yourself, the outsider, the aloof moviegoer, now just one of the guys in the room, and looking around, as of course you do, you see others like you looking for the same answer and becoming frustrated by the same indirect questions about the use of force against the rebels.
This movie is exceptional in its unwillingness to explain the conflict. We are introduced to the uprising after the provocative stage and in some ways it ends before the cessation of hostilities. We are not meant to ask why this is happening and look to the past, but to ask why and look to the end. To put it bluntly, we are asked to excuse all means in deference to the end. The indiscriminate use of bombs and the police’s use of torture throw both parties under the same spotlight (and again, this very act of impartiality is a huge boon for the Algerians). In fact, I’m not sure this movie isn’t parasitically twisting the truth that if you truly desire an end you must will the proper means into a sometimes indistinguishable relativism.