By: Hannah Byrne, Guest Contributor
Photo by: filmforum.org
The film The Battle of Algiers is dangerous because it challenges the assumed objectivity of binary distinctions[i] between state and non-state actors. In order to do so, Director Gillo Pontecorvo applies a feminist critique of the Battle of Algiers, which, according to Cynthia Enloe, is “more realistic” because feminist frameworks do not attempt to simplify the complex order of international relations.[ii] Instead, feminist scholarship challenges the lingual binaries that privilege states over non-state actors.[iii] States, on the other hand, deliberately construct and reinforce binaries in order to analogize the state versus non-state dynamic to counterterrorist versus terrorist, rational versus irrational, moral versus immoral, and legitimate versus illegitimate. The problem with these binaries is that they are reductive and subjective. They fail to account for the complexity of international bodies, while arbitrarily reinforcing state-centric biases. The Battle of Algiers acknowledges these insufficiencies by committing equal attention to French- and National Liberation Front (FLN)-perpetrated atrocities. In its critique of the state’s parsimonious claim on legitimacy, it offers a unique perspective on terrorists’ nature, motives, and methods—ultimately suggesting that French state was not so different than the “terrorists” whom it so vehemently condemned.
The first binary The Battle of Algiers complicates is the counterterrorist versus the terrorist. Boaz Ganor argues that states cannot be terrorists; instead they can be war criminals.[iv] This argument is as laughable as The Kuala Lumpur War Crimes Commission’s convictions of George W. Bush and his administration officials of war crimes.[v] The difference between terrorist and war criminal is clear: the former can be indefinitely detained and tortured; the latter will likely never see the inside of a cell.[vi] As Grant Wardlaw explains, “terrorism” is purposefully arbitrary and pejorative.[vii] This indicates a problematic causal relationship: the state employs the term terrorist to its own benefit rather than according to a priori definition. John Pilger argues, “when the powerful were routinely attacking and terrorizing the weak, and those dying were black or brown-skinned non-people living in faraway places…there was no terrorism. When the weak attacked the powerful…there was terrorism.”[viii] The Battle of Algiers highlights this hypocrisy. It shows French authorities executing FLN commanders at will, holding their sympathizers without trial, and using brutal torture techniques. Despite admitting to these war crimes, France banned the screening of The Battle of Algiers until five years after its release date, which reflects just how threatening challenges to the binary are to the state.
The second binary the film challenges is the rational state versus the irrational terrorist. Terrorism scholarship still largely deprives terrorist movements of the rationality that states assume. The entire sub-field of terrorism scholarship dedicated to ascertaining a psychological rationale for terrorism is inherently biased because it presupposes that terrorists are psychologically exceptional from state soldiers, to include those who choose to fight for states that commit egregious human rights violations. Jerrold Post goes as far as to say that terrorists pursue violence as “a way to destroy the demon within.”[ix] He claims that for terrorists, violence is the end in itself.[x] This completely ignores any legitimate political grievances or ideologies that terrorists may have—say, for example, the desire for political sovereignty and territorial integrity.[xi]
The Battle of Algiers, by contrast, supports rational-actor theories. Georgetown Professor Bruce Hoffman notes that groups like the FLN resort to terrorism because of its “asymmetric virtues,” meaning the ability to compete with conventionally stronger forces through civilian targeting and hit-and-run tactics.[xii] The film portrays these tactics as a temporary means, not an end, to achievable objectives. For example, once the FLN had rallied the Algerians to go on strike, they ordered their soldiers to cease all violent attacks. This signified the desire to shift toward more peaceful tactics when it became feasible. One FLN officer explained to a blood-thirsty soldier that “wars aren’t won with terrorism…neither wars nor revolutions,” reaffirming that terrorism was merely a temporary means.[xiii] Furthermore, the FLN’s strike coincided with the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, which reflected the FLN’s objective of garnering international sympathy. Pontecorvo artfully concludes the film with the echoes of Algerian protests in the years following the Battle of Algiers. This contrast to the previous scenes in which FLN leadership is executed suggests that while the French won the Battle of Algiers, the FLN won the war. This suggestion is particularly dangerous to the state because it implies that not only can terrorism be rational and justified, but also effective.
The most controversial aspect of The Battle of Algiers is its promotion of moral equivalency. While the French claimed that the film was biased, Pontecorvo actually rejected the original screenplay written by director and FLN commander Saadi Yacef in order to pursue an objective account.[xiv] Pontecorvo shows both the inhumane brutality of the FLN—who employed mass-casualty attacks on innocents and gunned down civilians in the street—as well as the horrors of French colonial rule and counterterrorism response. In one scene, French General Jacques Massu’s character asks a crowd of French journalists, “Should France remain in Algeria? If you answer ‘yes,’ you must accept all the necessary consequences.”[xv] This one line reflects France’s blatant disregard for international law, its apathy toward proportionality and discrimination, and its strategic use of fear—notably all characteristics that have been used to define terrorists.
The terrorist, rational, and moral binaries grant states a monopoly on legitimacy, exemplified by France’s refusal to acknowledge the FLN’s grievances. Near the end of the film, when the protagonist chooses death over negotiated surrender, he remarks, “I do not negotiate with them [the French].” It is ironic that he invokes this principle against the state, which often refuses to negotiate with terrorists out of fear of legitimizing their violence. The purpose of the line is to provoke reconsideration of who is afforded the privilege of legitimacy, and who makes this decision. This is ultimately why feminist critiques like The Battle of Algiers are so threatening; they aggravate the state’s assumed monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In the spirit of feminist critical analysis, we must acknowledge that state and non-states alike belong not on a binary, but rather on a spectrum. In doing so we can privilege the truth, as opposed to the state.
[i] According to Tickner, a binary is a set of two opposing terms. All language is binary, with one term always being privileged over the other.
[ii] Cynthia Enloe, interview by Alex Stark, E-International Relations, March 13, 2013, http://www.e-ir.info/2013/03/13/interview-cynthia-enloe/.
[iii] Ann Tickner, Gender in International Relations: Feminist Perspectives on Achieving Global Security (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 7.
[iv] Boaz Ganor, “Defining Terrorism: Is One Man’s Terrorist Another Man’s Freedom Fighter?,” Police Practice and Research 3, no. 4 (2002): 289, https://campus.georgetown.edu/bbcswebdav/pid-4372228-dt-content-rid-7328535_1/courses/SEST-546-02.Fall2017/Ganor%20-%20Defining%20Terrorism.pdf.
[v] Yvonne Ridley, “Bush Convicted of War Crimes in Absentia,” Foreign Policy Journal, May 12, 2012, https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2012/05/12/bush-convicted-of-war-crimes-in-absentia/.
[vi] State immunity to international convictions is usually a privilege of the strong; different rules may apply to weaker states.
[vii] Grant Wardlaw, Political Terrorism Theory, tactics, and counter-measures (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 5-6.
[ix] Jerrold M. Post, “Terrorist Psycho-Logic: Terrorist behavior as a product of psychological choices,” in Origins of Terrorism, ed. Walter Reich (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1998), 26.
[x] Ibid; 35.
[xi] Political sovereignty and territorial integrity are significant because they are (1) according to Michael Walzer’s account of Just War Theory, fundamental rights that can justly be defended violently and (2) arguably the very rights for which the Algerians were fighting in their anti-colonialist struggle.
[xii] Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 5.
[xiii] The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966), DVD.
[xiv] Peter Matthews, “The Battle of Algiers: Bombs and Boomerangs,” in The Battle of Algiers booklet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD release (2004): 7.
[xv] The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo (1966), DVD.