The Battle of Algiers

The screening of Saadi Yacef and Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers at the French Institute in South Kensington on 12th May 2007 was extraordinary. A projected 35mm re-mastered print of the film captivated the audience bringing parallels for many to the war in Iraq and the city of Baghdad and Basra. Even after its first release in 1966, the film brings a lump in your throat highlighting the travesty of French colonial rule and the indignity and humiliation of occupation.

Written as a memoir, Saadi Yacef has approached Pontecorvo to turn his writings into a film. Yacef took on the role of co-producer, making much of the shoot possible and also acted in the film as Djafar. Banned by the French, the film went on to win the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. Over the years, the film has been instrumental in inspiring directors around the world, including Oliver Stone and Michael Haneke.

Present at the screening were Zafira Saadi, daughter of Saadi Yacef and Yamina Benguigui, the French-Algerian woman film director internationally known for her films on issues concerning women and the migrant community in France. She is also credited with being the first French-Algerian woman to have directed a feature film.

Zafira Saadi spoke on behalf of her father Saadi Yacef who could not attend due to poor health. She spoke about growing up with the film as a child as Yacef regularly projected the film – words like “long live Algiers” were one of the first phrases that she learnt.

Zafira also talked about how not enough credit is given to Saadi Yacef for making the film happen – so in many ways the screening was about putting that right. If it were not for Yacef we would not have The Battle of Algiers. Yacef’s main interest was to bring the true struggle of Algerians to the world – hence his memoirs and since then he’s has concentrated on writing political works. You can see a clip of an interview of Yacef at Maiden Voyage Pictures.

Yamina discussed the influence of The Battle of Algiers, although born during the struggles; the collective memory of the film came to her very quickly – citing Pontecorvo as an inspiration to the kinds of films that she would want to make. Yamina remains one of a handful of Arab women filmmakers and is highly regarded by the Arab community.

An important film, which is still being viewed by a huge cross-section of audiences from the Pentagon, Hollywood through to academics and culturalists, the film remains timeless. Gillo Pontecorvo’s visualisation and direction is astounding – his collaboration with Ennio Morricone on the sound track through to complex crowd scenes still hold the viewer spellbound. Saadi Yacef’s motivations are clear – to bring to the world the true predicament of the struggles of Algeria against the racist and cruel occupation of the French.

A pity that The French Institute didn’t recognise the importance of the film – the screening was a shambles – and it seemed hardly any publicity had been done by the institute. The staff were appalling – microphones were not working – and the engineer kept on tripping over wires and trying to make things work whilst Zafira and Yamina stood patiently by to introduce the film. Five minutes into the screening of the film, the engineers decided to turn the stage lights on obscuring the projection where only the sound could be heard – and it took a further 5 minutes to turn them off. After the screening Zafira and Yamina came onto the stage again – again the microphones were not working – and for some inexplicable reason the cinema staff and I imagine along with the engineers decided to have a very loud conversation – disturbing the speakers and the audience despite requests to stop their chatter. I would hate to read too much into this shambles and consign it to the staff having had drunk too much the night before and not preparing for the screening – obviously they didn’t consider the film important enough to warrant a good job – despite the fact that the world considers The Battle of Algiers as one of the master-pieces of cinema.

However, the film is released in over 14 screens in London and can be viewed through out May to June; in professional theatres where due respect will be given to one of the greatest films of our time.

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