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A Semiotic Analysis of the Battle Fo Algiers

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The Battle of Algiers, which was produced in 1966 and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is a film which explores the Algerian struggle for independence between 1954 and 1962. The film is constructed using a documentary style and was filmed on the actual locations where events unfolded. The Battle of Algiers is an example of neorealist filmmaking which purports to give an objective, realistic account of the battles waged between the FLN (National Liberation Front) rebels and the French military.

The formal elements of style which create the narrative can be examined using semiotic theory in order to better understand how the viewer can be interpellated into particular ideological positions. Interestingly, the ideal viewing position is not easily recognisable, which is why the film works well in striking a balance in presenting the points of views of combating sides. Semiotics refers to the study of and meaning created by ‘signs’, which are composed of ‘signifiers’ and their ‘signifieds’. Semiotic systems are culturally contingent; they appeal to and are informed by ideology (O’sullivan, Hartley, Saunders, Montgomery & Fiske, 2004).

Therefore, it may be significant to note that The Battle of Algiers is essentially a European production as the “key creative positions in the production of the film were occupied by Italians” (Wayne, 2001, p. 9). With this in mind, it would appear that the characterisations which are constructed through the combination of formal filmic conventions can be seen to position the viewer into considering the futility of continued political control over a colonised state, regardless of the viewer’s ideological point of view. Ostensibly, the characterisations of the combatants from the FLN and the French military are polarised opposites.

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The FLN rebels are less organised, poorly funded, less literate and rely on deception and terror to further their cause. Opposed to this, the French paratroopers are well organised, disciplined, calculating, brutal, and use torture and modern weaponry to counter the rebels. The character of Ali La-Pointe can be read as the embodiment of the FLN, whereas Colonel Philippe Mathieu can be read as the embodiment of the French military. La-Pointe is played by non-professional actor, Brahim Haggiag, “a real life petty criminal” (Odeh, 2004). On the other hand, Colonel Mathieu is played by the only professional in the cast, Jean Martin (Odeh, 2004).

La-Pointe is presented as being poorly educated and disenfranchised. His poor education is signified in the scene where he asks the boy messenger, Petit Omar, to read him a communication from FLN leader, Jaffar. Other signifiers of his poor education and low socio-economic status are his tatty clothing, unkempt appearance and lack of paid employment. La-Pointe is characterised as being ill-disciplined and short-tempered. This is signified clearly by La-Pointe punching a young Frenchman after he is called a ‘dirty Arab’. His past crimes, albeit petty, are signified by voiceover.

La-Pointe is also impulsive in his role as a rebel leader. He is impatient to fight the French military and does not see the sense in the more measured approach suggested by Jaffar. Whilst La-Pointe is not a model citizen and is not easy to sympathise with he is, however, characterised as being a strong leader, courageous and loyal to his cause. La-Pointe’s characterisation perhaps works to interpellate the viewer into a position which favours a bourgeois ideology, because La-Pointe’s rise to eminence within the FLN is seemingly more out of vengeance and revenge, rather than any political manoeuvring or prowess.

Ironically, this lack of political power which results in violence and terror adds authenticity to La-Pointe’s character and in so doing, his character positions the viewer to understand that the French hegemonic ideology is the root cause of the Arabs’ disenfranchisement. In contrast to La-Pointe, Colonel Mathieu is characterised as being intelligent, charismatic and disciplined; he is the embodiment of the French military and by extension the French culture. Mathieu is the most developed character in the film and this can be read as being metaphoric of the French culture’s supposed sophistication.

The mise-en-scene when Mathieu is parading down a large street along the seafront after being recruited to command the offensive against the FLN rebels is significant. Matheiu, a tall, sturdy, middle-aged man looks resplendent in full military uniform amidst cheering ‘French’ locals and is presented as the messiah like character. Tellingly though, it is the dark sunglasses, rolled up sleeves and unbuttoned shirt which give him an authentic and individual appearance; he appears to be a man of action and experience. The viewer is immediately positioned to sense that Mathieu’s arrival will coincide with a significant change in events in Algiers.

As the viewers’ expectations are played out they are positioned to sympathise with Mathieu’s point-of-view. When Mathieu first arrives in Algiers, he sets about systematically dismantling the resistance, however, he points out to his colleagues that not all of the Arabs are terrorists and that most do not present a threat at all (Odeh, 2002). This is signified by Mathieu saying: There are four hundred thousand Arabs in Algeria; are they all enemies? We know they are not. But a small minority hold sway by means of terror and violence (Pontecorvo, 1966).

He describes the organisational structure of the FLN, how they recruit members and why they are a considerable threat. This signifies Mathieu’s knowledge of military tactics and strategy, as well as his respect of the enemy. This respect for his enemy is also signified through the following quote: “It’s a dangerous enemy... using tried-and-true revolutionary methods as well as original tactics” (Pontecorvo, 1966). Although Mathieu is presented as being respectful of his adversaries, he is, on the other hand, ruthless and actively condones the use of torture.

His is an attitude of ‘win at all costs’ and the ‘end justifies the means’ approach. Mathieu euphemistically uses the word ‘interrogation’ for torture in order to gain intelligence to dismantle the FLN pyramid structure. As he emphatically puts it, the interrogation will be “conducted in such a way as to ensure we always get an answer” (Pontecorvo, 1966). When questioned about these tactics in a press conference, Mathieu justifies his tactics as being the lesser of two evils, and the only way to counter clandestine tactics such as setting off bombs in public places.

He is fully aware of the creation of a vicious cycle of terrorism and counterterrorism which highlights the complexity of the situation and the necessity for decisive actions. The viewer is positioned to sympathise with Mathieu’s persuasive rhetoric not only through his words but also because of the camera angles in this scene. The use of a low camera angle from the journalists’ perspective reinforces Mathieu as the dominant figure in the room and adds weight to his profound rhetoric.

Mathieu is also belligerent towards the hypocritical journalists who want the FLN defeated, but are critical of the methods employed. The mise-en-scene during the press conference shows the dominant figure Mathieu standing slightly in front of three military colleagues who are wearing stern expressions in a show of solidarity with their leader. They are flanked by a blackboard which shows a line graph with an upward trend. This could be read as signifying an upward trend in terrorist acts or bombings.

Throughout the press conference, Mathieu is in the centre of frame and stands bolt upright in a dominant fashion with hands on hips. The positioning of Mathieu as a powerful figure with courage and vigour sets him up as being a metaphoric representation of French pride. Mathieu sits down in a more relaxed fashion as he appeals to the journalists’ sense of pride. He states, “We’re neither madmen nor sadists” and reminds them of the “role many of us played in the resistance” (referring to WWII; Pontecorvo, 1966). In this powerful scene Mathieu is juxtaposed with the captured FLN commander Benjamin M’hidi.

M’hidi is questioned by a journalist about the use of terror tactics and is asked, “isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs which have taken so many innocent lives? ” (Pontecorvo, 1966). M’hidi replies by comparing these actions with the even more devastating effect from use of bomber planes and napalm, and suggests that he would swap the baskets for the bombers. This comment highlights the difference between the resources of the French and the FLN and by extension the difference between the wealth and infrastructure of the French Algerians compared with the much poorer and disenfranchised Algerian Natives.

The camera angles are higher when M’hidi is in shot and the reader is positioned to view him as less powerful than Mathieu; what’s more most of the journalists are also standing, making the camera angle similar when they are in view which works to present them as being equally important as M’hidi. The journalists and photographers are also rowdier and jostle for position signifying less respect for him. However, M’hidi who is clearly surrounded by such adversity is defiant; when asked if he thinks the FLN can defeat the French army, he poignantly suggests that they have a better chance of victory than the French have of changing history.

While M’hidi’s argument is compelling, it is Mathieu’s charisma which is most memorable in this scene as it is in most others in which he is involved. With this in mind, it could be argued that it is most likely that the viewer will be interpellated into the ideological position of bourgeois subject. The Battle of Algiers is very complex in its viewer positioning however, and while on the one hand it positions the viewer to respect Mathieu as an indomitable character with admirable intentions, this is somewhat countered by some negative racist traiting. Shortly after Mathieu’s arrival, it becomes clear that he has a racist attitude.

This is signified by his description of the Arabs as being “like rabbits in a cage” and is reinforced by the smirk on his face. When asked by the General, what he is calling the operation, he whimsically looks through a pair of binoculars and sees a sign by the shipping dock which says “drink Champagne. ” He then informs the general that he will call the operation ‘Champagne’. This use of the word ‘champagne’ is metaphoric of the hegemonic rise of the French culture being imparted upon the Algerians, especially given the fact that the sign is at a dock yard symbolising the foreign influence being transported from abroad.

However, Mathieu’s racist attitude is somewhat tempered throughout the film. This is signified in the scene where FLN commander, Jaffar, is captured in a seemingly inevitable fashion as the FLN are being systematically destroyed by the French paratroopers; while Mathieu escorts Jaffar in a vehicle he admits that he’d “have hated to have blown you all up” (Pontecorvo, 1966). Mathieu explains that he has had Jaffar’s picture on his desk for months and he felt like he knew him a bit.

He also signifies his admiration in a subtle manner by telling Jaffar: “You don’t strike me as the kind for empty gestures” (Pontecorvo, 1966). Mathieu does not demonstrate any animosity towards Jaffar and the only satisfaction he finds in his capture is through the achievement of his military objective. This complex traiting is significant, given that Mathieu works, in a broad sense, as a metonym of the French military and government; it shows that even the most admirable of characters is not truly existential in nature.

He is still a subject of the French ideology, and therefore when surrounded by colleagues he assumes the racist persona. However, when he is interacting on a one-on-one basis with Jaffar, he is able to express empathy for his prisoner. What this highlights is the difficulty in effecting political change as a subject of the dominant ideology. It is significant that the film works to develop the character of Mathieu while neglecting the development of any other ‘French’ characters. In contrast to this, several Arab characters are at least partially developed, albeit not as well crafted or nuanced in their presentation.

This can be seen as symbolic of the opposing ideologies at work. Mathieu who represents the force of the dominant ideology is an empowered character who is allowed to express himself and has the support of the educated, wealthy French colonialists. In contrast, the main Arab characters including FLN Leaders La-Pointe, Jaffar, M’hidi and boy messenger Petit Omar are less developed, but in so doing appear to be more ‘archetypal’ and representative of typical characters who inhabit the poverty-stricken Casbah.

This sets up an ‘us versus them’ dichotomy in terms of ideological positions. The less-dominant Arabic ideology is becoming more powerful and is reflected in more characters performing a powerful role for change. In contrast, the dominant French ideology is lessening in strength as the French colonialists are seen to be more ambivalent towards change. This is understandable as they are wealthier and have more political power. The French military finally win the battle in 1957 by capturing or killing all the FLN leaders.

Ultimately though, it is the native Algerians who win their independence. The film finishes by depicting the large scale demonstrations which occurred two years later, which (according to the French press) appeared unexpectedly and originated in the mountains. Many unarmed Arabs are killed by the French military during the demonstrations but the Arabs continue to demonstrate and march for ten days, chanting and waving flags. The flags are an obvious signifier of unity, pride and a hope for independence.

The film ends with one of the more powerful images of the film; an Arab woman is holding a flag whilst dancing and yelling at the French military in obvious defiance. She has a determined, almost hypnotised expression on her face. This powerful mise-en-scene with the woman being backed by hundreds of demonstrators defiant in the face of powerful suppression foreshadows an inevitable change of politics after another two years of struggle. The words of Benjamin M’hidi seem even more profound by the end of the film: you cannot change the course of history (Pontecorvo, 1966).


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