When all that is reported of a political conflict is in dealings of terror — of violence on each side — it often becomes difficult to decipher who was right and who was wrong; all we see is red. Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 critically-acclaimed film The Battle of Algiers does well to depict these ethical ambiguities, wherein one side is certainly oppressed (and one the oppressor), but the measures taken to alter this relation seem horrific and morally questionable at best, leaving the viewer unsure of their stance on the would-be ‘heroes’ of the film. While the degree of brutality depicted in the film is not easy to excuse, Frantz Fanon, in his 1961 book The Wretched of The Earth, is able to offer some insight as to the role violence plays in political conflicts rooted in colonialism (such as that between the French and the people of Algiers). By tracing the theme of violence (the inevitability of violence, the escalation of violence and the art of violence) in The Battle of Algiers as well as in Frantz Fanon’s chapter “On National Culture” from The Wretched of The Earth, we can come to a better enlightened understanding of the struggle of colonized peoples against inherently oppressive colonizing forces.
There is no room for doubt as to the inevitability of violence in The Battle of Algiers; the world of the film is immediately permeated with it: the opening scene takes place directly after a long period of torture against a member of the FLN by French forces, and the following scene includes the beheading of an FLN fighter in prison. Fanon’s philosophy, however, makes this inevitability very clear: the soul of colonialism is defined by violence. At its most essential, Colonialism “sees that it is not within its powers to put into practice a project of economic and social reforms with will satisfy the aspirations of the colonized people. Even where food supplied are concerned, colonialism gives proof of its inherent incapability”, but even beyond the violence of invasion and starvation of a people, there is psychological violence at play (208). Fanon writes: “Colonialism is not satisfied merely with… emptying the native’s brain of all form and content… it turns to the past of the oppressed people and distorts, disfigures, and destroys it”, and, shortly thereafter, “The effect consciously sought by colonialism was to drive into the native’s head the idea that if the settlers were to leave, they would at once fall back into barbarism, degradation, and bestiality.” (210, 211). The threat of colonialism is the threat of erasure, the threat of total dependence on an abusive force, and the threat of death. Colonial Matthieu himself agrees that violence is a “necessary consequence” of the mantenation of colonies in an address to unsettled French journalists (The Battle of Algiers). Since colonialism itself is violence, for Fanon the only proper response is counter-violence. It is expected, for example, in the escalation of the native intellectual’s arc, where first he is assimilated to the colonizing culture, then recognizes and rejects his assimilation — his natural final solution is to take up arms to act against the colonizing force (222).
As the conflict continues, as the threat of colonialism worsens, the violence within it escalates. There is a clear and linear general escalation of violence between the two sides in the film: first there is an execution, then several individual shootings of French policemen, followed by a single bombing of civilian homes in Casbah by Frenchmen, and finally three bombs are planted by Algerian women (as part of the FLN) in a diner, a dance club, and an airport. On one side, the will of the oppressed peoples to fight for liberation grows as the result of a shared identity, while on the other side motivations are escalated by racism. The racism of the French is evidenced by two scenes in particular: one wherein an innocent homeless man is blamed for the murder of a police officer purely on the basis that he is Arabic (the French men and women call him a “Filthy Arab” as he tries to get away), and one in which the chaotic aftermath of an explosion at a French racetrack causes several Frenchmen to swarm and attack an Arabic child working there, saying, “Bastard! You’ll pay for the others!” (The Battle of Algiers). Fanon does not comment on the escalation of racism so much as its counterpart in the racialization of the oppressed people, which motivates them toward violent action. Fanon writes that Colonialism strives to “plant deep in the minds of the native population the idea that before the advent of colonialism their history was one which was dominated by barbarism”, so, naturally, the oppressed population must create a cultural worth and civility where their oppressors said there was none, and to accomplish this they must “take up against the heritage of the past and to bring it to culmination” (213). This heritage, however, is a dead culture; and the violence that culminates in the death of the culture pales in comparison to the violence that attempts to reanimate it.
Both Fanon and Pontecorvo also offer commentary on violence as an art. Fanon’s is more subtle — he does not discuss strategy for attack at all, but instead comments on the craftsmanship of conflict. He opens his chapter “On National Culture” by saying: “Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” (206). Should the generation choose to fulfill its mission, then they must utilize the resources they have in their time to do so to the best of their ability; he says of the generation before him: “They fought as well as they could, with the arms that they possessed then…” (207). For the Algerians in one particular sequence of The Battle of Algiers, the arms they have available to them are bombs small enough to be transported in baskets, and the patriarchy. A misogynistic patriarchy assumes that women are docile and cannot represent a threat; even watching the footage back with Colonel Matthieu, the Algerian women who are allowed to pass through the security checkpoint unexamined are not identified as potential perpetrators — only flirted with by guards. Here, the FLN are using the subversion of the expectations of the French to carry out the most violent series of events featured in the film.
While the violence depicted in The Battle of Algiers remains exceptionally horrific, Frantz Fanon’s theory in “On National Culture” regarding the ways in which violence must figure into the conflict between a colonized nation and its colonizers is helpful in the aim of understanding the psychology behind the actions of each armed force. It does not make the actions palatable, but it does clear up some of the ambiguities as to who is in the ‘right’ and who is in the ‘wrong’ — if there can be right and wrong amongst ‘necessary’ bloodshed.