Subverting the Orientalist Image

In Hollywood movies, Islamic terrorists often replace the Soviet espionage agents of the Cold War era as cinematic villains. In this fearful post 9/11 political environment, however, neither Hollywood filmmakers nor American policymakers have paid much attention to the conditions that foster terrorism.

The George W. Bush Administration’s answer to the rhetorical question “why do they hate us” was simply that terrorists were envious of American freedom and prosperity. – Terrorism on Screen: Lessons from The Battle of Algiers, Ron Briley, October 2010

This can obviously be seen as an attempt to continue neo-colonial operations and vilify local resistance. Interestingly, many intriguing questions about the legacy of Western colonialism in the Middle East are engaged in The Battle of Algiers.
In this cinematic examination of the Algerian struggle for independence from French colonialism during the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pontecorvo exposes the ambiguous legacy of imperialism in Western efforts to combat indigenous resistance and terrorism. The film depicts the indigenous Algerians with significant depth and agency, revealing their motivations in ousting the French. The Italian filmmaker also suggests that French counterinsurgency tactics such as torture may have won the Battle of Algiers but eventually led to the failure of the French to maintain their colony in Algeria. There is a constant deconstruction of the colonial apparatus, and subversion of the orientalist image of the Algerians as uncivilised people in need of European leadership.
Pontecorvo exposes the stereotypes used to shape and dis-empower people of the ‘East’, with a scene revolving around the bombing of several public places by Algerian women. The French regard the Algerian women with fear and believe they lack agency, though when the women are disguised as French they are promptly sexualised. The same scene deals with the constructed notion of ‘a threat’ by the colonial apparatus, where the degree of threat is determined by the degree of resemblance to cultural caricatures. This of course proves to be fatal to the French.
Lastly Pontecorvo does not justify violence. We see the camera capture intimately the last moments of many of the victims on both sides. It also often beautifully captures the hesitation of many committing violence, depicting ultimately the extent to which a population needs to be pushed to descend to violence.


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