The most disturbing aspect of viewing Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers half a century after its release is how familiar the images of the civil conflict involving Western soldiers in an Arab country now feel.
The strange sense of familiarity kicks in from the very beginning, a small, dingy cell where white men in military uniform stand over an Arab male. The traumatised look on his face tells us the Arab has been tortured. That he has given his captors information against his will only adds to the pain and shame etched on his bruised features. His captors dress him in one of their uniforms and take him as they raid an apartment block, no doubt based on the information he has revealed. The soldiers identify a hidden section in one of the apartments where two men, a woman and a child hide. The soldiers wire it with explosives and threaten to detonate unless those hiding surrender.
A decade and a half of reportage on the West’s military involvement in the Arab world, particularly post the mass circulation of images from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, and their pop culture reflection in countless movies and television series give Pontecorvo’s chilling iconography of civil strife and military repression an almost everyday feel. Anyone who follows the news has seen images of barbwire checkpoints, with nervous soldiers overseeing Arab civilians; detainment and torture; and traumatised and bloodied civilians in the aftermath of another bombing.