Question: It is often easy to think of innocence and guilt as clear opposites, as different as day and night. However, many of the texts and films we have studied raise questions about this opposition, suggesting that their differences may not be quite so stark. In your paper, discuss how a particular work complicates conventional ideas of innocence. You might consider the role of women or children in combat, or the differences between civilians and soldiers. Or, you might consider the ways in which individuals are held responsible for the actions of their nations and governments, or for the actions of those they hold dear (family members, lovers, etc.). Remember to pay attention to elements beyond plot and character, such as textual structure, textual repetition and tension, camera angle, light, and sound.
Answer: The Battle of Algiers is a great film with deep social and psychological effects it bears on the audience. With its powerful direction and technical strengths, such as camera, light, and sound, the film mainly focuses on the ways by which guilt and innocence become blurred in the path of achieving a necessary purpose: Freedom. The world has long sung songs for innocence to be an ideal state for peace. Women and children have historically found a central place in this narrative. However, by critiquing The Battle of Algiers, it could be argued that when faced with a significant purpose like freedom, innocence of people (men, women, and children) becomes blurred with guilt. This argument would be supported by discussing many a technique Pontecorvo has used to problematize this conflict by focusing on technical areas of the film, light, sound, camera work, and by highlighting the deep psychological effects different scenes bear on the audience asking them to follow Pontecorvo’s lead.
The effective construction of the central thesis of this essay, whether the film complicates the conventional ideas of innocence and guilt can be achieved by focusing particularly on the roles of women and children in the film and the strategies Pontecorvo has used to convey this conflicting mortality to us. In this connection, throughout, the film convinces me that the ideals of innocence and guilt are so much mixed up together that it is very difficult to say who is innocent and who is guilty. The film problematizes this aspect, in particular, given the fact that women played a vital role in Algiers’ struggle for independence. For example, in the very first scene in which La Casbah is panoramically framed, the FLN charter of demand runs in the background and a lot of children are shown sitting, moving, and running. One much younger child is shown running and the camera remains on him for quite a few seconds. At the same time, the charter of demand by FLN reads: “Algerians, it is your duty to save your country and restore its liberty” [07:43]. The director successfully portrays that these children are an integral part of the struggle, and we see that they are present in at least all the major scenes in the film either supporting the FLN gorillas or playing their aid.
Further critical analysis suggests that this short but abrupt start depicts multifarious layers of feelings and relays subtle messages for the viewer to create their own meaning out of what they see. The camera movement is slow, avoids close-ups, and mixes this scene with that of a documentary like haphazardness to offer us a mixture of feeling that what we see is not a film but probably a depiction of some real life events and the little children shown in tattered clothes, though so innocent, would be affected by the horrible reality of life: The struggle of freedom would ask them to discard their innocence. Similarly, the long, documentary-like lenses to capture the Algiers physical setting (streets, alleys, stairs, houses, the French quarters, etc.) are combined with a very similar focus on a number of fighting, shooting, and raiding scenes to produce an effect of a documentary made by someone present there in all the mayhem. Quite a few scenes of this seemingly documentary-like film show women and children taking active part in the struggle for independence. They help the rebels by being informers, vocalists, spies, and practical fighters losing their innocence in the process.
For example, when Ali is approached by a teenage child to relay the first FLN message, there are many younger children (of different ages) focused and sharply contrasted with this boy. The message is quite clear: As soon as the children start to think and act sanely, they will become part of this resistance thus leaving aside the most important aspect of their life, innocence.
More importantly, the light in the film uses high contrasts. Being a black and white film, this sharp contrasting between black and white is helpful for Pontecorvo to add the psychological dimensions of a situation (a gorilla attack or a reaction by the French paratroopers), and, oftentimes, complicated scenes take place in the dark to arouse the deeply striking psychological feel of the film. For example, the scene almost at the middle of the film, in which Ben M’Hidi explains the aims and phases of their struggles to Ali, is captured is stark darkness that takes the viewer to sway with the intensity of the struggles and the extreme sensitivity it holds for the two leaders and the people of Algiers in common. This is quite surprising to note that female freedom fighters are almost exclusively shown in the white light as opposed to their male counterparts mostly captured in dark shades, and children often in miserable conditions, torn clothes, but tied to the cause. Maybe, we are told that the two parts of life are put together to achieve a purpose.
The most complicated scene in which Pontecorvo has undoubtedly asked the same question (whether women and children are innocent or guilty or whether they pay the price for something done by others related to them) is intensely visible when the three FLN member women disguise as French citizens and move into the French quarters with bombs in their baskets. Though the entry of Algerian laborers is barricaded and a search is diligently done by the guarding soldiers, these three women bypass the body and document search simply because they are disguised as French women. More lenience is shown toward the woman with a child.
Here the role of the sounds in the film must be commented as it seems to go parallel with the basic focus on highlighting the psychological effects of what is going on out there as innocence is shaded with guilt. To depict this, sounds are added from slow, fast, to hysterical beats in which different instruments from drums to human chanting add to a particular scene’s feeling on the viewer. Thus, in this scene, fast, feverish drumming sound remains throughout this scene as the three females prepare to play their part in the struggle up to the bombings that eventually occur. This certainly keeps the viewer jaw-struck thinking they might be captured: The viewer hypnotically follows the entire scene with complete submission to the director. Likewise, sounds explain the scenes to the audience. When there is no sound it has its own significance as it arouses deep suspense in the viewer.
One of the three women has a child to protect her identity. More importantly, Pontecorvo cleverly focuses on the innocent women and children on both sides. For example, the Algerian woman who plants the first bomb in the café shows us through her eyes the innocence of the common French citizens and particularly a little child on whom Pontecorvo places the camera for a while relays significant messages for us to compare the innocence and/or guilt on both sides. Since the scene moved me so much, I couldn’t help but present the screen captures of that child in the film here:
Now, we must revisit the first bombing in the film that was carried out by some French police officials to kill a suspected member of FLN. This explosion leaves a number of innocent civilians dead including men, women, and children of all ages. Their bodies in crippled forms are still in our memory as we compare this cute child being killed just in a matter of seconds. Certainly Pontecorvo is asking of all of us what we, as human beings, done to innocence. We also ask if the explosions by FLN activists would have taken place at all had it not been the first attempt from the French camp. The juxtaposition of civilians from both sides is artistically done to show us how complicated this relations between innocence and guilt is.
Similarly, when the last of the three explosion hits the race course, the French people running wild around capture the young Algerian boy selling candies in the race course. We are convinced that the crowd would beat him to death because their pain of losing their children and loved ones is so intense that the binaries of nationalism are forcing them to avenge their blood. Their instinct fails to see (as Pontecorvo again shows us) the other as innocent or guilty; it only wants revenge, blood for blood.
Overall, by drawing these strikingly painful comparisons of the acts of violence by both the sides, Pontecorvo invites us to debate the part violence has historically played in the struggle of oppression and freedom. Pontecorvo shows us that the side effects include innocent blood on both sides whether or not women and children take part in the struggle to kills each other. I personally believe that though we have moved into a time beyond postmodernism, I do not think such debates of sensitivity to innocent blood has done any good because a number of critics today ask the same questions of the deaths taking place at this moment in regions like Iraq and Afghanistan in the aftermath of the lives we lost on 9/11.
Pontecorvo tried to justify the element of violence through the words of Ben M’Hidi who says to Ali that terror attacks can serve for useful starting points but at the end the importance is of organizing the populations to order:
...wars cannot be won with terror attacks. Neither wars, nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful for starting a process, but afterwards the whole population has to act. [1:07:30-43].
This point may be of great importance, but personally my interpretation of the role of women and children in this film is that innocence remains at its place when other environmental forces go in balance. Once the balance is out, the boundaries between innocence and guilt can very easily blur on both sides. Since the same attitude has continued into our modern time, it is worth asking if we have done anything intangible to address the great loss innocence has suffered at the hands of humans around the world.