It’s eerie to be teaching a series of classes on decolonisation and the post-colonial world at the moment.
There is a great blank in my students’ minds regarding the colonial era. They know very little about the historical development and process of colonisation, its physical and cultural violence, its global economic and political repercussions. It doesn’t quite seem to touch them; as I have noted before, they appear to think of history as the proverbial bunch of stuff that happened a really long time ago.
This is not to say that they don’t have a response to the outright racist position of some texts we discussed (various short stories by Rudyard Kipling, for instance), or the complexities of the predicament of white ‘dissidents’ who found themselves nonetheless implicated in the colonial world (as in George Orwell’s magnificent and troubling essay Shooting an Elephant).
At the same time they are also touched, shocked, and fascinated by what they see on the news: Egypt galvanised their interest in revolutions, whether peaceful or not (very helpful in the discussion of Gandhi and Mandela); Libya is terrifying them; Iran they haven’t quite figured out yet. I was worried that they would confuse the contemporary situation with the struggle for decolonisation in the 1950s and onwards, and so I decided to focus this week’s class on making sure they could differentiate between the circumstances, while at the same time trying to relate the events and texts from the period to their obvious consequences today.
This seemed to spark them off. I can’t tell you how pleasantly surprised I was when Frantz Fanon’s 1959 essay Algeria Unveiled prompted a passionate and complex discussion about Muslim women wearing the veil and western European attitudes to it: my first-year undergraduate seminar group managed to see and switch to opposite dialectical positions without my intervention, simply by arguing with each other in favour of or against the controversial banning of the face-covering veil in France. Perhaps their lack of information and limited powers of eloquence meant that this was not entirely a success for progressive feminism, or indeed for enlightened attitudes towards Islam, but it was certainly a triumph for Socratic pedagogical methods.
Among the texts we worked on this week is one of my all-time favourite films, Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1966), an immensely thrilling, intelligent piece of work, whose harsh but poetic shooting style and docudrama narrative mode are amazingly bold and modern.
For starters, it’s one of the earliest filmic treatments of Islamic terrorism. Unusually for Western films about this topic, The Battle of Algiers sympathises with the cause of the colonised Algerian Muslims, and supports the FLN’s armed struggle - since all possible non-violent methods of resistance to the particularly brutal French oppression were exhausted.
While I appreciate that this is a difficult and controversial idea (which gained the film some perhaps unwanted fans: it became one of the seminal texts in the training of IRA and Black Panthers members) I greatly admire its openly political stance and its unambiguous agenda: to show that state-endorsed terror, torture, and violence lead not to the quenching of rebellion and eventual subjugation of an invaded people, but rather to a dramatic radicalisation and an endless escalation of bloodshed, which in this case eventually saw the mighty oppressors collapse. (Listen up, Gaddafi, you mass-murdering lunatic.)
This is the part of the film Donald Rumsfeld must have missed when in 2003 he organised a screening of The Battle of Algiers in order to instruct the Pentagon on techniques to deal with insurgency in Iraq. Rumsfeld may have been an accidental philosopher, but he was no film critic. His co-opting of The Battle of Algiers is also a particularly misguided choice because unlike most filmic representations and dramatisations of terrorism after 9/11, Pontecorvo places the camera amongst the ‘terrorists’/freedom fighters, and by showing the struggle from within, he crosses and debunks the us/them dichotomy typical not only of colonial relations, but also of post-9/11 political rhetoric.
If you are interested in politics and cinema and you haven’t seen this explosive film, grab a copy as soon as you can. The Criterion Collection edition is particularly interesting as it contains not only a restored print of the film with updated and corrected subtitles (the film is in French and Arabic), but also a documentary narrated by Edward Saïd (the greatest scholar of the post-colonial Middle East and a militant humanist, for whom my respect and admiration are boundless) called Gillo Pontecorvo: the Dictatorship of Truth, as well as directors discussing the film’s influence on their work - including Spike Lee, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh and Oliver Stone.
This is The Guardian’s obit for Gillo Pontecorvo, which my students read as an introduction to the film.