Madeleine Dobie — Edward Said on The Battle of Algiers: The Maghreb, Palestine and Anti-Colonial Aesthetics

Gillo Pontecorvo and Saadi Yacef on the rooftop of the Casbah Films office, 1965. Reproduced with the kind permission of Marco and Simone Pontecorvo

This essay is part of a dossier on The Maghreb after Orientalism.

by Madeleine Dobie

Among the many commentaries devoted to The Battle of Algiers, a film widely hailed as a classic of anti-colonial cinema and perhaps the most significant political film since Battleship Potemkin, are Edward Said’s essay, “The Quest for Gillo Pontecorvo,” published in the volume Reflections on Exile (Said 2000) and his contributions to a documentary, Pontecorvo: the Dictatorship of Truth, which is included among the bonus features of the Criterion Collection’s 2004 remastering of the film (Curtis 1992). Both pieces draw on a conversation between Said and Gillo Pontecorvo that took place at the director’s Rome apartment in 1988. The encounter between one of the foremost scholars of cultural imperialism and the most celebrated filmic portrayal of anti-colonial revolt would seem to be an ideal pairing. Battle of Algiers, after all, exemplifies the interweaving of politics and aesthetics that is the central concern of Said’s work. Yet in the end, the match-up falls short. Curiously, Said says little about either the film or the Algerian War of Independence as a watershed moment in the history of decolonization. Instead, both his essay and the documentary focus on the film’s Italian director, exploring the reasons for his relatively low productivity and what Said clearly perceived as his failure to make a film about the struggle of the Palestinian people. As the title of his essay announces, instead of focusing on the filmic object before him, Said embarks on a “quest” to understand the director’s artistic conflicts. Below, I consider this missed encounter from several perspectives, situating it in both the wider context of Said’s work and in relation to broader questions raised in colonial/postcolonial and Middle East studies.

Battle of Algiers (1966) is the product of a remarkable, perhaps unique partnership between a film maker and a cohort of political actors. Though it is often portrayed as the masterwork of Gillo Pontecorvo or, albeit less often, as the most significant aesthetic achievement of Algerian national cinema, it was in fact a product of collaboration and negotiation. While imprisoned in France, Saadi Yacef, commander of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) forces in Algiers during the ‘Battle of Algiers’—the dramatic standoff between French paratroopers and Algerian militants that ran from late 1956 to the fall of 1957—wrote a memoir revisiting events that had captured the imagination of people in and beyond Algeria (Yacef 1962). After his release at the end of the war, Yacef, who as a child had adored movies, wrote a film treatment based on his memoir and pitched it to some of the leading Italian directors of the day. Rejected by Francesco Rosi and Luchino Visconti, he met with interest from Pontecorvo, a left-wing film-maker who had already visited Algeria with his longtime collaborator, the screenwriter Franco Solinas, with the goal of making a film about the Algerian revolution.  Pontecorvo initially planned to foreground the perspective of a French paratrooper. Though this might seem to be a surprising angle given that Pontecorvo had led the antifascist militia in Milan in the 1940s, it is consistent with his previous film, Kapo (1960), which explored the Holocaust from the viewpoint of a young Jewish girl who, under a borrowed identity, becomes a guard in a concentration camp. These somewhat unexpected perspectives reflected, among other things, the director’s commitment to exploring the political and psychological investments of actors on all sides of a violent conflict.

The meeting of Yacef and Pontecorvo yielded a film that was neither the version of events offered in the former’s treatment—which Pontecorvo and Solinas dismissed as wooden and purely ideological—nor the execution of the latter’s initial plan to examine the internal conflicts of a French soldier, an angle that Yacef could not have embraced. If the artistic choices of the film—the casting of non-professional actors, the imitation of the style of newsreel and the iconic soundtrack by Ennio Morricone—must be credited to the Italian team, Yacef, backed by the newly installed FLN government, provided historical detail as well as logistical support and much of the funding. In recognition of this collaboration, the film was registered as a co-production between the Rome-based company, Igor Film and Yacef’s startup, Casbah Film.[1]

This merger of different perspectives and contributions disappears in Said’s commentaries, which treat the film as a pure product of Pontecorvo’s cinematic vision and political consciousness. While the documentary The Dictatorship of Truth includes sections on the director’s important collaborations with Franco Solinas, Ennio Morricone and cinematographer Marcello Gatti, it says next to nothing about the involvement of Algerians, noting only that one of the non-actors hired to perform in the film happened to be the former commander of the FLN in Algiers! Said speculates that several scenes may have been based on Pontecorvo’s experiences, twenty years earlier, as a leader of the Partisans in Milan, missing the seemingly obvious point that his Algerian collaborators had just lived through the events that were reenacted in the film, some of which are remembered in Yacef’s memoir.

Said’s neglect of the Algerian roots of Battle of Algiers in favor of the creative process of its European director reflect broader emphases and exclusions of his work. My observations about these tendencies, will, however, be ventured less with the goal of criticizing Said—already the object of so many critiques as well as a great deal of veneration—than to highlight wider patterns in the scholarship devoted to the Middle East and North Africa and to the interfaces of colonialism and culture. I argue that Said’s approach illustrates a dominant reception of Battle of Algiers as a monument to decolonization as an international political movement, a take that is certainly not ‘wrong,’ but which underrepresents the film’s specific rconnection to Algerian nationalism (Daulatzai, 2016). In Said’s case, I suggest that this reading was shaped by a deep-seated reticence toward nationalism and preference for internationalist and exilic politics and culture. I also highlight the difficult relationship between—to put things rather schematically—anti-colonialism and postcolonialism, decolonization and decoloniality as these modes of intellectual and political engagement are reflected in Said’s engagement with the cultural productions of non-Western writers and artists.


  1. Locating Decolonization: the Maghreb and the Middle East

The fact that Said finds little to say about Battle of Algiers as a product and account of Algerian nationalism at first glance mirrors the broader geopolitical compass of his work. Algeria, and indeed the entire Maghreb region are scarcely mentioned in Orientalism (Said 1978), Said’s pioneering study of European discourses about the Arab and Muslim East. The travel narratives, political treatises and novels examined in this seminal work bear for the most part on Egypt, the Mashrek and India, not the French colonies of North Africa. In a particularly glaring omission, Said states that “by the time of the Bandung Conference in 1955 almost all of the Orient had gained its political independence from the Western empires” (1978: 104), overlooking the war in Algeria, which raged until 1962 and which was the region’s most significant episode of anti-colonial violence. This seeming blind spot in relation to the Maghreb is, however, not limited to Said. To put it in context, we need to consider the relationship between colonialism and Orientalism, at least in the French context, as well as the contours and divisions of the contemporary academic landscape.

Orientalism posits a direct connection between colonial history and Orientalist representation.That is to say, Said claims that European authors wrote obsessively about the regions that their nations were in the process of occupying and governing. Yet, at least in the case of French history and literature, there was actually something of a disconnect between the colonial occupation of North Africa and the most prevalent subjects of Orientalist literature and art. Though a few French-language artists and writers traveled to and/or wrote about the Maghreb (Eugène Delacroix, Eugène Fromentin, Théophile Gautier, and Isabelle Eberhardt are among the main examples), many more visited and fantasized about Egypt, Turkey and the lands of the ‘Levant.’ For example, neither of the French writers who are most central to Said’s analysis—Gérard de Nerval and Gustave Flaubert—visited or wrote about France’s most important colony. In my book Foreign Bodies, where I discuss this ‘displacement,’ I suggest that one explanation is that colonial rule and the hybrid social and cultural forms to which it gave rise militated against the exotic tendencies of Orientalism (Dobie 2001: 4-6). The upshot is that Said devotes more time to French works about Egypt than to texts that represent Algeria.

If the Maghreb is relatively marginal to orientalist discourse, it has also been neglected in the intersecting fields of Middle East Arabic literary studies as they have developed in and beyond United States. Built around the Cold-War model of area studies, American departments of Middle East studies have foregrounded the regions and issues that are of greatest strategic interest to the United States, notably Israel, Palestine, Egypt and the nations of the Persian Gulf. Language has also been an important factor in this distribution. Shaped by the history of British colonialism, these regions share a legacy of English, particularly in sectors such as education and culture. The Maghreb, by contrast, bears the distinctive imprint of French colonialism and French remains an important language of communication and administration. Though language is clearly not an impermeable barrier to cultural exchange or to scholarship, its role in shaping academic fields and areas of scholarly expertise shouldn’t be underestimated. Many leading specialists of Algeria are based in French studies or history departments rather than in Middle East Studies programs. Only since 2011, when events in Tunisia and Libya ignited the ‘Arab spring,’ has the Maghreb begun to come into focus as an important terrain for research on democracy, religion and the role of civil society.


  1. Algeria, Palestine and the Pitfalls of Nationalism

But if at first it seems possible to connect Said’s curious silence on the Algerian context of Battle of Algiers to the broader marginality of the Maghreb within Orientalism and the field of Middle East studies, a more extensive reading of his work yields a more complex picture. Though Algeria doesn’t receive much attention in Orientalism, it is discussed in a number of other texts, including many interviews and the final chapter of Culture and Imperialism, in which  the Emir Abdelkader—the 19th-century leader of resistance to the French conquest—and Frantz Fanon are invoked as examples of anti-colonial resistance. Fanon was a frequent point of reference for Said, and indeed furnished one of his main examples of the politically-engaged intellectual. Considering these various texts together, I think it can be said that Algeria played two different and, in some ways, opposed roles in Said’s thought. On the one hand, it offered an important point of comparison with the Palestinian national struggle. On the other, it provided an illustration of the failings of nationalism.

In relation to Palestine, Algeria represents primarily a source of hope: the promise of a successful overthrow of colonial occupation. In an interview with Timothy Appleby, Said noted, for example, that although the French always proclaimed that would never leave Algeria, they ultimately did (Said 1986a). In imagining how an end to the occupation of Palestinian lands might occur he emphasized that while he didn’t endorse terrorism, he did support territorial resistance on the model of the Algerian revolution. In another interview, with Bruce Robbins, Said compared the protests of the Palestinian Intifada to “scenes from The Battle of Algiers” (Said 1998: 325).

The comparison between the two situations and Said’s apparent hope for an Algerian-style reversal of entrenched colonial domination in Palestine hovers in the background of his discussion of Pontecorvo’s career. As we have seen, Said frames his encounter with Pontecorvo and his work as a “quest” to understand why, after making two of the most important films about “politically engendered violence,” Battle of Algiers and Burn! [Queimada!], which depicts a slave revolt in Cuba, he didn’t achieve a third success. He goes so far as to say that he is “haunted” by the question of Pontecorvo’s disappearance from public view and speculates about the impediments that may have forestalled subsequent projects. He characterizes Ogro, the director’s 1979 film about Basque nationalists, as much too tentative, a failing that he attributes to the tense political situation in Italy at the time. Finally, he wonders why Pontecorvo abandoned a project on the Palestinian Intifada that would have been the “logical contemporary extension” of his work in Battle of Algiers (Said 2000: 289).

Said conversation with Pontecorvo’s about Palestine during their 1988 interview, seems, at least from Said’s account, to have been strained. He reports that Pontecorvo accepted his characterization of the Israel-Palestine relationship as a colonial situation, but then disagreed with almost everything else that he said about it. Said recalls airing the idea that Battle of Algiers was possible because the Algerian revolution had been successful and that a parallel European film about the Palestinians couldn’t be made since the conflict remained unresolved. Pontecorvo disgreed, venturing that it would be possible to make a film about a failure, but observed that the situation between Israelis and Palestinians was more complicated and less clear-cut than that of the French in Algeria. Unhappy with this response, Said, in turn, replied that “to us it is clear.” As the exchange continued, Said asked Pontecorvo whether being Jewish affected his judgment of the situation and Pontecorvo testily insisted tthat it did not prevent him from fully grasping the Palestinians’ perspective  (Said 2000: 290). Said ends the essay by acknowledging that the interview was tense and highlighting the paradoxes of a man who, in his eyes, sublimated politics to music and image and who was unable to carry his political engagement into the present (Said 2000: 291). This summary of Pontecorvo’s artistic and political dilemmas is clearly mediated by Said’s own preoccupations and probably reveals more about the critic than about the director. The issues that Said flags, i.e. the tensions between aesthetics and politics, were central to his own intellectual project and loom large in most critical readings of his work. Returning to the question of the presence/absence of Algeria in Said’s work, I would say that the interview, as replayed in the essay, illustrates a dynamic by which Algeria primarily came into focus as a counterpart to the Palestinian conflict.

If Said saw Algeria as a model of decolonization that the Palestinians could potentially emulate, he also deployed it as a repoussoir: an example of failed nationalism and indeed of the failings of nationalism. Though he certainly acknowledged the crucial role of nationalism in forging the political solidarity required to overthrow colonial rule, he also expressed deep reservations about its propensity to suppress internal difference and to become a theology or a fetish. “For all its success—indeed because of its success—in ridding many territories of their colonial overlords, nationalism remains a deeply problematic enterprise,” he observes in Culture and Imperialism (Said 1993: 223). In this and other works, Said contrasts what he regards as the narrow identitarianism of nationalism with “a more generous and pluralistic vision of the world.” He invariably prefers this hybrid, exilic or contrapuntal vision to separatist or nativist creeds and he repeatedly contests the conflation of nationalism and political independence with emancipation (Said 1993: 277).

Said indeed goes so far as to identify nationalism as one of the principal foundations of modern political authoritarianism. Drawing on Fanon’s analysis of the deviations of national consciousness in the postcolonial state and on Eqbal Ahmad’s reflections on the “pathologies of power,” he observes that colonial domination was often replaced by class domination at the hands of new post-colonial elites (Ahmad 1981). Algeria furnished one of his main examples of this kind of derailment. He described it unsparingly as “a one-party state with dictatorial rule and . . . an uncompromising fundamentalist opposition” (Said 1993: 226). He indeed went so far as to characterize the Front islamique du salut, the Islamist opposition party founded in the late 1980s, as the dialectical opposite of the degraded nationalist party (Said 1996). In the final chapter of Culture and Imperialism, which delves into the history of opposition to colonialism, Said contrasts the campaign waged against the French conquest by the Emir AbdelKader with the later militancy of Fanon. Whereas the former’s resistance was grounded in Sufi-inspired nativism (Said 1993: 332), Fanon, for whom Said expresses deep admiration, came to Algeria, and thus to nationalism, as an outsider. As this contrast illustrates, Said’s ambivalence toward nationalism was interwoven with his stance in favor of (a cautiously defined) secularism and his distaste for the merger of political and religious fundamentalisms.

Battle of Algiers is, of course, on one level a film about nationalism, though it can and often has also been approached more broadly as a celebration of popular resistance to power. To approach it as a film specifically about Algerian history is to be forced to confront the downward turn of Algerian nationalism starting with the rapid transformation of the FLN from nationalist insurgency to authoritarian, single-party regime. The almost unbearable character of this transition may be one reason why Said, like so many other viewers, elected to approach the film through a wider lens as a monument to the international movement of decolonization.


  1. The Auteur and Collective Politics

If Said’s reading of Battle of Algiers as the product of the genius of a European director reflects his complex relation to the Maghreb, Algeria and its history of nationalism, it also illustrates signature elements of his critical methodology, notably his belief in the value of great works and his fascination with the complex figure of the engaged intellectual. Meditations on the dilemmas and private and public struggles of Gramsci, Foucault and Fanon, among other major thinkers, appear throughout Said’s work. This attentiveness to the relationship between political activism and the biographical context of the production of ideas was interwoven with his concern with the often unacknowledged relationship between academic disciplines and politics, a concern first articulated in Orientalism (Said 1978: 6-12). It was certainly also a reflection of his own bifurcated position as a literary scholar and unofficial spokesperson for the Palestinian cause. His perception of Battle of Algiers as a manifestation of Pontecorvo’s aesthetic vision and political history was in many ways consistent with these wider preoccupations.

One of the recurrent elements of Said’s reflections on the engaged intellectual is the contrast that he draws between Michel Foucault and Frantz Fanon (Said 1993: 335, Said 1985: 39-40). Though Foucault’s concept of the discursive formation provides one of the theoretical scaffolds of Orientalism, the French thinker’s model of power circulating through society is—as many critics have observed—hard to reconcile with Said’s emphasis on the top-down exercise of colonial domination. Said himself quickly recognized this problem and gradually distanced himself from the work of Foucault, whom he characterized as brilliantly inventive but increasingly apolitical, interested in the “micro-physics” of power but lacking a theory of and even a real interest in resistance (Said 1993: 29). In his writing, this portrait of Foucault is often supported by a counter-image of Fanon, whom Said came to embrace as an intellectual and political model. Somewhat reductively, Said painted Foucault as an individualist, preoccupied with the meaning of power for the self, the body and identity, while acclaiming Fanon as the advocate of a collective politics that transcends the individual (Said 1986b: 51).

Given this judgment, it’s somewhat ironic that Said approaches Battle of Algiers, which was both the fruit of a collaboration and a representation of collective political solidarity through the exclusive lens of its meaning within Pontecorvo’s career. Pontecorvo and screenwriter Franco Solinas were well acquainted with Fanon’s work, and traces and even paraphrases of Wretched of the Earth can be found throughout the film, from the opening sequence on the divided colonial city to the portrayal of women’s politicization and the representation of nationalism as a vehicle for anti-colonialism (Srivastava 2006). Strangely, however, Said’s commentary neglects the film’s depiction of the collective politics of protest theorized by Fanon. His literary methodology, constructed around his admiration for great writers, was fundamentally in conflict in this instance with his political vision.


  1. The Battle of Algiers and ‘The Voyage In’

One of the most common criticisms leveled at Orientalism has been that in describing the prison of dominant representations, Said leaves no room for alternative, non-European perspectives or for voices raised in resistance. In responding to this objection, Said often noted that he was a specialist of European literature and not, say, the Arabic literary tradition. But he also took the opportunity to take a conceptual stance by rejecting the idea of replacing the canon of European works with a counter-canon of non-European literature (Sprinker 1992). But if Said offers explanations for this rejection of alternative and counter canons, his work at times seems to betray an attachment to European culture that simply precludes awareness of other traditions. Take, for example, his observation that Pontecorvo’s take on cinéma vérité had a profound influence on subsequent political filmmakers such as Bernardo Bertolucci, Costa-Gavras and Oliver Stone—all European or American directors (Curtis 1992). Though he could have included in this list figures such as the Egyptian Khaled Youssef or the Algerian Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina (who worked with Pontecorvo’s cinematographer, Marcello Gatti), these names apparently didn’t come to mind.

Instead of mapping disparate world traditions, Said writes about the grafting of anti-colonial and Third-Worldist visions such as those of Fanon onto the thought of European thinkers such as Hegel and Marx. One of his terms for this hybridization of political theory—the counterpart to European representations of other parts of the world—is the “voyage in.” In Said’s eyes, modern world culture is shaped by exchanges and cross-pollinations, yet bears, above all, the mark of engagement with European influences. This perspective, aligned with his theory of “contrapuntal” culture and “exilic” consciousness, is at once celebratory and tragic. If Said consistently expresses a preference for the hybrid or creolized over the presumed purity of the “native,” he also acknowledges the anguish involved in repurposing European epistemologies to critique European hegemony.

I would propose that, although Said clearly didn’t see it that way, Battle of Algiers can be seen as an example of the “voyage in.” Saadi Yacef, the revolutionary turned film producer, was a movie lover who thought that the aesthetic techniques of Italian neorealist cinema could be marshaled to memorialize the struggle for Algerian independence. The alchemy of his partnership with Pontecorvo played an important role in turning his country’s revolution into a world historical event. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the film put Algiers on the map of revolutionaries from the Black Panthers to the Red Army Faction. The fact that Said saw the film as an example of European political film-making rather than as a merger of different motives, experiences and political visions, exposes the always fragile boundary between the recognition and celebration of postcolonial hybridity and the re-canonization of European culture.


Madeleine Dobie is Professor of French at Columbia University. Her publications include Foreign Bodies: Gender, Language, and Culture in French Orientalism (2001), Trading Places: Colonization and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century French Culture (2010) and, with historian Myriam Cottias, a critical re-edition of two mid twentieth-century novels by the Martinican writer, Mayotte Capécia (2012). She is currently working on a monograph titled After Violence, about literature and cinema since the Algerian Black Decade. Her piece, “The Battle of Algiers at 50: From ’60s Radicalism to the Classrooms of West Point,” appeared in The LA Review of Books in September 2016.



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I would like to thank Marco and Simone Pontecorvo and Malek Bensmaïl for their help with the preparation of this essay.

[1] A new documentary about The Battle of Algiers reveals that Yacef was given a large sum in cash by the FLN leadership, which saw him as a potential political threat and was therefore eager to divert his attention to international film-making (Bensmaïl, 2017).



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