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The Return of the Battle of Algiers in Mediterranean Shadows: Race, Resistance and Victimization


In late summer 2003, when resistance to the American occupation in Iraq acquired the profile of a war of guerilla insurgency through increased bombings and acts of sabotage, the office of Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict at the Pentagon designed and distributed e-mail flyers for those involved in “wot,” or the war on terror. The email with the cautionary heading, “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas,” was an invitation to a special screening of the 1966 masterpiece film, The Battle of Algiers, by the Italian Marxist director, Gillo Pontecorvo. The U.S. government was not the only party interested in Pontecorvo’s classic, although it undoubtedly contributed in great measure to popular interest. The understandable paradox of such identifications remains that the film is largely known as a leftist film, particularly as a new-leftist film of the 1960s and that decade of anti-colonial struggle. Associated with Algeria’s independence, the Cuban revolution, Vietnam, the Black Panthers’ resistance movement, and, more recently, with the training of troops in Northern Ireland in their struggle with the British, Pontecorvo’s film has become the emblem of anti-colonial struggle and leftist leaning politics. Viewed as a pedagogical tool for understanding analogous conflicts in Iraq after September 11th, the film broadened its earlier spectator base to include those political groups not readily identified with either leftist or anti-colonial sentiment. This article explores the nature of those cinematic identifications. It examines how, specifically, in reportage surrounding the new release of the film, the turn to discourses of racial identification as a tactic of recognizance and surveillance was popular. Many of the critical commentaries published after September 11th in the wake of the film’s newfound popularity, even when critical of the Pentagon’s use of the film in its war on Iraq, evoked discourses rooted in an Orientalist tradition, referencing notions of a history of pan-Arab terrorism in opposition to the West and conjuring “Arabness” as a quasi racial category.

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