50 Years Later, Film on Algerian War of Independence Continues to Inspire Freedom Struggles (1/2)
Sohail Daulatzai, author of “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue,” sits down with former Black Panther Eddie Conway to discuss why the 1966 movie remains highly influential in the age of the war on terrorism and authoritarian capitalism
EDDIE CONWAY: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway, coming to you from Baltimore.
Recently, a new book has been published about a film that has influenced a lot of people’s lives, including mine, called “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers”. I have with me today, the author Sohail Daulatzai, who is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies, as well as African Studies, at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of “Black Star, Crescent Moon: The Muslim International and Black Freedom Beyond America”, and most recently the author of this book, “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue”. Thanks for joining me.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Thanks for having me, man. It’s an honor to be here with you, Eddie.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay. I’m just curious, how did you come to write this book right now, at this crucial time in history, and why did you write it?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Yeah, I mean, you know, this is a film that’s kind of been close to me for a long time. I remember seeing it as a younger kid, a teenager, and it just kind of blew my mind, in the late ’80s. It’s a film that kind of stuck with me. And as the world was kind of changing around me, in a particular way and I felt, especially after 9/11, when that happened, that this film continued to speak to the world, you know?
And then when you started to hear that the Pentagon was watching the film and using it for counterinsurgency purposes and I just felt like, wow, this is an important film that I think in some ways is flying under the radar. And so I decided why not write a quick and kind of short concise book about the history of the film, its production history and its political context and try and give some flesh to the bone that I felt like was missing, you know, in terms of its relationship to what’s happening in the world today.
EDDIE CONWAY: Mmm. Well, early on, I think I had mentioned to you that I had actually watched this film as a member of the Black Panther Party in 1969, but while I was in prison, I actually organized a group of anti-war veterans into an organization and we made a request to get the Battle of Algiers in. And the administration thought that it was a war film so they approved it. We brought it in. We had a group discussion on it. We talked about the tactics of it. And it was instrumental in helping to organize and raise the consciousness of those veterans. But this was, like, in 2002, before the war. Why do you think the film is important now, that it’s being used by both the left and right?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Yeah. I think on the one hand it tells kind of like a story about a group of people who were trying to resist and reclaim a dignity against a colonial and imperial power, right? And I think increasingly and unfortunately, that history of colonialism has not ended. In fact, the war on terror has in many ways extended that old history of colonialism. But we also see it taking place here in the United States in different ways with police occupation of primarily black and brown communities. And so, I feel like the film in many ways is still relevant in terms of providing an allegory, if you will, but also like a blueprint for thinking about how people can resist, and giving dignity to that resistance. I think that’s one of the powerful things about the film, is that it gives dignity to people’s resistance against those forces.
Now, the right, I mean, I think this is part of what I talk about in the book. For these right-wing dictatorships and like the U.S. Pentagon and the military regimes all throughout time since the film was released, they see themselves in Colonel Mathieu. They see themselves as the French, and they’re trying to figure out how to crush these kinds of rebellious, or insurgent forces. And so, I feel like with the way in which the world has been kind of shifting – not necessarily changing – but in terms of shifting from Europe to the United States and the way in which these forces are continuing to oppress people, the film provides a way that the people who are being oppressed can see themselves in the Algerians.
But unfortunately, those who have more guns are seeing themselves in Mathieu and they’re learning a lot from the film, as well. So, I feel like it’s an interesting film to think through some of the currents that we’re living in right now.
EDDIE CONWAY: Mm-hmm. Well, one of the things is that this film based itself on urban guerrilla warfare, primarily, around the battle of Algiers. And I’m wondering with today’s new movements afoot in South America, in Africa, in Europe, so long with leftist groups using electoral politics, taking over governments like Venezuela, or the MST in Brazil, or the mine workers in South Africa, or the organizing in Spain, in Greece. I mean, it seems to me that small unit guerrilla warfare is no longer relevant to today’s struggle. Does that make this film, say, unnecessary a lesson now?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: It’s a good question. I think part of the moment that the film comes up in is an era of decolonization where it’s kind of worldwide rebellion, in Africa, Asia, Latin America and amongst black and brown people in the United States, against kind of a white racial capitalism, right? And you had a kind of bipolar world. You had an alternative that was called the Soviet Union, Russia, socialism, however you wanted to see it to that kind of power.
Today, that doesn’t exist, and so you have kind of just rampant authoritarian global capitalism. And so, as a result, now groups that are trying to resist it, where are those alternatives, right? Where is the real way that they can kind of ideologically but even diplomatically or politically, hang their hat on so to speak? And so, because of that, yeah, I think electoral politics is one avenue that groups are using to try and get some sort of remedy for what they’re dealing with.
But I think the question that you’re asking also speaks to how do we think about armed struggle today? Right? And in what context is it necessary or useful? And I think one of the things that I tried to talk about in the book was how in particular the war on terror – right? – it coded the idea of armed struggle as illegal. They called it “terrorism”, quote-unquote, and they declared a war on terror. And so, terrorism has taken on a very different kind of meaning today, and I think it’s really about continuing and disrupting and undermining any possibility of armed struggle against these kinds of more repressive government forces.
So, people don’t see armed struggle as even a possibility when it comes to political mobilization. I’m not suggesting, nor did Fanon, when he argued it in “Wretched of the Earth,” that violence is indiscriminate and absolutely necessary. Violence and armed struggle are a central part of people’s quest for freedom, and they have to be seen as part of a larger toolkit that groups use. The FLN in Algeria, they used armed struggle, but they also used diplomatic means. They went to the United Nations, they tried to make appeals along various kinds of traditional electoral political processes, but armed struggle they felt was a necessary component to the work that they were doing. And so, to me it’s interesting why the film is still relevant in many ways, is it hopefully forces us on the left to ask those very serious questions about what and when is armed struggle possible or even necessary. I think in the current moment, armed struggle has been, and the idea of political violence, has been coded as Muslim. And they put a particular face on who does that kind of violence. And as a result, there’s a lot of ideological work that’s been done to code that kind of activity as illegal and worthy of death. We need to kill those people. Right?
And so, I think as a result even on the left, people are reticent or hesitant to align themselves with overtly Muslim causes or causes that Muslims support because they feel like there’s a teaming or propensity toward violence within those groups or communities or those movements. And it’s served in many ways to legitimize the power of the right because it’s fractured, I think, potential alliances that we on the left could have because of that question of violence sometimes.
EDDIE CONWAY: This whole war on terror itself, as you say, it’s right now, it’s coded in such a way that it targets Islam and it targets Muslims, and I was… and, you know, you point out in the book, it makes the Western civilizations say that Muslims or Islam, it’s the code word for savages now.
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: Right.
EDDIE CONWAY: It’s the same thing they used against the Native Americans initially. It’s the same thing that they use when they say “thugs” in the black community. But I just noticed recently with Trump in there, that there’s a push-back, and what I realize is that there’s a billion Muslims in the world. One billion. And the push-back seems to be strong. And I’m wondering, is that same sort of is the Western society decadent, or is Western civilization decaying, or are these really are close to non-human beings? Is that same thing happening in the Islamic world, among those billion people in terms of how they see the West?
SOHAIL DAULATZAI: I think it’s hard to speak in one way about, as you said, 1.3 or 4 billion people, right? Twenty-four percent of the world is Muslim, almost one in four people. So, it’s hard to speak in broad brush strokes. But I do think that there is, as a result of what’s been taking place over centuries, a deep skepticism, if not outright criticism of what the West claims. The West claims to represent one thing, right? Ideals of freedom and democracy for everybody. But clearly that’s not what’s been put in practice.
And so the experiences for not just those 1.4 billion but the overwhelming majority of the non-European, non-white world, has been one of subjection, of extreme violence, of an undermining of self-determination, of the exploitation of natural resources and labor, right? And then outright war, in order to enforce those ideas. And so, it’s not just Muslims in the world who have a deep kind of skepticism and criticism of the West, and I think part of what we’re seeing in the current moment and I think part of again why the film has a particular kind of resurgence is we’re seeing figures like Trump and Obama in a different way. But Bush before him, there’s a crisis in the West and there’s an attempt or desire to maintain control of the non-European world. Right? Still having access to those resources. And I think that’s why we continue to see the rise of a figure like Trump. I mean, Trump is saying, “Make America Great Again.” He’s trying to go back to a time where for many of us was a very brutal and uglier time, some might say, than now. But it’s also about the West. It’s no coincidence that he meets with Theresa May, and he talks about the alliance between the British and the United States, right?
So, this is about empire. And I think Trump’s resurgence can’t be seen as separate from what’s going on throughout the rest of Europe in terms of these far-right movements. And those are a response to an exacerbated kind of instability and precarity as a result… in relationship to the non-European world.
So, part of the reason why I wrote the book and why I think the film is still so relevant is because that project of decolonization that the Algerians and the rest of the third world were trying to fulfill – right? – we wanted to be free, we wanted to be self-determining, that project had never been a finished project. It’s still an ongoing one. The third world, as it were, never got its freedom. And the power shifted from the European, British and the French, now to the United States. And we’re still in this place where those struggles are still happening.
So, I don’t see the war on terror as a break as many do, like 9/11 as some sort of rupture or break from what came before it. It’s really just an extension. It’s a different chapter in a longer Euro-American project of hyper-exploitation of the non-Western world.
EDDIE CONWAY: Okay, we’re going to pick this up in Part 2. So, thank you for joining me, Sohail, and thank you for joining me at The Real News.