How to Win Hearts and Minds
The Battle of Algiers DVD costs $49.95, and given the brilliance of the film and the wealth of the DVD’s extras, one might say that’s cheap. Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterful 1965 movie, a documentary-like reimagining of the 1956 conflict between France’s 10th Paratroops Division and the Algerian liberation organization Front de Libération Nationale, miraculously filmed in the city of Algiers just three years after the French gave up their North African outpost, is well worth owning alone. It’s a film that requires multiple viewings, and that bears new details and revelations with each one. The documentaries and interviews that accompany this Criterion release frame the film generously, offering both historical and artistic investigations and enlightening, often harrowing retrospectives.
The extras delve into issues like terrorism and torture, and their obvious parallels to our current political situation are unnerving. The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, but in the name of national liberation, not the triumph of Islamic fundamentalism or the full-on destruction of the West. Algeria has since seen the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, as one of the DVD’s extras—an Italian television program in which Mr. Pontecorvo returns to Algiers in the early 90’s—illustrates: The director is shouted out of schools and neighborhoods.
In the documentary Remembering History, Saadi Yacef, a former F.L.N. colonel who appeared in The Battle of Algiers, speaks about planting a bomb in a casino and feeling remorseful over what he’s done. But when members of his community are killed days later, he immediately begins building more bombs. (Mr. Yacef was elected to the Algerian Parliament in 1999.) “It was a means to an end,” he says now. “And we achieved that end. It’s not a personal evil.” Another F.L.N. member, Zohra Drif-Bitat, who in the film plays one of the three women who simultaneously leave bombs in crowded cafés, talks about her call to arms with visible pride.
In another short film, Etats D’Armes, French military officers, in retrospect, deem some of the F.L.N. members “noble.” Some decry the internment camps that housed Algerians, just over a decade after World War II and the horror of the German camps; others claim that the urgency of the terrorist threat justified the use of torture.
There’s also How to Win the Battle but Lose the War of Ideas, an interview with former U.S. terrorism czar Richard Clarke and State Department counterterrorism coordinator Michael Sheehan, who explain why, in their estimation, torture never works. (It’s not odd that U.S. government officials pop up in this collection: The Battle of Algiers was screened at the Pentagon last year.) The terrorists most likely know how to lie, even under torture, Mr. Clarke says, adding that the “nuclear-bomb scenario”—which many use to argue that torture is justified if, say, a prisoner has knowledge about an imminent nuclear attack—almost never happens. The two experts compare the battle of Algiers to some of our current terrorist conflicts and then suggest that the French lost Algeria and suffered a grave moral crisis because they lacked a political strategy. They end on a note of reassurance that the U.S, will figure out what to do in Iraq: “Nothing now going on in Iraq hasn’t been happening for 3,000 years.” Somehow, though, that statement sounds much more like hopelessness.
Oh, but there’s more!—a documentary about Mr. Pontecorvo; a “making of” film; interviews with Mira Nair, Julian Schnabel, Steven Soderbergh, Oliver Stone and Spike Lee; a little booklet with yet more meditation on The Battle of Algiers. But before taking in the rest of the DVD’s words and images, watch the film. It’s Mr. Pontecorvo’s black-and-white Algiers—and the film’s stunning music, the characters’ captivating faces (most of them ordinary Algerians, not actors) and the gross realism of the bombing scenes—that deserve a fresh mind and an open heart.
[ The Battle of Algiers, 1965, 125 minutes, unrated, $49.95.]
You Call This Progress?
Perhaps the most politically relevant adult movie since Deep Throat, Fahrenheit 69: The Porn for Kerry DVD reinvents the meaning of “swing voter.” Made by a group called Porn for Progress, ostensibly to raise money for the Kerry campaign, the DVD is finally tapping into of one the most underrepresented constituencies in the country: self-gratifiers.
The movie sports the poor production values and lousy acting that have endeared the adult-movie industry to so many over the years. But it is clever: Did you know that Saudi Arabia rhymes with a part of the female anatomy? Stand-ins for Ann Coulter, Al Franken, Donald Rumsfeld and Tom Ridge appear as the more pornographically appropriate Ann Cunter, Al Frankenbeans, Don Cumsfeld and Rubs Ridge, respectively. (The makers of the video were smart enough to leave well enough alone when it came to the President.)
Highlights include the Rumsfeld doppelgänger in an S&M prison scene and Mr. Franken’s stand-in telling Ms. Coulter’s that “I bet if you got laid in the last year, you wouldn’t be an uptight bitch!” There is something oddly poetic about watching porn stars commenting on this year’s election, especially on a fake network they’ve named Fuxx News.
[ Fahrenheit 69, 2004, $19.99.]