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The Battle of Algiers: 1966 Film Depicting Algerian War of Independence Against French Occupation Parallels Brutal U.S. Occupation of Iraq

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We play an excerpt of the highly acclaimed 1966 film, The Battle of Algiers, that depicts the Algerian struggle for independence against the French occupation in the 1950’s and early 60’s. Parallels are being drawn between the French use of torture against resistance fighters in Algeria and the U.S. abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to a film that been called one of the most influential political films in history–“The Battle of Algiers.” Released in 1966 by Italian filmmaker Gillo Pontecorvo, the film vividly depicts the Algerian struggle for independence against the French occupation in the 1950s and early 60s.

It recreates the brutal conflict between native Algerians and French colonists in which the two sides exchange acts of intensifying violence, leading to the introduction of French paratroopers to root out the Algerian National Liberation Front–known as the FLN. Paratroops are shown employing torture, intimidation, and murder to defeat the resistance.

“The Battle of Algiers” was nominated for three Academy Awards. But the film was banned in France for many years following its release.

In 2003, the film again made the news after the Pentagon offered a screening just months after the United States declared the war against Iraq officially over. A flyer for the screening stated the following: “How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.”

Now, parallels are being drawn between the French use of torture in 1950s Algeria and the US abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

  • “The Battle of Algiers”–excerpt of 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of The Battle of Algiers. This is a scene of a press conference where the Algerian resistance fighter, Ben M’Hidi, is answering questions from reporters.

REPORTER: Mr. Ben M’Hidi, isn’t it a filthy thing to use women’s baskets to carry explosives for killing people?

LARBI BEN M’HIDI: Doesn’t it seem even filthier to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, wreaking even greater havoc? It would be better if we, too, had planes. Give me the bombers, and you can have the baskets.

REPORTER: Mr. Ben M’Hidi, in your opinion, does the FLN still have some chance of defeating the French army?

LARBI BEN M’HIDI: The FLN has more possibility of beating the French forces than they have of stopping history.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the Algerians brought before a news conference in a scene from The Battle of Algiers. Now, this is another scene a little later in the movie with the colonel from the French paratroopers holding a news conference with reporters.

REPORTER: Colonel Mathieu, the spokesman of the resident minister, Gorlin, states that Ben M’Hidi hung himself in his cell, tearing up his shirt to make a rope which he tied to the bars of the window. In an earlier statement that same spokesman said that because the prisoner said he would escape on the first possible occasion, it was thought advisable to keep him permanently bound hand and foot. According to you, Colonel, is a man in this condition capable of ripping up a shirt, making a rope and tying it to the window bars?

COLONEL MATHIEU: You should ask the spokesman about that. I didn’t make the statements. From my part, I appreciated Ben M’Hidi’s moral strength, intelligence and the way he stuck to his ideals. And so, even though I recognize that he was dangerous, I pay homage to his memory.

REPORTER: Colonel, there’s been talk recently of the para’s successes and of the methods they said to use. Could you say something on this?

COLONEL MATHIEU: The successes result from these methods. The one presupposes the other.

REPORTER: I feel that being excessively careful, my colleagues keep asking roundabout questions to which you can only reply in a roundabout way. It would be better to call a spade a spade. If it’s torture, let’s speak of torture.

COLONEL MATHIEU: I understand. You have no questions?

REPORTER: The questions have been asked. We would like the answers.

COLONEL MATHIEU: Let us be exact. The word “torture” does not appear in our orders. We ask questions as in any police operation against an unknown gang. The FLN asks its members to keep silent for 24 hours if they are captured. Then they can talk. That’s the time required to render any information useless. How should we question suspects? Like the courts and take a few months over it? The legal way has its drawbacks. Is it legal to blow up public places? When he asked Ben M’Hidi, what did he say?

Believe me, it’s a vicious circle. We could talk for hours without reaching a conclusion. The problem is quite different. The FLN wants to kick us out of Algeria. And we want to stay. Even though we have different ideas, I think we all want to stay. When the rebellion started, there were no nuances. All the papers, even those of the left, wanted it suffocated. We’re here for that. We are neither mad nor sadists. They call us fascists. They forget what we did in the resistance. They say Nazis, but some of us survived Buchenwald. We are soldiers. Our duty is to win; thus, to be quite clear, I’ll ask you a question myself: Must France stay in Algeria? If the answer is still “yes,” you must accept all that this entails.

AMY GOODMAN: A scene from the film The Battle of Algiers. We’re now going to turn to a news conference at the White House yesterday, where Press Secretary Scott McClellan was questioned by veteran reporter, Helen Thomas.

HELEN THOMAS: I’m asking: Is the administration asking for an exemption?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I am answering your question. The President has made it very clear that we are going to do —

HELEN THOMAS: You’re not answering. Yes or no?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, you don’t want the American people to hear what the facts are, Helen. And I’m going to tell them the facts.

HELEN THOMAS: [inaudible] the American people every day. I’m asking you: yes or no, did we ask for an exemption?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: And let me respond. You’ve had your opportunity to ask the question. Now I’m going to respond to it.

HELEN THOMAS: If you could answer in a straight way.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: And I’m going to answer it, just like the President — I just did. And the President has answered it numerous times.

HELEN THOMAS: Yes or no?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Our most important responsibility is to protect the American people. We are engaged in a global war against Islamic radicals who are intent on spreading a hateful ideology and intent on killing innocent men, women and children.

HELEN THOMAS: Did we ask for an exemption?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: We are going to do what is necessary to protect the American people.

HELEN THOMAS: Is that the answer?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: We are also going to do so in a way that adheres to our laws and to our values. We have made that very clear. The President directed everybody within this government that we do not engage in torture. We will not torture. He made that very clear.

HELEN THOMAS: Are you denying we asked for an exemption?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: Helen, we will continue to work with the Congress on the issue that you brought up. The way you characterize it, that we’re asking for exemption from torture, is just flat-out false, because there are laws that are on the books that prohibit the use of torture. And we adhere to those laws.

HELEN THOMAS: We did ask for an exemption; is that right? I mean, be simple. This is a very simple question.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: I just answered your question. The President answered it last week.

REPORTER: What are we asking for?

REPORTER: Would you characterize what we’re asking for?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: We’re asking to do what is necessary to protect the American people in a way that is consistent with our laws and our treaty obligations. And that’s what we do.

REPORTER: Why does the C.I.A. need an exemption from the military?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: David, let’s talk about people that you’re talking about who have been brought to justice and captured. You’re talking about people like Khalid Shaykh Muhammad; people like Abu Zubaydah.

REPORTER: I’m asking you —

SCOTT McCLELLAN: No, this is facts about what you’re talking about.

REPORTER: Why does the C.I.A. need an exemption from rules that would govern the conduct of our military in interrogation practices?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: There are already laws and rules that are on the books, and we follow those laws and rules. What we need to make sure is that we are able to carry out the war on terrorism as effectively as possible, not only —

REPORTER: What does that mean?

SCOTT McCLELLAN: That’s what I’m telling you right now. Not only to protect Americans from an attack, but to prevent an attack from happening in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was an excerpt of a news conference, this one not fictional, yesterday at the White House, the questioning of Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary. The exemption that Helen Thomas and other reporters were asking about is the one that the Vice President, Dick Cheney, has requested. Senator McCain of Arizona, who was a P.O.W. in Vietnam, sponsored a bill that would say that no prisoner held by the United States can be treated cruelly on inhumanely, and Vice President Dick Cheney has lobbied him personally to make an exemption for the C.I.A.

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