P.O.V. No.20 - Terrorism and Film

A Child Eating Ice-Cream Before the Explosion
Notes on a Controversial Scene in The Battle of Algiers

Francesco Caviglia

The problem: the function of two shots
After some French police officers are killed by members of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), French police officers and a civilian plant a bomb under the house of a suspected member of the FLN, which results in the death of a score of innocent civilians. When a spontaneous anti-French riot breaks out and a crowd of enraged Algerian men and women storm the streets, their demonstration is stopped by orders from the local FLN leader, Kader (Yacef Saadi), who promises to the angry crowd: "Leave this to us". The ensuing, lengthy scene follows three Algerian women while they disguise themselves in order to assume a French-like look and then leave time-bombs in public places crowded with French civilians.

Before the explosions, the viewer is compelled to look - through the eyes of the Algerian women - at the faces of the soon-to-be victims of the bomb. Of all the faces which we see on the screen, the hardest to forget belongs to a 4-5 year-old child eating his ice-cream, who is briefly shown right before the woman hides the bomb and then, again, a few seconds before the bomb goes off:

This long, tense scene almost forces the viewer to take a stance about the right of the oppressed to use violence in their struggle against their oppressors.

Interestingly, The Battle of Algiers (1965) was understood by left-wing militants in the late '60s as a clear endorsement or even glorification of political violence, [1] while several viewers declare today their appreciation of the film precisely because it prompts the viewer to reflect on the evils of political violence. [2]

The intent of this paper is to understand what this scene originally meant to the director and how the same scene can take on different meanings for different viewers, with special focus on the function of the child eating his ice-cream.

Pontecorvo's view of political violence
There is virtually no doubt that, in the intention of its authors, The Battle of Algiers did endorse the use of political violence, or at least saw violence as an inescapable force which drives history.

The film is explicit on the role of violence and terrorism: Ben M'Hidi, the political leader of the National Liberation Font (FLN) in Algiers, explains to the young and impatient Ali la Point that

[...] wars cannot be won with terror attacks. Neither wars, nor revolutions. Terrorism is useful for starting a process, but afterwards the whole population has to act.

Moreover, the struggle of the Algerian people against their oppresssors also represented for Pontecorvo an opportunity for defending, indirectly, partisan guerrilla warfare during the Italian Resistance. When Ben M'Hidi is asked by a French journalist if it was not "a bit cowardly to use women's baskets and handbags to carry explosive devices that kill so many innocent people", he replies:

And doesn't it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on defenseless villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

To an Italian viewer in the '60s, such words sounded like a defence of analogous actions carried out by Italian partisans in 1943-45, such as the bomb - hidden in a waste bin - which killed 33 German soldiers in via Rasella in 1944 in Rome and led to the killing of 335 Italians prisoners in retaliation.

But, if it is true that Pontecorvo sides with the Algerian people, why does the camera linger on a heroine of the Algerian resistance while she places a bomb which, as she and the viewer are forced to see, is likely to kill many civilians, among them a child?

Pontecorvo's constraints and freedom in making the film[3]
Pontecorvo had been appointed to make the film by the Algerian authorities, who covered 40% (60%, according to Saadi Yacef) of the total costs of the film and gave full support during shooting in Algiers. Nonetheless, Pontecorvo enjoyed considerable freedom. Following an initial contact with emissaries of the FLN, who wished to have an "international film" to celebrate their newborn nation, Pontecorvo refused an (in his words) "appalling" propaganda script written by former guerrilla leader Saadi Yacef and proposed instead to produce a new one with the help of screenwriter Franco Solinas. When the new script was accepted, Pontecorvo went looking for funds and, after established Italian producers had refused to risk their money in the project, persuaded a friend to start a production company with The Battle of Algiers as its first film. In Algiers, Pontecorvo and Solinas worked side by side with Yacef Saadi, one of the chief organisers of the insurrection in Algiers, who became deeply involved in the project and ended up as am actor playing himself in a central role.

In other words, Pontecorvo had full control over the film, but the Algerian FLN had asked him to make the film also because they wanted to work with someone who was politically on the same wavelength, and Pontecorvo's background as a partisan in the Resistance and as a left-wing militant gave him impeccable credentials. Pontecorvo declares now that he only felt committed to make a truthful film, and indeed he devoted a considerable effort to obtaining first-hand accounts of the historical events. At the same time, Pontecorvo wanted the film to be appreciated by the Algerians.

According to Pontecorvo, the only request from the Algerian side to make changes in the film for political reasons involved the presence of the child in the cafeteria: the Algerians repeatedly tried, "from the time they read the first draft of the screenplay until the day before the premiere at the Venice film festival", to get the images of the child expunged, because the former freedom fighters "did not want to appear like criminals". [4]

But Pontecorvo was adamant that the child had to stay: otherwise, as he points out today, the scene would have lost its truth and tragedy (id.).

Different views about the film and about the scene
This same scene which disturbed the FLN emissaries has been sharply criticized recently for the opposite reason by Cahiers critic Jean-Luis Comolli (2004:71), who explains how the lingering of the camera on "images of a careless and futile life" are meant to induce the viewer to despise the soon-to-be victims and to look forward to their punishment:

[...] (in film, waiting implies desire, fear implies wish and fright implies pleasure) [...]

If the European victims (the " bad guys ") are individualized, this happens without any doubt in order to take the viewer to look with anticipation to their slaughter. But it is not irrelevant that these " bad guys " are shown to us, before they die, while they enjoy (one bit more) the small pleasures of colonial life: alcohol, tobacco, cha-cha-cha and search for sex. [...] The masters are rotten and don't deserve to live. (my italics) [5]

In more general terms, Comolli accuses the film of reducing the historical events of the battle of Algiers to an escalating competition between terrorism and anti-terrorism, thereby reducing the FLN militants to "machines" and missing the possibility for a more mature political understanding of the conflict.

*    *

In the same dossier of the Cahiers devoted to The Battle of Algiers, Tunisian writer and poet Abdelwahab Meddeb maintains, with reference to terrorism, that "we live in an environment, in a state of mind which Pontecorvo's film has contributed to construct" and underlines - on the basis of his own experience in discussions with Islamic extremists - how The Battle of Algiers "historically has taken part in the process, especially in Algeria, through which terrorism has been glorified, written in an epic dimension, appropriated as a heroic act". [6] However, he does not accuse the film itself, which in his words "has many qualities" (id.). Meddeb, who was once on Sartre's side and against Camus in their controversial debate about terrorism, now believes that "nothing can justify terrorism and the sacrificial element which terrorism implies" and explains: [7]

The scenes of The Battle of Algiers which have become the more relevant for me are those in which the camera lingers on places and people at the sites where the bomb attacks are going to take place. The images of people who are alive, but destined to die, are horrible. These images are enough to reinforce my certitude that terrorism is unjustifiable. [8]

*    *

In the same interview, philosopher and writer Marie-José Mondzain objects to Meddeb:

These camera movement on the faces, aren't they meant to make us understand how much a terrorist must overcome his own compassion, in order to actually perform his terror act? [9]

*    *

As for Pontecorvo, he maintains now that The Battle of Algiers "does not teach how to make war, but how to make cinema". [10] This statement is consistent with another declaration in which a highly reputed author of political films maintains that he "really knows nothing about politics." [11]

*    *

All these explanations do make sense, since the same images can trigger different sensations in viewers with different backgrounds, dispositions and motivations.

I will try in the following sections to look for the cinematic elements that can support such radically different interpretations of the scene.

Elements inducing the viewer to side with the terrorists

Until the bombs go off, the viewers see the people in the cafés through the eyes of the women who are about to or have planted their bombs and prepare to leave. They are determined and do not hesitate; they are on a mission which entails sacrifice, from changing their appearance (below left) in order to appear "more French" to forgetting their humanity and killing innocent civilians, including a child. They represent their people, which respects and encourages them: see for example (below right) the almost imperceptible gesture of support from the man who guards the hideout in which the women receive the timers for their bombs. So far, these women are perfect militants of a revolutionary movement.

Are they "machines", as suggested by Comolli?

For one of the women, the older Zohra, sympathy has been built long before she leaves a bomb under a sofa at an Air France agency; although she shows the fiercest determination - she even takes her own son with her through the French security control - her whole appearance is incongruous with the idea of an act of terrorism.

The viewer is induced to believe that, under normal circumstances, a woman like this would never have dreamt of placing a bomb and killing other people. Indeed we see two of her victims, a rich young couple who are almost certainly travelling for pleasure, but the camera does not linger on them nearly as long as it does on the future victims in the two cafés. In the brief moments in which the three sit on the same sofa, even their posture betrays their belonging to different worlds.

On the contrary, the two other young women (below) have been more successful in their disguise and they look disturbingly similar to their victims.

The expressions on their faces throughout the scene leave ample room for interpretation: they must not betray their feelings, neither to the customers in the cafés nor to the viewer. There are however small signs that can help the viewer to form her or his own opinion.

The woman in the figure above-left quickly averts her eyes when she spots the child; after a moment in which we can only imagine her thoughts, she checks the clock and then pushes the basket with the bomb under the bar with her foot.

We see the second woman (above right) from the moment she has just hidden the bomb until the moment she leaves. The other customers are dancing and do not even notice her; she is free to look at the people she is about to kill. Her gaze may betray her fear of being caught, but there is more in it: when the camera rests a few moments on a fat boy leaning on the juke-box and moving in time with the music, she casts a last, unnecessary glance at him before moving on (below: the still image cannot render the barely perceptible movement of the woman's head).

Although other interpretations are possible, my strong impression is that both women - non-professional actresses, as all the Algerian characters in the film - felt guilty about the lives they were about to take; this is at least what one would expect from decent people killing fellow-human beings because they (believe they) have to, [12] and Pontecorvo's images convey well this kind of feeling. Their being women helps make their act both more disturbing (history has forced them), but maybe also less despicable than if it had been carried out by a man: these women have nothing to gain and are not enjoying what they are doing. They are 'involuntary heroines'.

Most of the faces in the gallery of people, men and women, which we observe in the two cafés are not the kind of people one feels sympathy for at first sight (see below).

A few other faces (below) would probably trigger different reactions according to the context in which they are seen and according to the viewer's expectations:

On the whole, most of the faces seem to have been chosen to suggest the picture of a parasitic and careless French society. After the first bomb goes off in the first café, the young people in the other one hear the explosion and soon resume dancing.

If the two shots with the child were edited out of the scene, not many viewers would feel too sorry for the victims of the bombs (which would not be in contrast with dislike for the act of killing other people in cold blood).

Elements inducing the viewer to side with the victims

Pontecorvo maintains that the FLN emissaries were not pleased with the presence of the child from the moment they saw the first script. Indeed, there is a significant difference between the last preserved script (curiously dated 1966) and the scene in the film. [13] First of all, there is no trace in the script of close-up images of other customers in the café, beside the child. Moreover, in the script the child has two proud and caring parents, he buys himself his ice-cream and we hear his voice. After the bomb, the child is shown covered in blood and his father is taken away, in shock. It is understandable that the FLN people were at least perplexed when they first read the scene.

In comparing the script with the images, one might suspect that Pontecorvo did accept at least in part the FLN worries and downplayed the role of the child, while placing a lot of ugly faces around him. We cannot even rule out that Pontecorvo pretended, when discussing the scene with Yacef Saadi, that he had reduced the importance of the child in the economy of the scene in order to please his Algerian friends, although he could not go so far as to remove the child altogether.

But it seems the FLN people were not persuaded and - in my view - they were in part right. The image of the child remains in the mind of the viewer: there is no need to explain that he has caring parents and not even to show him as an especially cute child. The child in the picture is just a normal, defenceless child, and almost any viewer will feel sorry for his fate just by catching a short glimpse of him. To accept or not to accept to kill that specific child for the sake of a political cause is, as already mentioned, a matter of personal disposition and background.

Following the explosions, the portrayal of the French victims is no different from that of the Algerian victims. The same religious music - composed by Ennio Morricone and by Pontecorvo himself - accompanies the scenes of death after the bomb in the Casbah and in the French cafés. [14]

The scene in the Casbah is longer and there is a more lingering image alluding to Christ taken down from the cross (below left), but this visual element is also recognisable when the victims are French (below right). One shot - which may have replaced the one with the dead child - shows for long moments an especially handsome French victim (below center).

The scene of the bombs in the French cafés may have been made to appear less disturbing than it was in the original screenplay, since it lost elements which would certainly have displeased the Algerians (the insistent attention on the child) and gained a gallery of (for the most) unpleasant portraits of colonizers. However, this scene still remains memorable (and perhaps ended up being more so) because we are not told what to feel: indeed, viewers have found support in this scene for visions of violence quite different from those held by Pontecorvo.

According to Michael Ignatieff (2004), [15] the film "is a masterpiece, at once a justification for acts of terror and an unsparing account of terror's cost, including to the cause it serves" (my italics).

I share his general view, but not the idea that Pontecorvo was then aware of the cost of terror for the cause it serves. Actually, Pontecorvo was to remain faithful to the idea that violence may be necessary at least until Ogro (1980), a film focused on four Basque militants organising the killing of General Franco's right hand man, Carrero Blanco. As much as The Battle of Algiers leaves room for viewers to draw their own conclusions, Ogro is almost didactic when it explains the difference between a legitimate use of violence on the side of history - Carrero Blanco's death probably eased the return of Spain to democracy - and gratuitous violence outside any shared, progressive political project, such as in the Basque terrorism after the return of Spain to democracy. The wave of left-wing political violence in Italy in the '70s may have diminished Pontecorvo's confidence in the political sensitivity of his audience.

1 Fausto Bertinotti, ""Questo Movimento è nuovo, la violenza non attecchirà"[This movement is new, violence will not find its way in it] (an interview with Carlo Bonini)", La Repubblica (November 2nd, 2003), p. 8. Valerio Morucci, A guerra finita. Sei racconti [After the war. Six tales], (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1994), p. 11.

2 E.g., Valerie Orlando, "Historiographic Metafiction in Gillo Pontecorvo's 'La bataille d'Alger': Remembering the 'Forgotten War'," Quarterly Review of Film & Video 17/3 (October 2000), p. 261ff, or current (30.9.2003) comments to the film posted to the International Movie Database website (http://www.imdb.com).

3 Sources to this section: Irene Bignardi, "The Making of The Battle of Algiers," Cineaste 25/2 (2000), pp. 14-23, which presents a summary of a chapter from `Memorie Estorte a uno Smemorato (Memories Extorted from an Amnesiac),' an interview-based biography of Gillo Pontecorvo by Irene Bignardi; Edward Said, "The Dictatorship of Truth. An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo," Cineaste 25/2 (2000), pp. 24-25; Gary Crowdus, "Terrorism and Torture in The Battle of Algiers. An interview with Saadi Yacef, "Cineaste 29/3 (2004), pp. 30-38; an interview with Gillo Pontecorvo and a documentary on the making of the film in the Italian DVD release by DNC Home Entertainment, 2003.

4 Pontecorvo's declaration in the above mentioned interview, DNC Home Entertainment, 2003.

5 The original quote : Attente au cinéma suppose désir, crainte implique souhait et peur, jouissance. [...] Si les victimes européennes (les " méchants ") sont individualisées, c'est sans doute pour conduire le spectateur à jouir davantage de leur massacre. Mais il n'est pas indifférent que ces " méchants " nous sois montrés, avant de mourir, en train de profiter (encore un peu) des menus plaisirs de la vie coloniale : alcool, tabac, cha-cha-cha et drague... [...] Les maîtres sont corrompus et ne méritent pas de vivre. In Jean-Louis Comolli, "L'attente du prochain coup [waiting for the next hit]," Cahiers du Cinéma (Septembre 2004), p. 71.

6 The whole original quote : " [...] nous vivons dans un environnement, dans un état d'esprit que le film de Pontecorvo a contribué à constituer. Je n'attaque pas le film lui-même, auquel je trouve beaucoup de qualités, mais historiquement il a participé, en Algérie notamment, à la manière dont le terrorisme a été glorifié, a été inscrit dans une dimension épique, intégré comme acte héroïque. Il est devenu une référence politico-militaire. Et c'est bien en tant que référence positive que le terrorisme est revenu en Algérie dans les années 1990." In Abdelwahab Meddeb, "Quarante ans après. Conversation entre Marie-José Mondzain, Abdelwahab Meddeb et Jean-Michel Frodòn, à propos de "La Bataille d'Alger", revu aujourd'hui," Cahiers du Cinéma (September 2004), pp. 66-69.
Later in the same interview Meddeb recognizes that he could by no means envisage in 1965, when he first saw the film, that it was probably showing, without knowing it, the birth of Islamic radicalism.

7 The original quote: "Aujourd'hui, je pense que rien ne peut justifier le terrorism, et le sacrificiel qu'implique le terrorism" (id., p. 68).

8 The original quote: " Les scènes de la Bataille d'Alger qui ont pris pour moi le plus de relief sont celles où la caméra parcourt les lieux et les personnes présentes sur les sites où vont avoir lieu les attentats. Les images de ces gens vivants mais destinés à la mort sont terribles. Elles suffisent à ma certitude que le terrorisme est injustifiable" (id.).

9 The original quote: Ces mouvements de caméra sur les visages ne sont-ils pas plutôt destinés, lorsque Pontecorvo les tourne, à nous faire comprendre ce qu'un terroriste doit surmonter de sa propre compassion pour passer à l'acte ? (id., 68).

10 Gillo Pontecorvo, "La Bataille d'Alger apprend à faire du cinéma [The Battle of Algiers teaches how to make cinema] (an interview with Jean Roy)," L'Humanité (May 22nd, 2004). Pontecorvo's statement was given in response to a question on his feelings about U.S. officers watching The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon as an instrument for better understanding of the current crisis in Iraq. I have taken the liberty of attributing a more general value to that statement, which was also chosen as the title for his interview in L'Humanité.

11 Reported by Charles Glass, "The hour of the birth of death. Pontecorvo's long silence and the demise of political film-making," Times Literary Supplement (June 26th, 1998), p. 20.

12 The screenplay insists twice on the fact that there is "no joy" when the three women sit together and take on their disguises, or when they speak with their leader Kader/Saadi Yacef. Guilty feelings in freedom fighters before killing in cold blood are well documented in Peter Øvig Knudsen, Efter drabet [after the killing], (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2001), e.g. p. 330 ("Det værste tidspunkt ved en likvidering er en times tid før. [...] Man tænker på den opdragelse, man har fået som spejder, og den opdragelse, man har fået i sit hjem. Alt det kolliderer fuldstændig med at skulle dræbe").

13 Included in the DVD edition by DNC Home Entertainment, 2003.

14 Gary Crowdus, op. cit.

15 "The terrorist as auteur." The New York Times - NYT Magazine (November 14th, 2004), p. 50.


Bertinotti, Fausto. ""Questo Movimento è nuovo, la violenza non attecchirà" [This movement is new, violence will not find its way in it] (an interview with Carlo Bonini)." La Repubblica (November 2nd, 2003), p. 8.

Bignardi, Irene. "The Making of The Battle of Algiers." Cineaste 25/2 (2000), pp. 14-23.

Bignardi, Irene. Memorie Estorte a uno Smemorato. Vita di Gillo Pontecorvo [Memories Extorted from an Amnesiac. Life of Gillo Pontecorvo]. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1999.

Comolli, Jean-Louis. "L'attente du prochain coup [Waiting for the next hit]." Cahiers du Cinéma (Septembre 2004), pp. 70-71.

Crowdus, Gary. "Terrorism and Torture in The Battle of Algiers. An interview with Saadi Yacef." Cineaste 29/3 (2004), pp. 30-38.

Glass, Charles. "The hour of the birth of death. Pontecorvo's long silence and the demise of political film-making." Times Literary Supplement (June 26th, 1998), pp. 20-21.

Ignatieff, Michael. "The terrorist as auteur." The New York Times - NYT Magazine (November 14th, 2004), pp. 50-58

Knudsen, Peter Øvig. Efter drabet [After the killing]. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2001.

Meddeb, Abdelwahab. "Quarante ans après. Conversation entre Marie-José Mondzain, Abdelwahab Meddeb et Jean-Michel Frodòn, à propos de " La Bataille d'Alger", revu aujourd'hui [40 years later. A conversation between M.-J. M, et al. apropos The Battle of Algiers, seen again today]." Cahiers du Cinéma (September 2004), pp. 66-69.

Morucci, Valerio. A guerra finita. Sei racconti [After the war. Six tales]. Roma: Manifestolibri, 1994.

Orlando, Valerie. Historiographic Metafiction in Gillo Pontecorvo's 'La bataille d'Alger': Remembering the 'Forgotten War'. Quarterly Review of Film & Video (October 2000, Vol. 17 Issue 3), pp. 261-272.

Pontecorvo, Gillo. "La Bataille d'Alger apprend à faire du cinéma [The Battle of Algiers teaches how to make cinema] (an interview with Jean Roy)." L'Humanité (May 22nd, 2004). Online:

http://www.humanite.presse.fr/journal/2004-05-22/2004-05-22-394165, seen 30.8.2004.

Said, Edward. "The Dictatorship of Truth. An Interview with Gillo Pontecorvo." Cineaste 25/2 (2000), pp. 24-25.

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