Interview: Saadi Yacef on the Role and Representation of Women in The Battle of Algiers—Both Film and Reality
[Trigger warning for discussion of sexual assault and rape.]
I had the honor recently, in relation to the 4K restoration and 50th anniversary of the iconic film The Battle of Algiers, to speak to Saadi Yacef, a former leader from Algeria’s National Liberation Front and Senator. Yacef wrote a book about his experiences, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, and then produced the Gillo Pontecorvo film which he also acts in as El-hadi Jafar.
With a French translator at New York’s Film Forum, Yacef talked about the events of the film with me and the implications of labeling something a “battle.” Additionally, we talked about the role of women in the movement and their portrayal in the film. Something that’s always challenging in capturing a historical event is the question of how much and how little violence you show—a question that become especially important when you’re talking about violence towards women.
Charline (TMS): How do you feel about the way the film has been adopted by so many revolutionary movements?
Saadi Yacef: Algeria was colonized by the French for 132 years, and at the time it was originally colonized, France was the third most powerful country in the world—and they had just lost a war with Great Britain and because of that. They were at a point where they really decided, they really dared to make Algeria a department of France—to make it a part of France—and so, what they did, they had lost this war, they were in terrible economic situation at the time, there were a lot of preservers—they were people who were less-reputable that they wanted to get rid of. They needed to populate the newly colonized Algeria so these people were sent there as colonists of Algeria.
I think when you’re talking about what to place in Algeria, 132 years of colonization—we would have these uprisings every 10 or 20 years and the Algerians fought and they fought with knives. Knives or hunting rifles, and how could they really fight against the French cannons? At the same time the French wanted this to be a populated colony for themselves, so they were bringing people from all over to settle in the area and they came and they settled. And the Algerians had helped the French during the war. They had been promised independence, but at that point, as it often is the case in colonization, one Frenchman was considered to be the equal of 10 Algerians. This is not something that is unusual in occupying countries. And so, from that point on the Algerians began to question, well, “Why are we supporting them? Why are we doing this?”
I think also that at the time there had been, in the situation that we were living in, the people were living very poorly. They were in miserable condition and during the second world war the Algerians had helped the French but had not received anything in return—and were impoverished and there had actually been a massacre that took place in Constantine which is one of the cities in Algeria where 45 thousand people had been killed. Algerians by the French. And so, I think it was important for us that at that moment, we took stock and we realized that France was in a very weak position, had been occupied in only 13 days by the Germans, there had been a revolt in Madagascar that they had to put down and didn’t put down very successfully, they had fought in Vietnam and had to withdraw, so France itself was a very weak power and it tried to hold on to its empire. But, for example, France went into Tunisia and it tried to get rid of the leader on the grounds that he had helped the Germans in WWII and they went into Morocco and saw the king of Morocco and were still trying to bring together their own French empire. But they were so weak at that point that they weren’t successful. We decided at that point—we, a small group of men, myself included—that this was really the time that we should start our revolution. We really looked at it from the perspective of if we try and we don’t succeed, well, we tried and too bad. But, if we tried and we do succeed, then we can bring all the people with us and this was really the story of what was our particular revolt, which is what we’re showing in the film.
And so, what happened was everyone was joining us. We had old women, old men, we had kids, everyone was joining us and everyone understood there was a possibility that they would die or that they could be sent to prison, but they continued to join us. Gradually, this small circle of people expanded larger and larger. What the French did was, they brought in one million, two-hundred-thousand foreigners coming into Algeria to try to prevent that from happening.
That’s when we realized: this was a war that we could wage for a long time. Remember, we’re the ones fighting with the knives and they’re the ones fighting with the cannons. So we recognized it was a struggle we would have to continue over a long period of time, but that little by little we would ultimately succeed—because what was gonna happen was it was going to cost the French an awful lot of money to maintain.
It’s called the “Battle of Algiers,” when I wrote the book and the film and it’s the “Battle of Algiers” in quotation marks because this was no battle. A battle is Napoleonic, where you have armies with equal weapons. This was one side with a knife and the other side with a very big gun.
I’m going to tell you why I called it The Battle of Algiers. Why did I call it the Battle of Algiers when you have a very un-battle-like battle? About 3 or 4 years ago I was here and a professor asked me that question. I said, well, was it a battle? Yes, actually it was because if France had won the war it would have never left Algeria, but because we succeeded in getting them to leave, on mass, it became a battle.
TMS: I was wondering if you could tell me more about the role of women in the battle and how you chose to portray them in the film.
Yacef: We wanted to film the fact that women really did play a role in the war. That they themselves went and placed the bombs. The role they played, they played a very big role. They helped us in so many ways, they would help the people who had nothing to eat—they would find food for them. They would hide us in their homes when we needed, they would make food so everyone was fed. They would also look out for soldiers and let us know what was happening, so truly, I have to tell you that women played such an important role that without them we would not have won.
Those are the kind of things that happened in war, but the role the women played were really extraordinary and they were very brave. And they were involved because many of them had lost a son or lost a father. They were Algerian too, so it was their struggle as well. And that’s how we experienced the war, we experienced the torture, one of the things I didn’t want, to show torture actually being done but I wanted to show all the places where torture was taking place.
TMS: Weren’t many of the women tortured as well?
Yacef: Many. And raped as well.
TMS: And we don’t really see that in the film.
Yacef: No, I wouldn’t show that in the film. They had the women stripped naked, I’ve written about it but we would not dare to show something like that. But, we said women actually put bombs too so it tells the whole story.
TMS: In the film, Ben M’Hidi has a quote where he says the hardest battle is after the revolution. Now that you’ve spent time in politics, do you still feel that that is true?
Yacef: I think that for us, when we were fighting during that time it was a long struggle for us. Many people lost a father, a son, a brother, and it was a struggle that went on for many years. But what we ultimately did was, we made France afraid, and they retaliated by sending more than 40 different houses where torture was taking place. We still had the people coming to join us, so in a sense that’s what helped us achieve what we achieved, even though there were some defections—they lost their reason or for whatever reason both men and women went over to the French side.
In retrospect, in a way, that period was the easier period. The period after was more difficult because you’re dealing then not only with our country but also a world where you have events like Nagasaki and Hiroshima taking place and you have struggles everywhere and people talking about peace. But what does that mean, peace? What does it mean when you’re talking about peace but at the same time you’re producing arms and you’re making these arms available to people like ISIS so that they can go and kill people? ISIS has no place in Islam. It was much more difficult after not only in Algeria, but also because of the world as it is, so what I’m advocating is that the armaments stop as a step to getting some peace.
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