A Semiotic Analysis of the Battle Fo Algiers

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  • Topic: Algerian War, Gillo Pontecorvo, Algeria
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  • Published : February 16, 2011
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A Semiotic Analysis of The Battle of Algiers
The Battle of Algiers, which was produced in 1966 and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, is a film which explores the Algerian struggle for independence between 1954 and 1962. The film is constructed using a documentary style and was filmed on the actual locations where events unfolded. The Battle of Algiers is an example of neorealist filmmaking which purports to give an objective, realistic account of the battles waged between the FLN (National Liberation Front) rebels and the French military. The formal elements of style which create the narrative can be examined using semiotic theory in order to better understand how the viewer can be interpellated into particular ideological positions. Interestingly, the ideal viewing position is not easily recognisable, which is why the film works well in striking a balance in presenting the points of views of combating sides. Semiotics refers to the study of and meaning created by ‘signs’, which are composed of ‘signifiers’ and their ‘signifieds’. Semiotic systems are culturally contingent; they appeal to and are informed by ideology (O’sullivan, Hartley, Saunders, Montgomery & Fiske, 2004). Therefore, it may be significant to note that The Battle of Algiers is essentially a European production as the “key creative positions in the production of the film were occupied by Italians” (Wayne, 2001, p.9). With this in mind, it would appear that the characterisations which are constructed through the combination of formal filmic conventions can be seen to position the viewer into considering the futility of continued political control over a colonised state, regardless of the viewer’s ideological point of view. Ostensibly, the characterisations of the combatants from the FLN and the French military are polarised opposites. The FLN rebels are less organised, poorly funded, less literate and rely on deception and terror to further their cause. Opposed to this, the French paratroopers are well organised, disciplined, calculating, brutal, and use torture and modern weaponry to counter the rebels. The character of Ali La-Pointe can be read as the embodiment of the FLN, whereas Colonel Philippe Mathieu can be read as the embodiment of the French military. La-Pointe is played by non-professional actor, Brahim Haggiag, “a real life petty criminal” (Odeh, 2004). On the other hand, Colonel Mathieu is played by the only professional in the cast, Jean Martin (Odeh, 2004). La-Pointe is presented as being poorly educated and disenfranchised. His poor education is signified in the scene where he asks the boy messenger, Petit Omar, to read him a communication from FLN leader, Jaffar. Other signifiers of his poor education and low socio-economic status are his tatty clothing, unkempt appearance and lack of paid employment. La-Pointe is characterised as being ill-disciplined and short-tempered. This is signified clearly by La-Pointe punching a young Frenchman after he is called a ‘dirty Arab’. His past crimes, albeit petty, are signified by voiceover. La-Pointe is also impulsive in his role as a rebel leader. He is impatient to fight the French military and does not see the sense in the more measured approach suggested by Jaffar. Whilst La-Pointe is not a model citizen and is not easy to sympathise with he is, however, characterised as being a strong leader, courageous and loyal to his cause. La-Pointe’s characterisation perhaps works to interpellate the viewer into a position which favours a bourgeois ideology, because La-Pointe’s rise to eminence within the FLN is seemingly more out of vengeance and revenge, rather than any political manoeuvring or prowess. Ironically, this lack of political power which results in violence and terror adds authenticity to La-Pointe’s character and in so doing, his character positions the viewer to understand that the French hegemonic ideology is the root cause of the Arabs’ disenfranchisement. In contrast...
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