The Battle of Algiers provides a very clear and distinct interpretation of the clarifying oppression arguments given by de Beauvoir in Section 2, Chapter III of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Battle of Algiers provides the story of a revolutionary group in Algeria during the French colonization. The story follows a few different characters but focuses on the revolutionary Ali la Pointe and the French paratrooper commander Colonel Mathieu (played by Jean Martin who interestingly enough was a signatory of the Manifesto of 121 which denounced the Algerian War and was signed by both Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre). The film provides perspectives from both sides of the conflict. The main appeal to this storytelling method, I think, is the surprisingly reasonable insight given by Colonel Mathieu in observance of the Algerian people and their revolution. Colonel Mathieu seems to understand the reason for the resistance, perhaps because of his involvement with the French resistance during WWII.
The reading of oppression in de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is best summarized by “a situation [of oppression] is never natural: man is never oppressed by things … he does not rebel against things, but only against other men” (87). This entails the situation in which Ali is rebelling as a part of the oppressed. This is the conflict that Colonel Mathieu is called to settle, although he seems to recognize the futility in his efforts. When oppressed people, in this case the Algerians, rebel against their oppressors, the French, the revolution often turns violent as it does in this case with the systematic bombings of French areas. This is a common response to oppression and it indeed can lead to the oppressed becoming the oppressors, however, in this case Colonel Mathieu recognizes that that is not the problem when he asks the journalists “Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” He also states that the problem is simple, “the FLN want to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay” which sounds like simplifying the issue however it is merely attracting the idea that the French soldiers are not inherently bad people but their duty, as soldiers, is to win the fight. This is the importance of Colonel Mathieu’s character, providing the French perspective that is not immediately malicious. Oppressed people have only one solution according to de Beauvoir, “to deny the harmony of that mankind from which an attempt is made to exclude him, to prove that he is a man and that he is free by revolting against the tyrants” (89). Thus, is the importance of the contrast between Ali la Pointe and the tyrants that Colonel Mathieu represents, the French aristocracy. We see that this representation of the French situation provides an understanding of the unpopularity of the Algerian War from a large number of French people which is embodied in the Colonel Mathieu character. This character provides a realistic aspect of humanity in situations of oppression.
Many times the oppressors, despite the recognition of their wrongdoing, find it very difficult to change their ways due to a variety of factors that have to do with the complacency of their lives being upset a bit. However, the complacency will always be so long as the oppressed are people and people recognized that they are being oppressed as such. De Beauvoir speaks of this when she recognizes that humans cannot be oppressed by things that are not other humans. Colonel Mathieu likewise recognizes this when he comments on the French occupation of Algeria as being expectedly violent. In both cases, oppression fails to end until both parties refrain from oppressing. Problem occurs when the oppressed become the oppressors, however, that is a whole other paper.
One thing that particularly struck me while watching The Battle of Algiers for the first time is the way each death in the film--and, in truth, there are many--has a sense of heaviness. Ben M’Hidi, the intelligent, charismatic leader of the resistance is only in a couple scenes and his death doesn’t even take place on-screen, but still, upon hearing about it, the audience feels an unexpectedly deep sense of loss. Even when bombs are set off in the French district by the Algerian resistance group, director Gillo Pontecorvo fills the space between the bombs being planted and their detonation with shots of the different people occupying the space that is about to be destroyed. We’ve seen the horrible things happening to the people of Algiers, so the attack doesn’t seem unjustified, but we are still left with a few moments to look at individual characters who are about to be killed. However, this focus upon individuals is complicated by the death of Ali La Pointe, the character we have been following over the course of the film. After Ali’s death, The Battle of Algiers does not end, and we see more people carrying the mantle that Ali left behind. Individuals are given a great importance, but we also see the ways in which they work towards something larger than themselves and that the struggle does not end when they are lost. De Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, writes, “[I]f individuals recognize themselves in their differences, individual relations are established among them, and each on become irreplaceable for a few others. And violence does not merely provoke in the world the wrench of their sacrifice to which one has consented; it is also undergone in revolt and refusal” (116). This kind of recognition of individuality is at work both for the audience, as well as for the characters in the film. Each character who is a part of the resistance believes that they are part of something larger than themselves. At the same time, by virtue of the structure of the resistance group, in which each person is selected by one person to join the group and themselves selects two others, they also feel personally connected to the mission by virtue of these three other people. If one of these three people is lost, it will not feel like an anonymous death, but like the death of an individual that one has a connection to. Each time someone in the NLF dies, it is felt deeply and personally by three others. It is by harnessing this sense of personal connection and recognition of individuality that makes the revolution in Algiers so successful.