Political Positioning of the Camera and Mimicry in The Battle of Algiers
“Colonialism, Racism, and Representation: An Introduction,” by Robert Stam and Louise Spence concentrates on the depiction of characters within a film in terms of “certain dimensions of film” (878). The purpose of the first part of the article is to provide insight into the studies of filmic colonialism and racism with a focus on social portrayal, character and plot. For supporting their thesis, Stam and Spence use “key terms” such as colonialism, racism and Third World: “colonialism” is defined as a “process by which the European powers reached a position of economic, military, political, and cultural domination of much of Asia, Africa, and Latin America” (878), “racism,” indicates “the generalized and final assigning of values to real or imaginary differences, to the accuser’s benefit and at his victim’s expense, in order to justify the former’s own privilege” (879) and the term ‘The Third World,’ refers to the victims of colonialism.
The use of the ‘positive image’, as an idea often found in films of the middle 1900s, is another element discussed in the article. The “nature” of the positive image is described as inadequate since “black incarnations of patience and gradualism […] have always been more pleasing to whites than to blacks” (883). Aiming to represent some groups by “positive image”could indicate the lack of confidence in the portrayed group, therefore defeating the purpose.
The theme that mainly interested me concerns the analysis of the spectator or “political positioning” (885) in relation to the representation of racism and colonialism, highlighted especially in the Battle of Algiers, a film by Gillo Pontecorvo. In doing this analysis, Stam and Spence examine a sequence, where “traditional pattern of identification” is overturned (886).
The authors claim that the film constitutes a revolutionary breakthrough in that it creates conscious political sympathy with the Algerian people. Through scale and point of view editing, the spectator comes to identify with the struggle of Algerian women planting bombs in some cafè. In a second instance, the complete identification pushes us to admire the three women for their bravery, for being different from other women characters. In fact, it seems to me that what is really interesting, is the position of the women in this film, more than the act to plant bombs. The classic spectator is accustomed to see action and bravery in a male character. In fact, the three women represent the subversion of the image of the female character in most of the films. I assume that the position of the spectator is so complete as to overturn any ambiguity regarding the film’s message, actually “Pontecorvo ‘hijacks’ the techniques of mass media reportage – hand-held cameras, frequent zooms, long lenses, – to express a political point of view rarely encountered in establishment-controlled media (886-887). Indeed, there is a sequence (47:00) in which a French soldier is flirting with one of the three women, assuming she is not Algerian. Meanwhile, another soldier (47:02) is inspecting an Algerian. He is looking and smiling at the first soldier. The shot (47:02) shows us a triangle between the soldier, the Algerian and the woman. The “political positioning” of the camera induces the spectator to be on the side of the victim, in this case the Algerian, which we see just from the back. In this specific sequence the victim is not the woman, although, quoting Fanon, she is using “mimicry”. Her ability is to imitate the attitude of the colonizer. From my point of view, Pontecorvo is able to use the camera to show “mimicry” with the sequence, also described by Stam and Stence, where the three women “remove their veils, cut their hair and apply make up so as to look European” (887). The “political positioning” of the camera works in the same way as the mimicry for the colonized: both are used to induce the spectator and the colonizer to be sympathetic.
In analyzing another sequence of the film (1:35-1:51), we can clearly see who is the victim from the “political positioning” of the camera: the spectator is guided by the camera for standing by the emaciated and trembling Algerian. He is without clothes and surrounded by enemies – the French soldiers.
As suggested by Stam and Stence, even the use of the music plays an important rule in this sequence (2:30), where a close-up highlights the sadness of the victim to the spectator. Music is considered by the two authors as a crucial emotional element in regulating sympathy and establishing a political or cultural point of view. Going back to sequence, (2:02) the use of the “mimicry” represent another important element. If we compare the sequence in which there were the three women, the mimicry is chosen by them as a subversive aspect. By contrast, in the sequence with the emaciated Algerian (2:02) the use of mimicry is not chosen by the victim. He is forced to dress up a French soldier, to betray.
The authors highlight that the plot, framings, scale, music, off and on-screen sound are essentials for the representation of a character status. Characters are displayed to be admired or disregarded through image, scale and duration, therefore representing either equality or racism of characters on film.
According to the authors, it is essential to express the necessity of consciousness “of the cultural and ideological assumptions spectators bring to the cinema” (891). Furthermore, they underline the significance of a conscious understanding of the “mental machinery” (891), which structure the approach of viewing a film.