Franco Solinas
Original publication:
Translation: PierNico Solinas

Interview about The Battle of Algiers (1972)

24 minutes | English

Franco Solinas was an Italian communist and acclaimed scriptwriter. Here he discusses, with interviewer PierNico Solinas (no relation), his work on the celebrated Italian-Algerian co-production The Battle of Algiers (1966).

Interviewer: Over lunch you said that around the time of Para and afterward with The Battle of Algiers you felt that colonialism was a most urgent theme. What in particular made you feel that way?

Solinas: The times we were living in. They were times when European politics were stagnating for two main reasons. First, the working class was thought of as completely integrated, it seemed nonexistent in relation to the revolutionary cause. Second, a deep analysis of the political situation had completely ruled out the possibility of a revolution on our continent. You can understand how the explosions of colonial contradictions, the revolutions, the armed struggles that then were erupting from Cuba to Algeria in the entire geography of the Third World stirred up hope as well as interest. You had come to believe that capitalism seemingly undefeatable at home could have been defeated once and for all in its supplying bases. In a way it was the same hope that was later to be theorized on the one hand by Lin Biao with the strategy of “the country and the city” and on the other by Frantz Fanon’s proposal to abandon the traditional models and means in the construction of a different civilization.

Interviewer: How then did you view colonialism?

Solinas: As a confrontation between the human reality of a country of the Third World awakening to history through sufferings, hardship, ugliness, racial and physical destruction and Europe, a race that had been able to become handsome, elegant, refined at the other’s expense. I was not simply trying to show that colonialism is wrong, since that is a fact that colonialists themselves agree upon. Instead I was interested in the relationship of two conflicting forces and the technique used to resolve their confrontation.

Interviewer: Can we assume you had a didactic intention preparing the movie?

Solinas: Yes, sure. I was intrigued by the mechanism of the struggle against colonialism and in particular by its manifestation in Algiers through tactics of urban guerrilla warfare. I meant to explain these tactics, the details of their function, by taking them apart from within to show how the mechanisms work. You could say that our goal was not guerrilla for the sake of the spectacle but the use of spectacle to teach the guerrilla.

Interviewer: Why choose France to represent one of the two sides of that confrontation?

Solinas: Well, after analyzing several colonial situations France appeared to embody the terms of one half of our dialectic. She was at the same time a colonial power and the most representative example of the bourgeoisie, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution. Politically she posed a contradiction between the slogans, phrases, rhetoric — in other words the form of the bourgeois revolution — and its contents — the everyday practice of domination, oppression, torture.

Interviewer: How much of the Para script was used in The Battle of Algiers?

Solinas: None. It only provided the fundamental inspiration, the conflict between Western civilization and the filth of the colonial regime.

Interviewer: Did the Algerians exert any pressure as far as the political weight of the story goes?

Solinas: None whatever. Let’s just say that they might have preferred a more traditionally heroic film. [1]

Interviewer: What were your most important sources of documentation?

Solinas: The newspapers and the police records of the day, the books written in France and Algeria, and the theories of French colonels.

Interviewer: What theories?

Solinas: In Indochina the French had discovered Mao’s writing on guerrilla warfare and General Giap’s techniques and strategies. Of course they tried to theorize a counterguerrilla strategy in Algeria. They even obtained some results, but their strategy had a major shortcoming — their counterguerrilla warfare had no ties with the people. It was a purely abstract theory divorced from any national reality. That’s why, even using Mao’s and Giap’s techniques in reverse, they couldn’t have won in the long run. And in effect, they didn’t, even though they did win the battle of Algiers.

Interviewer: Who is Colonel Mathieu?

Colonel Mathieu

Solinas: Mathieu sums up the personalities of three or four colonels who actually existed. He is a kind of improved synthesis in that each individual colonel was much less lucid and alert. Mathieu is not a realistic character in the traditional sense but rather embodies a realistic idea: the “rationality” that supports a certain kind of society and should not be ignored. In order to expose the principles of that “rationality” in the film the character of Mathieu must demystify the intermediate, rhetorical, contradictory, sentimental positions that usually mask the reality. Mathieu’s straightforwardness exposes the unstated “rational” aspects of civilization that France, for one, never officially recognized.

Interviewer: Mathieu seems too respectable, too much of a gentleman in fatigues, excessively noble. He is elegant, cultured…

Solinas: There was no intention to create nobility. Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.

Interviewer: Perhaps he is a bit too logical…

Solinas: Why? The enemy, too, possesses logic which must not be ignored or underestimated.

Interviewer: Yes, but his is a form of logic which concludes that even torture is necessary and acceptable.

Solinas: Of course, but you don’t attack colonialism for using torture. If you like, you can call torture only the “signal” indicating a decaying situation; but do not wait for the exposure of torture to become aware of the colonial situation. If you do, you are both irresponsible and naïve. The Algerian colonial situation was rotten long before torture became an issue. The truth of the matter is that France never considered the problem. The colonial situation interested her only indirectly and vaguely. Even the French Left held an ambiguous position regarding the problem. Suddenly the question of torture explodes and in France they say it’s unethical to torture. Then and only then is the Algerian war a “dirty war,” colonialism wrong, and the French position anti-historical. In my opinion this kind of reasoning is hypocritical because war is not ethics, war is not fair play. You can find the same attitude in the U.S. now where every once in a while people remember to be shocked by Vietnam. They are shocked by the occasional newspaper disclosures about the shattering effect of some of the weapons being used in the war. Yet they never really question the war itself. Once it was napalm or the defoliants, then the plastic pellet bombs or carpet bombing. Those plastic pellets, for example, are not detected by X-rays and inevitably cause death. It is the same attitude — a romantic, nineteenth-century attitude — that led to the Geneva Convention which established the rules for the kinds of bullets allowed in war. For instance the dum-dum bullet is not permitted. Bullets must have a copper nose which, unlike lead, has some solidity and does not expand upon hitting the bones. Thus, only if a man is wounded in a vital part does he die; if he’s wounded in non-vital parts he survives. This kind of reasoning is ridiculous. For centuries they’ve tried to prove that war is fair play, just like duels; but war is not and therefore any method used to fight it is good. When French Intelligence proved that the Algerians also used torture — and they did too — the entire group of French intellectuals was again shocked and began saying, “Well, if the Algerians do it too, then…” So the discussion was again about fair play. But that’s not the point. It is not a question of ethics or fair play. What we must attack is war itself and the situations that lead to it, not the methods used to fight it. Actually, Mathieu is extremely sincere when he rationally and pitilessly says that torture is inevitable and that those who want a French Algeria must steel themselves to it. If his position is immoral and inhuman because it tries to halt a historical process, at least he is honest in his dishonesty. He dispenses with hypocrisy. He has no use for it.

Interviewer: In the movie the French only use torture against supposed NLF members, and then according to an understandable military strategy. Mathieu puts it this way: “Our method is interrogation and interrogation becomes a method when conducted in a manner so as to obtain a result — that is, an answer.” Yet we know that the paras deliberately and indiscriminately did horrible things in Algeria against men, women, children…

Solinas: Don’t you see that you are still making a distinction between kinds of torture? Torture is torture whether the victim be man, woman, or child. The question of deliberately and indiscriminately using torture or any other war method, for that matter, is that if you do not you might lose the war. Naturally the French General Staff would have never honestly tolerated the rapes that took place in Algeria, the paras cutting open the bellies of pregnant women and so on. And if they had found out about these things they would probably have said, “What can you expect, that’s war.” And they would have been right. The story had to be told from a rational point of view based upon the logic of the events rather than upon their appearance. And as I was saying before, I felt compelled to present the events in this light because my position was against a hypocritical, phony, romantic, fictionalized idea of war.

Interviewer: Why make Colonel Mathieu an enemy who is not hateful?

Solinas: I don’t believe in depicting the enemy as hateful. I think that hating enemies becomes inevitable because a beastly mechanism is set in motion in the day-to-day struggle for survival which you find in a warlike environment. You can say that the Algerian partisan hated the French youth du contingent the same way the Vietcong hates the G.I. — but then I wonder, does he really? Let’s assume he does — and kills him. If you remove him from a situation which he himself did not choose, that hate becomes wrong and senseless. On the historical level there is no hate; problems are confronted in a different manner.

Interviewer: Obviously Colonel Mathieu represents France and Ali la Pointe Algeria. But why choose a pure fighter, a man with no ideology at all for the latter?

Ali la Pointe

Solinas: Because in the Algerian revolution in place of an ideology we find a colonial reality that could no longer express itself, that could not last, that had become unbearable for the Algerians. The NLF began without any political theory. Unlike the situation in Vietnam today, for example, in Algeria at the time of the battle of Algiers the Communist Party no longer existed. It had long since been absorbed or eliminated. The only branch of the NLF which had a political program was the federation of the Algerians in France. Metropolitan France had afforded them the opportunity to develop more sophisticated political ideas, ideas with socialist leanings.

Interviewer: There were other revolutionary movements in Algeria, the MNA for instance; they are never mentioned in the movie so that the role of the NLF seems monolithic…

Solinas: The reason is that those groups were eliminated long before the battle of Algiers. Their leaders were either terrorized or killed by the NLF. The battle of Algiers was fought by the NLF alone, and as a matter of fact with disagreement among its leaders. The so-called “historical leaders” of the Algerian revolution, except for Ben M’Hidi, considered the battle of Algiers a political error. They were against assaults and terrorism.

Interviewer: In the movie the Algerians’ indiscriminate assaults follow the placement of a bomb in Rue de Thèbes by the Assistant Commissioner. In a sense you could say they were justified. Was this the real sequence of events?

Solinas: Yes. Until the Assistant Commissioner’s act of terrorism which cost thirty-two lives the NLF assaults were directed at the police or against traitors, and never at the European population indiscriminately. The bombings at the Milk Bar, Air France, etc. all followed that first one in Rue de Thèbes.

Interviewer: Many factors that helped Algeria carry its revolution ahead are never mentioned. To quote a few: the fact that the war was costing France six hundred million dollars a month (and the battle of Algiers was causing that figure to rise daily) bleeding its economy dry, that Tunisia was helping Algeria… It is somewhat biased to show the Algerians fighting solely with their own means.

Solinas: Yes, this is perhaps biased; yet the most important fact among all others which the film intends to emphasize is the reason for Algeria’s final victory — armed struggle. I am convinced that Algeria did win with its own means because if the Algerians had not acted as they acted, suffered as they suffered, resisted and fought as they did, then Algeria might still be French today. But it is also true that the events did not take place in a crystal ball unaffected by other factors on the international scene.

Interviewer: In the movie the UN is presented as completely useless. It is also biased to attack the UN since the UN played more than one role in the Algerian revolution and in one of these was actually in favor of the Algerians.

Solinas: Yes, this is true. But here too the emphasis was on stressing the vital importance of armed struggle. The UN’s usefulness — when indeed the UN can be useful — takes too long for the people to wait.

Interviewer: Did you intend it to be a Marxist movie?

Solinas: I used Marxist procedures in preparing and writing the film. So for me The Battle of Algiers is the result of those procedures: an analysis of two conflicting forces motivated by contingent rather than idealistic terms.

Interviewer: An Italian movie critic who belongs to an extreme left group has written that General De Gaulle liked The Battle of Algiers, implying that it was even accepted by rightists.

Solinas: I don’t know whether or not De Gaulle liked the movie but I wouldn’t be shocked if he did. I do know for a fact that the French government would not allow its release in France for five years. Besides, my point is that there are infinite ways to represent reality. Once you choose to represent it in a certain way, it can never be repudiated — not even by someone with opposite views. Anyway De Gaulle was not the average representative of the opposition because you can’t forget that he had the intelligence to put an end to the Algerian situation. In any case an acceptable piece of criticism would use other criteria; however, if you want to continue along those lines, I should say that many revolutionary movements throughout the world have taken the film and made good use of it. This is far more important to me than any opinion De Gaulle might have had about The Battle of Algiers.

Interviewer: Why do you write political films? Is it because of your militancy in the Communist Party?

Solinas: I don’t believe that a sense of mission exists for me or that I am motivated to write political films because of my political militancy. The topic that interests me most is politics. If we talked about obligation or duty it would mean that a Communist intellectual had given up his freedom, while on the contrary the work of a Communist intellectual can only be the result of his own free ideal choice.

Interviewer: Do you think that political films can be of political usefulness?

Solinas: Let’s first say that movies have an accessory and not a decisive usefulness in the various events and elements that contribute to the transformation of society. It is naïve to believe that you can start a revolution with a movie and even more naïve to theorize about doing so. Political films are useful on the one hand if they contain a correct analysis of reality and on the other if they are made in such a way to have that analysis reach the largest possible audience.

Interviewer: How do you go about writing a movie?

Solinas: I never begin with a mechanical idea or situation but with a theme, usually a political topic — although I have written some more commercial products for survival or just for fun. After finding a theme and, as in The Battle of Algiers, a long period of information gathering, I write an outline. Then I expand the story and write the screenplay in a narrative form, as if it were a novel. I write in a way that compensates for my frustrations at being an ex-novelist and offers a number of suggestions, tips, to the director. In my screenplays I write exactly what has to be seen. I use certain descriptions, express certain states of mind, maybe give the sense of landscape, or add a detail that might make you smile since it does not exactly belong in a screenplay. But I do so because I like to think that these tips are enriching when compared to a sketchy presentation.

Interviewer: When we were talking earlier you mentioned that you write your films on a blackboard. How do you do it? There is not too much room on a blackboard…

Solinas: When I work at the blackboard I jot down flashes of ideas — police, city, police patrolling city — so that I am able to see the succession of facts, the probability and timing of the story, the audience’s interest, and so on. I don’t write about “characters” but about facts, so by using a blackboard I can exercise visual control. This is possible also because the films I write have an extremely rational structure; they are a lot more precise than they seem in their final form where they are somewhat “polished.” After writing this first synthesis I start all over again, expanding the central theme. It is still in a concise way, unfinished with points left to solve and clarify. Then I leave the blackboard and write the script and new problems arise. Working in detail what constituted a scene on the blackboard, in the script might be handled as a few lines of dialogue. The opposite is also true: what had been a few lines of dialogue could be worked into a whole scene.

Interviewer: Did you ever consider directing a movie — The Battle of Algiers, for example?

Solinas: Years ago when I realized that the novel was no longer important, that fiction, generally speaking, was no longer enough — and this position hinges on my political beliefs — and I turned to the movies, I never considered directing. I chose to be a screenwriter because I am a writer and I enjoy writing. Besides you must also remember that when I began working in cinema directors and screenwriters existed as separate entities — it was almost a fixed rule that you couldn’t do both. A couple of years ago I became aware of just how much screenwriting is a halfway thing, how limited a say one has in the realization of the script, how the creative process is carried only to a certain point and no further. Then there are the inevitable conflicts with the director, the difficulty in finding a director who can adapt his way of thinking to yours and vice versa. So you begin to think maybe… But as time goes by it becomes increasingly difficult to make a choice like that — to direct. You need know-how, ways to get things moving… Besides, I must admit that I never think about directing a movie until after I have written it. If they told me to direct The Battle of Algiers when I started writing it, I would have refused, because at that point I am only interested in writing. However, once the screenplay is written, I sometimes do get the urge to direct it myself. I’d have to approach it very cautiously, humbly, because frankly I am not sure how good a director I’d be. In any event I inevitably think about it when the script is finished; maybe it is because I feel closer to the film then.

Interviewer: You just finished writing a movie. Is it political?

Solinas: Yes, it is. It is a story based on an actual chronicle which took place in Latin America a few years ago, a story that tries to explain some of the ways used by imperialism to penetrate, dominate, and, when it succeeds, alter the reality of Latin America today. [2]

[1] Incidentally, I would have too. The “anti-Stalinist” pessimism of this film is my only real critique of it. — R. D. 

[2] This is a reference to State of Siege (1972), although Solinas was evidently fascinated by revolutionaries in Latin America, a theme he returned to many times: A Bullet for the General (1967), The Mercenary (1968), Tepepa (1969), Burn! (1969, a personal favorite), and The Assassination of Trotsky (1972). — N. F.