Weekend movie recommendations: Conflict and history in Algeria

January 19, 2013

This week's hostage crisis in Algeria, in which Islamist militants seized a gas complex in the Saharan desert, was in many ways rooted in the country's complex and often traumatic history. The story of Algeria since 1954, when the country began its long war for independence from France, is one of the most dramatic of the post-war era. It also happens to make for great movies.

If you're looking for some weekend entertainment that will help you better understand the world today, these are three great movies about Algeria. The cover the country's two major conflicts, the 1954-1962 war for independence and the 1991-1999 civil war, which deeply inform just about everything that happens there today. But, like any good movie, they're about much more, from the personalities and social forces driving Algeria to the tactile and emotional sensations of being there. And Algeria, a dramatically beautiful country from the Mediterranean coast to the Saharan desert to the pine-covered Atlas Mountains, makes a great backdrop.

Fair warning: all three are in French, which is commonly spoken in Algeria alongside Arabic; French audiences also have, unsurprisingly, a real fascination with the country. But think of it as an opportunity to watch a great movie that language would have otherwise kept you from encountering.

Of Gods and Men (2010)

The true story of this Christian monastery in the Atlas Mountains, and of the monks decision to stay as the civil war worsened, is in some really about the Algerians caught in the middle as the military and Islamists grew increasingly determined to destroy one another. It's also about these seven members of the Pied-Noir, the French settlers who arrived in Algeria when it was still considered part of France and remained after independence, neither fully Algerian nor French.

The Economist, which said that the film had "spellbound French audiences," called it "a remarkable study of spirituality and sacrifice, and how men of faith cope when their ideals are challenged by violent reality."

Outside the Law (2010)

This heavily political action film tells the story of Algeria's war of independence from the Algerian perspective – so much so that it drew French protesters when it premiered at the Cannes film festival. That theses two 2010 films about Algeria seemed to so talk past one another, looking at the same country from very different French and Algerian perspectives, tells you something about how deeply both societies are still wounded by their time as a unified state.

Outside the Law, which begins with the not-incorrect premise that horrific acts by the French military against Algerian civilians sparked the fight for independence, can get a little one-sided and syrupy. It's been criticized for glorifying violence in the name of Algerian nationalism, but you could probably say the same thing about a number of U.S.-made World War Two movies. Think of it as an entertaining, Hollywood-style window into how Algeria sees its was for independence, and itself.

The Battle of Algiers (1966)

It's hard to think of any film that is so cherished both by historians and by film scholars. The Criterion Collection issued its edition of the classic with this synopsis:

One of the most influential political films in history, The Battle of Algiers, by Gillo Pontecorvo, vividly re-creates a key year in the tumultuous Algerian struggle for independence from the occupying French in the 1950s. As violence escalates on both sides, children shoot soldiers at point-blank range, women plant bombs in cafés, and French soldiers resort to torture to break the will of the insurgents. Shot on the streets of Algiers in documentary style, the film is a case study in modern warfare, with its terrorist attacks and the brutal techniques used to combat them. Pontecorvo’s tour de force has astonishing relevance today.

Foreign Policy blogger and former Washington Post correspondent Tom Ricks has called it "of the best movies ever made, plain and simple" and, for its close study of insurgency and the politics of resistance and occupation, "the best film 'about' the Iraq war."

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Olga Khazan · January 19, 2013