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Return to Equinoxes, Issue 5: Printemps/Eté 2005
Article ©2005, Noëlle Giguère

Noëlle Giguère, Emory University

Characterizing the City: Space and Identity in The Battle of Algiers

The cinema has cast Algiers in many different roles from the eroticized colonial world of Pépé le Moko to the majestically crumbling façade of Bab el-Oued City 1. Despite its different incarnations, the cinematic Algiers always seems to bear an inscription of the French and Algerian conflict. In Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers , however, the city plays a much more important role than that of a simple background. The film's title reveals its historical context and indicates that the action will take place in the disputed space of the capital city but more importantly the title refers to the film's process of characterization. The conflict in the film isn't about people fighting for Algiers, rather the preposition “of” shows how the city itself is involved in the dispute; the film is about Algiers's battle. Throughout the film one finds that the representation of characters is directly linked to the representation of Algiers. The power struggle revolves around control of the city, but more important to the outcome of the film is the way in which characters manipulate space and are also formed by this space. Analyzing how the camera films the city (including the space between characters and the space between the characters and the spectator) reveals this characterization. The use of setting in character development, common in cinema, takes on a specific meaning in The Battle of Algiers ; the space of the city doesn't just reflect a character but reveals that character's agency. The city is not only a battleground for the warring French and Algerian sides, but it is also a catalyst for the emergence of a political Algerian identity.

In order to understand how characterization might work in relationship to space in the film, one must first understand how characters are inflected and reflected by this space. As Alex Woloch writes in The One vs. the Many 2, characterization is the intersection of a “character-space” and a “character system” (Woloch 14). While the first is the “encounter between an individual human personality and a determined space within narrative as a whole” the second is “the arrangement of multiple and differentiated character-spaces…in to a unified narrative structure” (Woloch 14). Essentially the character emerges through his or her relation to other characters within the narrative.

In the film narrative of The Battle of Algiers, not only do characters change the space around them, but the city itself shapes the characters. In this sense, Algiers is a “character-space” in its own right. The character and the city inform each other in the same way that Woloch describes character-spaces emerging in literary texts as a result of their interaction with each other:

the space of a particular character emerges only vis-à-vis the other characters who crowd him out or potentially revolve around him. It is precisely here that the social dimension of form emerges, revolving around the inflection rather than the simple reflection of characters (Woloch 18)

While one might imagine that the side that wins the battle in Algiers has control of the city, this isn't necessarily the case in the film. Since the city is a character, success in the fight becomes less a question of possessing the city than forming and being formed by that space.

The “production” of space, as Henri Lefebvre writes, is a society's way of establishing its “reality” (Lefebvre 53) 3. In this sense, The Battle of Algiers is much more about characterization than it first appears. As the Europeans take over the city and as the army invades and encircles the Casbah, the Algerians lose a means of identifying themselves as a society. By taking away space from another group, and indeed by forbidding this culture to produce its own social space, the colonizers absorb and negate the identity of the other culture 4. Before this happens, however, a clear line is drawn between the power available to the colonized space and the space of the colonizers; since the colonist perceives the indigenous space as inferior, actions must be taken to correct its difference in relation to the colonial space. It is no wonder then, that the Casbah is vilified in earlier filmic representations of Algiers as chaotic and disorganized in opposition to the highly organized and refined space of the colonizers.

In the opening scenes of the colonial era film Pépé le Moko , for example, French police discuss the difficulties of entering into a place that is so utterly fragmented that it resists their attempts to penetrate it. In order to illustrate their concerns, a shot of a map of Algiers at police headquarters dissolves into various shots of the Casbah. The sequence makes up an ethnographic litany of the different nationalities to be found therein, but the narration dwells on the most mysterious and uncontrollable segment of the population, the women. The eroticized and chaotic space of the Casbah is necessarily home to the “other.” This is apparent in the many scenes where people circulate within the Casbah. The space is confusing and dark, leaving the spectator without the power of navigating the space herself just as the French police are unable to infiltrate the space themselves.

In The Battle of Algiers, the Casbah is no longer a disorganized entity and its space, thus, no longer reflects this colonial binary. The city is, however, comprised of two warring spaces, a fact made clear in the establishing shot of the city. Subtitles mark the difference between the two spaces immediately: “La cité européenne” as opposed to “La Casbah”. Space characterizes the two sides by this distinction between the parts of the city. While there is still an opposition between colonist and colonized, the Casbah in The Battle of Algiers becomes a clear center of power. The FLN is able to organize the Casbah in order to direct its liberation movement. The first scenes of the film show the French breaking down Algerian space; however, I would argue that despite the display of French control, the Casbah remains a unified and powerful place.

The two opening scenes are visual echoes of one another, revealing how the colonists rob both the Algerian space and its people of their identity. In the first scene an Algerian torture victim informs the French of the whereabouts of the FLN leader Ali la Pointe. The French disguise him in a French army uniform and take him into the Casbah. The scene of the tortured informer is a precursor to the subsequent invasion of the man's home by hundreds of soldiers in the same uniform. The shots of the second sequence emphasize how the soldiers pour into the enemy space, covering all of its ground. In this second scene, the Casbah seems to be a space completely controlled by the French. Camera techniques such as tight framing, pans, and tilts emphasize the quick and purposeful movement of the soldiers. The image of an Algerian clothed in his enemy's uniform is an image that repeats in the invasion sequence as the hundreds of soldiers seem to clothe the Casbah in the same uniform. The submission of both the informer and the Casbah is symbolic, a visual interpretation of colonialism. Covering the informer's body is literal whereas covering the Casbah's body of space is metaphorical; yet, both involve the destruction and manipulation of a character.

Despite this show of seemingly unequivocal power, the invasion does not succeed in destroying signs of Algerian identity and agency. This invasion actually underlines the formidable threat that the FLN poses, a threat that the spectator slowly begins to understand through the privileging of an implied Algerian perspective. During the second sequence of the film, space becomes an element of characterization via the camera's framing of the Casbah. The shots of the soldiers from within the Casbah privilege a point of view that is at the same time that of the spectator and that of an Algerian within the Casbah. As the soldiers infiltrate the Casbah, the camera's eye catches these men from behind door frames and around corners such that the viewer is, in effect, hiding in the Casbah. Space, in this sense, is not concrete and objective but rather highly subjective. In these scenes the spectator begins to see how the film reverses the panoptic view of the colonizer; the gaze that controls the space belongs to an Algerian as opposed to a European soldier.

Ultimately, the film overcomes the traditional space binary between colonizer and colonized in order to show Algerian agency. One moment in the beginning of the film that emphasizes this fact is the flashback that interrupts the apprehension of Ali la Pointe and what would seem to be the end of the liberation movement. The flashback, which lasts for the rest of the movie, returns to earlier moments of the FLN and its leaders' coming to power. The spectator sees exactly how powerful the FLN becomes. I would argue that through this temporal disruption the film subordinates the lengthy invasion of the Casbah to the invasions of the European city by Algerians. Even though both sides take part in negating the space of the other, the spectator is more closely aligned with the Algerians. While the spectator does not experience a French soldier's viewpoint during the invasion of the Casbah, many scenes where the Algerians invade the European city do suggest, however, through the camera's position, that the spectator is following along with an FLN member.

One finds an interesting example of how agency is lent to Algerian characters in a scene where three Algerian women unveil themselves and then clothe themselves in a European fashion in order to infiltrate the European city and plant bombs. This scene is important in that the main characters are not only Algerians, but women. Whereas the veil has a highly erotic significance in colonial films, the veil in The Battle of Algiers is entirely political; the film subverts the sexual charge of the stereotypical European response to women unveiling themselves and instead shows this intimate action to be a sign of empowerment 5. In order to show the agency of the women performing an act that may seem to them so degrading, the film locates the viewer in the space where the women prepare themselves to enter the European city. The camera shoots the women's images in a mirror and then pulls back to reveal that the camera is actually looking over a woman's shoulder. Placing the spectator within the space of the film, as if he or she were in the room with the women, denies the voyeuristic and eroticizing pleasure of looking at the women in this intimate act without their knowledge. The spectator doesn't look at the women, but instead the film encourages the spectator to take in the actions in the sequence through the women's point of views. Just as in the invasion of the Casbah, this camera placement aligns the spectator's point of view with that of the Algerian characters in the film.

The women's reflections in the mirror do not establish their identity; rather the women take control of this identity by shaping it themselves. The women are not caught up in events, rather they are making choices. One woman's subjectivity becomes clear in the moment in which she hesitates while cutting off her braids in order to look more European. Though the moment reveals the difficulty of the decision it ultimately conveys the women's agency in this act; she takes control over her identity just as she will eventually exert her power over the European city. Through different shots in these scenes—first, the women getting ready and then the women entering into the city—the film continuously reveals the subjective decisions of the individuals. In the scenes following their introduction the women successfully evade the suspicion of the soldiers watching the barricade. In the city itself, the women continue to make choices as they have the powerful position of being face to face with their victims without their victims knowing who these women are and of what they are capable. A series of close-ups on the women's faces and different point of view shots that could be from the women's perspectives attest to the fact that this is a difficult decision. The close-ups in this sequence as well as in the rest of the film underline the relationship between agency, identity, and space.

In contrast to the intimacy of the Casbah, most scenes shot in the European city are shot with a telephoto lens. In the European city, the spectator feels more like an objective observer rather than someone sharing the space of the film with the characters because the European characters are consistently distanced from the space around them by a lack of point of view shots. The film emphasizes the wide boulevards and the open spaces of the European city that instead of rounding out the European characters, leave them static and unimpressive. As they move within the empty spaces of their quarter, these characters seem lost and unconnected with their surroundings. The spectator sees Europeans in the space of the city either through the distanced view point of the impersonal documentary camera or through the point of view of Algerian characters. One such moment is when the camera follows the gaze of a homeless Algerian man fleeing from the police as he stares up at the Europeans hanging over their balconies and pointing to him. While the space of the European quarter reflects the lifestyle of the colonists, the long shots in these sequences distances the spectator from the Europeans and thus alienates these characters from the spectator's perception of Algiers.

This does not mean, however, that the film denies the viewer a sense of the colonist's panoptic power. One brief example of seeing though the colonist's eyes is when Colonel Mathieu takes his binoculars and looks over the troops surrounding the Casbah. Even though the spectator's point of view is aligned with that of Colonel Mathieu, this scene reinforces the fact that his gaze is problematic. In this moment where the spectator shares Mathieu's perspective, the shot does not suggest complicity between the two. Like the shots of the European city through the telephoto lens, Mathieu's binoculars provide a distanced view. Thus, Mathieu's tool does not improve his vision but ironically shows the spectator how it is flawed; the shots from Mathieu's position forcefully direct the spectator's gaze through the outline of the binoculars. The spectator is rarely in a place where she gains access to Mathieu as a dynamic character within the story. Any time Mathieu's perspective is taken into account the spectator is aware of how the camera manipulates the shot. While this is the case with anything a spectator sees, in this film shots from an Algerian perspective do not point to their artificiality whereas Mathieu's perspective is noticeably mediated by camera and editing techniques.

During several moments, the treatment of point of view shots reinforces this difference. In one scene, Mathieu looks at the pictures of the four wanted FLN leaders before the image of these pictures cuts to the faces of the real men hiding in the Casbah. Even though the spectator sees what Mathieu sees, the next cut leads the spectator to something that is outside of Mathieu's range of vision. Back in the Casbah the spectator once again finds himself viewing the movement in the film from an Algerian's perspective (the camera follows Ali's gaze up to the hovering helicopter) without the visual tricks used in Mathieu's case. The same effect is produced when Mathieu and his men are watching films of the checkpoints outside of the Casbah and he misses the armed women infiltrating the European space in order to plant bombs (an act of which the spectator is, however, aware). The colonel's point of view is continuously shown to be problematic. These points of view are important in that they show a reflexive distance between the spectator and Mathieu. This ability to see through both eyes (the Algerians' and Mathieu's) may suggest a kind of political ambivalence 6; yet, this fact also explains something specific about each character and his or her relation to the city's space.

It is no coincidence then that the film introduces the FLN leader Ali la Pointe and Colonel Mathieu with the same type of voice over. Their histories heard in the voice over are not what give them importance in the film, rather it is the emphasis the film puts on their perspectives. Ali's résumé presents him as street smart yet uneducated hoodlum who then realizes his potential as a force within the FLN. Mathieu's record highlights his military victories, the fight against the FLN supposedly being his next. These characters seem to be historically accurate representations of individuals who fought during Algeria's battle for independence. What makes the characters more dynamic, however, is the way then interact with and within the space of the film. Ultimately the film privileges Ali's agency over Mathieu's panoptic power and as a result, Mathieu does not represent a human subject in the film but rather a machine. The spectator's first introduction to Mathieu takes places as he leads French troops into the city. Marching out alone in front of the troops and apart from the citizens lining the street, Mathieu is kept apart from the spectator. His involvement with both space and characters in the film is almost always one of distance. In contrast, the film validates Ali's perceptions of the city and its people. Ali la Pointe always seems connected with the space of the city and the space of other characters. This is certainly the case when Ali and other residents of the Algerian quarter pour into the streets, ready to protest a bombing in the Casbah.

The film demonstrates the importance of Ali's point of view when Ali witnesses the execution of a fellow Algerian. In this scene, space plays an important role in the spectator's understanding of Ali. Ironically, this sequence takes place in a French prison. In a film such as Pépé le Moko the colonist's space is untouchable by the Algerians in the Casbah (with the exception of Slimane, a character who moves between the two spaces with ease). An Algerian inside a French space would have no hope of asserting his own power. In the Battle of Algiers , however, this colonial space is necessary for the creation of Ali's political agency. Though we are in a space so completely defined by panoptic power the film denies the French guards the privilege of looking, the sequence focusing instead on Ali's gaze. Ali sits with other prisoners as they respond to the final cries of the condemned man as he is marched out into the courtyard. Ali runs up to a barred window and the viewer sees what Ali is sees: the condemned man's march to the guillotine. Interestingly, the next shot doesn't return to a close up of Ali's eyes, but to the wall of the prison marked by small slits of windows. While this shot serves the purpose of establishing from where Ali looks down on the courtyard, it also indicates the possibility that Ali is not the only prisoner witnessing the event. This shot suggests that there could be many other men just like Ali who are gaining political awareness of their surroundings and the repercussions of the colonization of their home. Once the viewer hears the guillotine fall, the shot returns to a close-up of Ali's eyes. In this moment the space which, in the earlier shots of the prison, had been separated by distance, bars, and walls now collapses into an intense and subjective look. The space of the prison is not powerful and objective in the film; instead, it is another place that the spectator sees through an Algerian perspective. The prison transforms Ali, and indeed it is because of this change that he becomes a political and revolutionary figure.

Algiers as a “character-space” works in a particular way throughout the film, to form and be formed by other characters. No sequences better describe the effects of this process than the first and last ones of the film. The first scenes show the French soldiers alienated from the space around them as they attempt to control the Casbah. The final scenes also show an invasion but this time it is the Algerians who are descending into the European quarter. Even though some of the final demonstrations are filmed with the same distancing telephoto lens as in earlier scenes in the European city, by the last day of the protests the camera has moved completely into the Algerian space. In contrast to the mechanical and distanced maneuvers of the French soldiers in the beginning of the film, the movement of the Algerian crowd in the final scenes works less to show its control of the city than to show its relationship with the space. The camera, lost among the crowd, films the faces of the protesters. As the camera moves from one individual to another, it emphasizes the perceptiveness and political engagement of Algerian characters in the film. While the somewhat mythical image of chanting Algerians emerging from the smoke might seem to depoliticize the film, it remains inherently radical in its privileging of Algerian subjectivity and agency.


1 Bab el-Oued City. Dir. Merzak Allouache. Arab Film Distribution, 1994.

2 Alex Woloch's book, while about characters in literature, offers a theory of characterization that could be applied to films as well. In his book he takes a different approach to characters than seeing them as either real or textual; instead, he looks at the tension between a character's realistic traits as a person in the world and the character's textual signification. As a result, he is able to discuss the sense of importance given to characters in relation to other characters and in relation to the structure of the text itself.

3 The filmic space of which I write is not the same social space that Lefebvre discusses in his book, but his question “To what extent may a space be read” (Lefebvre 17) is important to my argument.

4 One finds an example of this importance of taking away social space from Algerians in the “Plan Obus” of the architect Le Corbusier. In the designs not only was part of the Casbah razed, but other “indigenous” parts of the city were to be exploited for tourism. In addition, the structure of the city would have reflected the hierarchy of the colonial institution, “with the dominating above and the dominated below” (Celik 43).

5 This sequence echoes Frantz Fanon's discussion of the veil in the chapter “L'Algérie de dévoile” of his book L'an V de la révolution algerienne . In this chapter Fanon discusses the veil as an important symbol in the fight between the French and the Algerians. For the French, convincing Algerian women to adopt European customs and dress was considered imperative to colonization, but as Fanon notes, when female FLN members took off their veils it was in support of preserving Algerian culture. One could argue that this sequence simplifies female participation in the liberation by smoothing over the conflict inherent in their actions in their own culture, but this paper's issues deal more with the focused and unified Algerian perspective privileged in the film.

6Michael Wayne writes in his article “The Critical Practice of Third Cinema” that the film loses its subversive power in that it does not make use of “historical shading” in its narration. Perhaps providing more historical background in the individual and collective background of the Algerians with more documentary techniques unaltered by the formal use of the camera would give the film its “historical shading”. Yet, creating a feeling of Algerian subjectivity through the formal elements of the film works in the same way as showing their fight within a historical context. I would argue that the use of space in the film helps create Algerian agency in the narrative just as well as historical information.


The Battle of Algiers. Dir. Gillo Pontecorvo. Criterion Collection, 1967.

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Fanon, Frantz. L'an V de la révolution algérienne. Paris : La Découverte, 2001.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of a Prison.
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Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space . Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Oxford:
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Pépé le Moko . Dir. Julien Duvivier. Criterion Collection, 1936.

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Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the
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