50 years ago, Gillo Pontecorvo won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with his revolutionary masterpiece The Battle of Algiers. CG Entertainment, an Italian start-up, organised a crowdfunding campaign to publish the restored edition of the film. To support the initiative, they asked me to gather some thoughts in response to the work. The initial English version of the text, To Resist is to Exist was published by With Kashmir. What follows is an expanded version of that article with a further reflection on the idea of resistance.
Fifty-two years ago Gillo Pontecorvo shot The Battle of Algiers, a revolutionary film that tells the story of the Algerian resistance. The film is a three-year-long flashback reconstructing the initial steps of the liberation movement: from 1957 all the way back to November 1954 when the leaders of the National Liberation Front started gathering people and consensus. The story is narrated from the militants’ point of view and gives a very humane insight into the choices that paved the way to the dramatic, but necessary process of decolonisation.
Five decades later, the film still speaks to the present with immense relevance. The historical terms may have changed, but the substance remains the same. Oppressors, fascisms, colonialisms both past and present reiterate trite arguments to perpetuate their own existence and assert an idea of an immutable past to legitimise their privileges. The benevolent paternalism of power, the infantilisation of the Other, the discrimination on the ground of religion and skin colour survive their own stupidity.
In response to an unjust and apparently immutable status quo, resistance – in its political, civil, disobedient, armed forms – continues to live and reclaim the right of self-determination, of an equal access to resources, of the possibility of being the author of one’s own history. 1957 Algeria is Palestine during the Intifadas, it is Kashmir in the bloodied summer of 2016, it is the protest of American Indians in the Standing Rock Reserve.
Some time ago during an animated conversation about Kashmir, an Indian friend encouraged me grow up and be more realistic saying that in the wake of the violence of those in power, it is the duty of the oppressed to acknowledge and accept the disparity of means. It is the responsibility of the oppressed not to be killed if the oppressor has the tools and the impunity to perpetrate such deed. He was not discounting the injustice behind the situation, he was trying to find a way to minimise losses. He told me to learn to tell idealism from realpolitik: it is time to grow up and face reality as sacrifices for freedom have never lead anywhere.
After the publication of the earlier version of this text on With Kashmir, our conversation resumed – this time online as we are currently in two different countries. He told me that he was not suggesting to compromise. “I am happy enough that people resist injustice and oppression, but I am not pleased with resistance that increases the oppression without increasing the chances of victory.” He further argued that the short and medium term costs are too high and horrific and did not believe that “a movement that sacrifices the lives, eyes and livelihoods of its constituent members, will offer a life of freedom.” I do understand where his argument comes from and I never thought he meant to invite me to compromise. This conversation was extremely enlightening and I am grateful he allowed me to reproduce it in this text. From this exchange, I realised that what political violence is doing is to mine the foundations of a different philosophical imagination of the present and the future. I realised that my problem with his argument was that invoking a certain kind of realism is what limits the visionary potentials of imagining resistance. A material evaluation of the costs may only lead to a practical approach that cannot aim higher than the lesser evil. Nobody wants to die, but there are people who may be ready to sacrifice their lives to liberate themselves from what they perceive as personal, political, moral slavery. No-life is better than a life of oppression.
That’s where the whole difference lays. Costs are indeed high and horrific, the deaths and maimed bodies in Kashmir speak volumes. The blind and blinding violence of the State does not stop, but so does resistance. And it is driven by a movement that is popular, spontaneous, transgenerational – a movement that has nothing to do with institutional leaders, but has everything to do with how women, men and youth want to think of themselves both as individuals and as a collectivity. Daring to challenge what is perceived as the impossibility of a different reality harbours the germinating potentials of resistance. And those potentials are exemplary and contagious, they are deemed to grow and multiply – maybe slowly, perhaps invisibly, but they cannot be suppressed.
So, my friend is right: it is true, in days of migrant boats lost at sea, of refugee camps surrounded by electrified enclosures and of right to movement denied on the grounds of religion, it is time to grow up. And it is time to be more realistic by acknowledging that we are constantly encouraged to bet on survival and to forget our existence. Survivalist shortcuts are “realistic,” safe and clear. The unbeaten path of resistance is vertiginous – and entirely in our hands
To resist is to exist – to live to the full in the name of equity and freedom. It is to propose a model that counters all obscurantisms that, in the name of dubious immediate benefits, desiccate the roots of rights, the values of diversity, the need to express one’s self beyond categorisation and pigeonholing.
The viral photo of Saffiya Khan facing Ian Crossland, a member of the ultra-nationalist English Defence League (EDL), speaks of this choice. Her smile, both calm and defiant, is the measure of the imagination of resistance, of the imagination of a different way of being in the world that is not dictated by brutality, but is driven by the strength to stand up for themselves and in solidarity with others. Against shouted intimidations, the smiling silence of she who dares looking at the perpetrator in the eye has the power to disclose the possibility of an alternative.
In The Battle of Algiers, on the sixth day of the general strike organised by the National Liberation Front, a French gendarme on the megaphone reminds the local population that France is their true homeland, that France knows what is better for their future and encourages them to mistrust the “terrorists” who are trying to manipulate them. In a moment of great poetry, Omar, a young militant who is only just a child, sneaking between coils of barbed wire manages to steal the megaphone from the French police and shouts to the crowd: “Algerian brothers, brothers, be brave, resist. Resist! Don’t listen to what they say. Algeria will be free.”
It is with the innocence of this child, an innocence that survives in spite of war, that we have to look at the future, at the potentials of a non-homogenised tomorrow, holding tight our sacrosanct right to exist and to resist.