Crime, in the broader context, encompasses wars and other social uprisings that involve deceit and cause death and destruction. For those seeking an evening double feature that allows us to escape escape from the news — and there are many times I want just that — this isn’t it. For those with a strong constitution and a desire to try to understand what is going on in the world, these two films will explore conditions that are historically repetitive and provoke at least one question. Have we learned nothing?
I was watching Charlie Rose a week or so ago. He had a fascinating interview with General Stanley McChrystal, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and was forced to resign because of his criticism of the Commander in Chief. It was an interesting discussion of war and torture and trying to win over a country while also trying to occupy it. The interview was worthwhile for many reasons, but for this post what came out of this was an unusual request made by the General. As he tried to educate or sensitize military teams and troops in Afghanistan, he had them watch the film, Battle of Algiers, released in 1966.
One might call this a dangerous film. On one hand it shows the effective strategy used by — depending on what side you’re on — the revolutionaries or terrorists. On the other hand, the film quite clearly shows how the French occupiers continued to make matters worse through torture, intimidation and bombing — with all its collateral damage.
The film was critically acclaimed everywhere, except in France, where it was initially banned. It was also used as a lesson plan for those fighting insurgents and the insurgents themselves.
In addition to its cinematic brilliance — and its unheeded warnings before the U.S. fully engaged in Viet Nam, it’s hard to imagine a more relevant film, especially as we attempt to disengage in Iraq and Afghanistan and try very hard to make all the right moves in the quicksand of the Greater Middle East.
The Battle of Algiers is a film that has a clear, documentary feel. Sin Nombre tells a more personal story in a more traditionally cinematic way, but it too rings true. Both films carry the seeds of much larger thoughts about problems in the world at large. With Battle of Algiers, we deal with the problems of occupation. With Sin Nombre, we are looking at escape — from the conditions we were born into, from the choices we’ve made in the past and toward a better life. But there are all sorts of roadblocks in the path of redeeming the soul — or simply staying alive, for that matter.
In most big cities there are areas, usually poor and usually inhabited by disenfranchised minorities, where children join a gang not just to have an identity, though that may be part of it, but also to survive. It is the creation of a tribe in order to survive the order and rules of the world they know.
Willy (“El Casper”) is a member of such a gang. He is not especially enthusiastic about it, but he’s tough enough to deal with it. He even brings a younger Mexican kid, who is in need of a tribe to protect him, into the gang. But things go wrong for Willy. The gang leader kills his girlfriend in a failed attempt to rape her. Willy tries to repress his anger; but when the gang leader again tries to hurt a young woman during a robbery, Willy loses it and kills the gang leader. He knows he is a dead man. He befriends the young woman he saved during the robbery and tries to protect her as they both flee their demons. They embark on a long trip north to the U.S. during which Willy helps her into a new world he understands he will never see.
This is a well-acted, beautifully photographed film that picked up dozens of international awards. Cary Joji Fukunaga directed this 2009 film.
A reminder though, this is a reality-based evening. We have the sense that real, bad things are happening to real, breathing human beings and that the real story doesn’t end when the credits roll. I’d drink moderately during the films if you drink at all, and consider perhaps tequila straight afterward.