Cesária Évora- “The Barefoot Diva”

The singer Cesária Évora,  who has died aged 70 after a long period of ill-health, rose from poverty on the Cape Verde archipelago to achieve worldwide fame in her later years. She put the islands – off the coast of west Africa – on the world music map by performing their distinctivemorna” ballads with a mix of sweetness and melancholy.

When she first came to European attention in 1988, Évora appeared an unlikely candidate for international stardom, yet within five years she was selling hundreds of thousands of CDs, with concert audiences to match. Grammy nominations, critical adulation and the praise of famous singers quickly surrounded the chain-smoking, barefoot grandmother, yet Évora remained remarkably blasé about her newfound celebrity.

She was, she always emphasised, a good singer, and thus it was natural that people would enjoy hearing her. That she had had to endure decades of obscurity was, she would add, frustrating. Eschewing false humility and proud of her heritage, Évora knew her own standing among the world’s greatest vocalists.

She was born in Mindelo, a port city on the island of São Vicente. Her family was musical: her uncle B Leza was a noted morna composer. After becoming an orphan, Évora made a living from the age of 15 by singing in bars. By 1960, she was singing on local radio stations and for the Portuguese cruise ships that docked at Mindelo. On those ships she gained a certain celebrity for refusing to wear shoes and performing barefoot. This was natural enough, since she had grown up without shoes, but it became her trademark. Évora sang in Kriolu, a Creole language mixing Portuguese with the west African dialects of her enslaved ancestors. The minor-key morna ballads she sang with such stoic feeling reflected themes of loss, poverty and immigration – all constants to Cape Verdeans.

Portugal’s neglect of its colony and the resulting struggle for independence, which came in 1975, provided an unpromising backdrop for Évora’s early career. She raised three children largely by herself. In 1985, the Lisbon-based Cape Verdean singer Bana invited Évora to Portugal to perform.

This was the first time Évora had had the opportunity to leave the islands. Her Lisbon performances were well received by its immigrant population, and José da Silva, a young Parisian musician of Cape Verdean origin, was extremely impressed. He invited Évora to record for his tiny Lusafrica label.

Her 1988 debut album, La Diva aux Pieds Nus (The Barefoot Diva), and a 1990 follow-up featured an electronic pop sound unsuited to Évora. For her 1991 album Mar Azul (Blue Sea), Da Silva recorded Évora singing morna numbers backed by a small acoustic group. This allowed her limpid vocal style to shine, and French media began championing her. The international record company BMG signed a deal with Da Silva to distribute Évora’s albums. Miss Perfumado (1992) was backed by a BMG campaign that helped it sell more than 300,000 copies in France.

Évora, for so long resident only on São Vicente, took to the road for the next three years, touring all over the world and establishing herself as one of Africa’s most internationally successful artists. A love of rum and cigarettes – part of her performance involved taking a break on stage for a smoke and drink while the band played an instrumental – alongside a no-nonsense approach to both audiences and media helped ensure her formidable reputation. Her anti-diva behaviour was no affectation: when asked if she was impressed by performing at concert halls in the world’s greatest cities, Évora shrugged and replied that if Cape Verde had access to the same resources, it too would have such venues. From 1995 to 2009, Évora recorded an album every two to three years and undertook long tours. Da Silva remained her producer and manager, and the standard of the material she recorded, almost always Cape Verdean in origin, remained very high. She was one of the few singers in a foreign language to win a large US audience.

Though success brought Évora considerable wealth, she remained a chain-smoking stoic who shrugged off fame’s affectations and retained São Vicente as her home. Even after her health began to decline in 2005, she continued to work hard. Three years later, a minor stroke before a Melbourne concert caused the tour to be curtailed. In 2010, a heart attack after a Paris concert necessitated open-heart surgery, and last September she retired from performing.

Évora’s voice – silky, weary, supple yet never showy, rich with her extraordinary presence – remains compelling.

 

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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“If you don’t like someone’s story, write your own”

Things Fall Apart is about the tragic fall of the protagonist, Okonkwo, and the Igbo culture. Okonkwo is a respected and influential leader within the Igbo community of Umuofia in eastern Nigeria. He first earns personal fame and distinction, and brings honor to his village, when he defeats Amalinze the Cat in a wrestling contest. Okonkwo determines to gain titles for himself and become a powerful and wealthy man in spite of his father’s weaknesses.

Okonkwo’s father, Unoka, was a lazy and wasteful man. He often borrowed money and then squandered it on palm-wine and merrymaking with friends. Consequently, his wife and children often went hungry. Within the community, Unoka was considered a failure and a laughingstock. He was referred to as agbala, one who resembles the weakness of a woman and has no property. Unoka died a shameful death and left numerous debts.

Okonkwo despises and resents his father’s gentle and idle ways. He resolves to overcome the shame that he feels as a result of his father’s weaknesses by being what he considers to be “manly”; therefore, he dominates his wives and children by being insensitive and controlling.

Because Okonkwo is a leader of his community, he is asked to care for a young boy named Ikemefuna, who is given to the village as a peace offering by neighboring Mbaino to avoid war with Umuofia. Ikemefuna befriends Okonkwo’s son, Nwoye, and Okonkwo becomes inwardly fond of the boy.

Over the years, Okonkwo becomes an extremely volatile man; he is apt to explode at the slightest provocation. He violates the Week of Peace when he beats his youngest wife, Ojiugo, because she went to braid her hair at a friend’s house and forgot to prepare the afternoon meal and feed her children. Later, he severely beats and shoots a gun at his second wife, Ekwefi, because she took leaves from his banana plant to wrap food for the Feast of the New Yam.

After the coming of the locusts, Ogbuefi Ezeuder, the oldest man in the village, relays to Okonkwo a message from the Oracle. The Oracle says that Ikemefuna must be killed as part of the retribution for the Umuofian woman killed three years earlier in Mbaino. He tells Okonkwo not to partake in the murder, but Okonkwo doesn’t listen. He feels that not participating would be a sign of weakness. Consequently, Okonkwo kills Ikemefuna with his machete. Nwoye realizes that his father has murdered Ikemefuna and begins to distance himself from his father and the clansmen.

Okonkwo becomes depressed after killing Ikemefuna, so he visits his best friend, Obierika, who disapproves of his role in Ikemefuna’s killing. Obierika says that Okonkwo’s act will upset the Earth and the earth goddess will seek revenge. After discussing Ikemefuna’s death with Obierika, Okonkwo is finally able to sleep restfully, but he is awakened by his wife Ekwefi. Their daughter Ezinma, whom Okonkwo is fond of, is dying. Okonkwo gathers grasses, barks, and leaves to prepare medicine for Ezinma.

A public trial is held on the village commons. Nine clan leaders, including Okonkwo, represent the spirits of their ancestors. The nine clan leaders, or egwugwu, also represent the nine villages of Umuofia. Okonkwo does not sit among the other eight leaders, or elders, while they listen to a dispute between an estranged husband and wife. The wife, Mgbafo, had been severely beaten by her husband. Her brother took her back to their family’s village, but her husband wanted her back home. The egwugwu tell the husband to take wine to his in-laws and beg his wife to come home. One elder wonders why such a trivial dispute would come before the egwugwu.

In her role as priestess, Chielo tells Ekwefi (Okonkwo’s second wife) that Agbala (the Oracle of the Hills and Caves) needs to see Ezinma. Although Okonkwo and Ekwefi protest, Chielo takes a terrified Ezinma on her back and forbids anyone to follow. Chielo carries Ezinma to all nine villages and then enters the Oracle’s cave. Ekwefi follows secretly, in spite of Chielo’s admonitions, and waits at the entrance of the Oracle. Okonkwo surprises Ekwefi by arriving at the cave, and he also waits with her. The next morning, Chielo takes Ezinma to Ekwefi’s hut and puts her to bed.

When Ogbuefi Ezeudu dies, Okonkwo worries because the last time that Ezeudu visited him was when he warned Okonkwo against participating in the killing of Ikemefuna. Ezeudu was an important leader in the village and achieved three titles of the clan’s four, a rare accomplishment. During the large funeral, Okonkwo’s gun goes off, and Ezeudu’s sixteen-year-old son is killed accidentally.

Because the accidental killing of a clansman is a crime against the earth goddess, Okonkwo and his family must be exiled from Umuofia for seven years. The family moves to Okonkwo’s mother’s native village, Mbanta. After they depart Umuofia, a group of village men destroy Okonkwo’s compound and kill his animals to cleanse the village of Okonkwo’s sin. Obierika stores Okonkwo’s yams in his barn and wonders about the old traditions of the Igbo culture.

Okonkwo is welcomed to Mbanta by his maternal uncle, Uchendu, a village elder. He gives Okonkwo a plot of land on which to farm and build a compound for his family. But Okonkwo is depressed, and he blames his chi (or personal spirit) for his failure to achieve lasting greatness.

During Okonkwo’s second year in exile, he receives a visit from his best friend, Obierika, who recounts sad news about the village of Abame: After a white man rode into the village on a bicycle, the elders of Abame consulted their Oracle, which told them that the white man would destroy their clan and other clans. Consequently, the villagers killed the white man. But weeks later, a large group of men slaughtered the villagers in retribution. The village of Abame is now deserted.

Okonkwo and Uchendu agree that the villagers were foolish to kill a man whom they knew nothing about. Later, Obierika gives Okonkwo money that he received from selling Okonkwo’s yams and seed-yams, and he promises to do so until Okonkwo returns to Umuofia.

Six missionaries, including one white man, arrive in Mbanta. The white man speaks to the people about Christianity. Okonkwo believes that the man speaks nonsense, but his son, Nwoye, is captivated and becomes a convert of Christianity.

The Christian missionaries build a church on land given to them by the village leaders. However, the land is a part of the Evil Forest, and according to tradition, the villagers believe that the missionaries will die because they built their church on cursed land. But when nothing happens to the missionaries, the people of Mbanta conclude that the missionaries possess extraordinary power and magic. The first recruits of the missionaries are efulefu, the weak and worthless men of the village. Other villagers, including a woman, soon convert to Christianity. The missionaries then go to Umuofia and start a school. Nwoye leaves his father’s hut and moves to Umuofia so he can attend the school.

Okonkwo’s exile is over, so his family arranges to return to Umuofia. Before leaving Mbanta, they prepare a huge feast for Okonkwo’s mother’s kinsmen in appreciation of their gratitude during Okonkwo’s seven years of exile.

When Okonkwo returns to Umuofia, he discovers that the village has changed during his absence. Many men have renounced their titles and have converted to Christianity. The white men have built a prison; they have established a government court of law, where people are tried for breaking the white man’s laws; and they also employ natives of Umuofia. Okonkwo wonders why the Umuofians have not incited violence to rid the village of the white man’s church and oppressive government.

Some members of the Igbo clan like the changes in Umuofia. Mr. Brown, the white missionary, respects the Igbo traditions. He makes an effort to learn about the Igbo culture and becomes friendly with some of the clan leaders. He also encourages Igbo people of all ages to get an education. Mr. Brown tells Okonkwo that Nwoye, who has taken the name Isaac, is attending a teaching college. Nevertheless, Okonkwo is unhappy about the changes in Umuofia.

After Mr. Brown becomes ill and is forced to return to his homeland, Reverend James Smith becomes the new head of the Christian church. But Reverend Smith is nothing like Mr. Brown; he is intolerant of clan customs and is very strict.

Violence arises after Enoch, an overzealous convert to Christianity, unmasks an egwugwu. In retaliation, the egwugwu burn Enoch’s compound and then destroy the Christian church because the missionaries have caused the Igbo people many problems.

When the District Commissioner returns to Umuofia, he learns about the destruction of the church and asks six leaders of the village, including Okonkwo, to meet with him. The men are jailed until they pay a fine of two hundred and fifty bags of cowries. The people of Umuofia collect the money and pay the fine, and the men are set free.

The next day at a meeting for clansmen, five court messengers who intend to stop the gathering approach the group. Suddenly, Okonkwo jumps forward and beheads the man in charge of the messengers with his machete. When none of the other clansmen attempt to stop the messengers who escape, Okonkwo realizes that they will never go to war and that Umuofia will surrender. Everything has fallen apart for Okonkwo; he commits suicide by hanging himself.

A Soldier’s Story – “The day of the Geechee is gone”

On a night in 1944, a black sergeant is shot to death outside Fort Neal in Louisiana. Scuttlebutt around the base has it that he was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan. Captain Davenport (Howard E. Rollins, Jr.), a military attorney, is sent by the Department of the Army in Washington to investigate. He is the first black officer that anyone at the segregated base has ever seen. Davenport causes further consternation by wearing dark sunglasses like General Douglas MacArthur’s.

After meeting with Captain Taylor (Dennis Lipscomb), the West Point trained white commanding officer of the black troops, and visiting his superiors, Davenport realizes his assignment will be even more difficult than he thought because of racial
tensions at Fort Neal and in the nearby town. Ordered to solve the mystery quickly, the black officer begins interrogating the soldiers who knew the slain sergeant.

This gripping movie has been adapted for the screen by Charles Fuller, who won a 1982 Pulitzer Prize for his drama A Soldier’s Play. Although the whodunit aspect of the story is engaging, the film’s real clout is in its telling observations on racism, black pride, and black self-hatred. Through flashbacks evoked during Davenport’s interrogations, the complex character of the murder victim, Sergeant Vernon Waters (Adolph Caesar), emerges as the central factor of the drama.

The hard-nosed tough-as-nails Waters, who was decorated during World War I, sees it as his mission to transform “the lazy, shiftless niggers” under his command into soldiers capable of winning the respect of white America by proving their excellence fighting the Germans and the japanese. However, the men do not live up to his standards of perfection, and the black troops are not called to battle overseas.

Waters becomes the target of Wilkie’s (Art Evans) bottled-up anger when he demotes the soldier for drunkenness. He rides Private Melvin Peterson (Denzel Washington) for his insubordination, and he doesn’t like Private Henson’s (William Allen Young) attitude. All three men become suspects in Davenport’s eyes. His further investigations uncover an angry encounter between two racist white officers and Waters on the eve of his death. Perhaps they killed him.

Davenoprt eventually finds the key to the case when he learns of Waters’ humiliation and persecution of Private C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley), a popular singer/musician from Mississippi whose cornbread lifestyle is an affront to everything the sergeant holds sacred. Waters tells Wilkie: “I don’t intend to have our race cheated out of its place of honor and respect in this war because of fools like C.J.!” The steps he takes against this unfortunate soldier eventually set in motion the circumstances leading to his own death.

A Soldier’s Story contains outstanding performances by actors who appeared in the original Negro Ensemble Company production. Adolph Caesar’s portrait of Waters is a tour de force blend of idealism and misplaced fanaticism. Equally compelling is Denzel Washington’s black rage as Peterson. The drama contains a number of parallels to Herman Melville’s Billy Bud, but is most effective in its messages about the virulence of racism which makes both whites and blacks the victims of righteous indignation.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

 

“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”

Invisible Man is the story of a young, college-educated black man struggling to survive and succeed in a racially divided society that refuses to see him as a human being. Told in the form of a first-person narrative, Invisible Man traces the nameless narrator’s physical and psychological journey from blind ignorance to enlightened awareness — or, according to the author, “from Purpose to Passion to Perception” — through a series of flashbacks in the forms of dreams and memories. Set in the U.S. during the pre-Civil Rights era when segregation laws barred black Americans from enjoying the same basic human rights as their white counterparts, the novel opens in the South (Greenwood, South Carolina), although the majority of the action takes place in the North (Harlem, New York).

In the Prologue, the narrator — speaking to us from his underground hideout in the basement (coal cellar) of a whites-only apartment building — reminisces about his life as an invisible man. Now in his 40s, he recalls a time when he was a naïve young man, eager to become a renowned educator and orator. The narrator begins his story by recalling his high school graduation speech, which attracted the attention of the white school superintendent who invites him to give the same speech at a local hotel to the town’s leading white citizens. But when he arrives at the hotel, the narrator is forced to participate in a brutal blindfolded boxing match (the “battle royal”) with nine of his classmates, an event, which, he discovers, is part of the evening’s entertainment for the “smoker” (a kind of stag party). The entertainment also includes a sensuous dance by a naked blonde woman, and the boys are forced to watch. The boxing match is followed by a humiliating event: The boys must scramble for what appear to be gold coins on an electrified rug (but, which turn out to be only worthless brass tokens). Then the narrator — now bruised and bleeding — is finally allowed to give his speech in front of the drunken white men who largely ignore him until he accidentally uses the phrase “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” to describe the role of blacks in America. At the end of his speech — despite his degrading and humiliating ordeal — the narrator proudly accepts his prize: a calfskin briefcase containing a scholarship to the state college for Negroes.

That night, the narrator’s dead grandfather — a former slave — appears in a dream, ordering him to open the briefcase and look inside. Instead of the scholarship, the briefcase contains a note that reads, “Keep This Nigger Boy Running.” The dream sets the stage. For the next 20 years of his life, the narrator stumbles blindly through life, never stopping to question why he is always kept running by people — both black and white — who profess to guide and direct him, but who ultimately exploit him and betray his trust.

Focusing on the events of one fateful day, the narrator then recalls his college days. Assigned to chauffeur Mr. Norton, a prominent white visiting trustee, around the campus, the narrator follows Mr. Norton’s orders and takes him to visit two sites in the nearby black neighborhood — the cabin of Jim Trueblood, a local sharecropper, and the Golden Day, a disreputable bar/half-way house for shell-shocked World War I veterans. The narrator, however, is expelled from his beloved college for taking Mr. Norton to these places and sent to New York, armed with seven letters from his dean (Dr. Bledsoe). The letters, he believed, are letters of recommendation, but are in reality letters confirming his expulsion.

Arriving in New York City, the narrator is amazed by what he perceives to be unlimited freedom for blacks. He is especially intrigued by a black West Indian man (later identified as Ras the Exhorter) whom he first encounters addressing a group of men and women on the streets of Harlem, urging them to work together to unite their black community. But the narrator’s excitement soon turns to disillusionment as he discovers that the North presents the same barriers to black achievement as the South.

Realizing that he cannot return to college, the narrator accepts a job at a paint factory famous for its optic white paint, unaware that he is one of several blacks hired to replace white workers out on strike. Nearly killed in a factory explosion, the narrator subsequently undergoes a grueling ordeal at the paint factory hospital, where he finds himself the object of a strange experiment by the hospital’s white doctors.

Following his release from the hospital, the narrator finds refuge in the home of Mary Rambo, a kind and generous black woman, who feeds him and nurses him back to health. Although grateful to Mary, whom he acknowledges as his only friend, the narrator — anxious to earn a living and do something with his life — eventually leaves Mary to join the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to be dedicated to achieving equality for all people. Under the guidance of the Brotherhood and its leader, Brother Jack, the narrator becomes an accomplished speaker and leader of the Harlem District. He also has an abortive liaison with Sybil, a sexually frustrated white woman who sees him as the embodiment of the stereotypical black man endowed with extraordinary sexual prowess.

But after the tragic death of his friend Tod Clifton, a charismatic young black “Brother” who is shot by a white policeman, the narrator becomes disillusioned with the disparity between what the organization preaches and what its leaders practice. As a result, he decides to leave the Brotherhood, headquartered in an affluent section of Manhattan, and returns to Harlem where he is confronted by Ras the Exhorter (now Ras the Destroyer) who accuses him of betraying the black community. To escape the wrath of Ras and his men, the narrator disguises himself by donning a hat and dark glasses. In disguise, he is repeatedly mistaken for someone named Rinehart, a con man who uses his invisibility to his own advantage.

The narrator discovers that the Harlem community has erupted in violence. Eager to demonstrate that he is no longer part of the Brotherhood, the narrator allows himself to be drawn into the violence and chaos of the Harlem riot and participates in the burning of a Harlem tenement. Later, as he flees the scene of the burning building and tries to find his way back to Mary’s, two white men with baseball bats pursue him. To escape his assailants, he leaps into a manhole, which lands him in his underground hideout.

For the next several days the sick and delusional narrator suffers horrific nightmares in which he is captured and castrated by a group of men led by Brother Jack. Finally able to let go of his painful past — symbolized by the various items in his briefcase — the narrator discovers that writing down his experiences enables him to release his hatred and rediscover his love of life.

 

 

Alpha Blondy – “The African Rasta”

Hailing from the Cote d’Ivoire, Alpha Blondy is among the world’s most popular reggae artists. With his 12-piece band Solar System, Blondy offers a reggae beat with a distinctive African cast. Calling himself an African Rasta, Blondy creates Jah-centered anthems promoting morality, love, peace and social consciousness. With a range that moves from sensitivity to rage over injustice, much of Blondy’s music empathizes with the impoverished and those on society’s fringe. Blondy is also a staunch supporter of African unity and to this end, he sings to Muslim audiences in Hebrew and sings in Arabic to Israelis. Some of his best known songs include “Cocody Rock,” “Jerusalem” and “Apartheid Is Nazism.” He was born a member of the Jula tribe in Dimbokoro and named Seydou Kone after his grandfather. His grandmother Cherie Coco raised him. He was always a rebellious child and for this, Coco named him “Blondy,” her unique pronunciation of the word “bandit.” When he started performing professionally, he took on the name Alpha (the first letter in the Greek alphabet) so his name literally translates to “first bandit.” Though he grew up listening to African folkloric music such as yagba and gumbe, his primary musical influences were such Western bands as Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Hendrix, the Beatles,

Creedence Clearwater Revival, and soul artists like Otis Redding. Later Bob Marley’s music tremendously affected Blondy. Though he wanted to become a musician, his family expected him to become a respectable English teacher. He studied English at Hunter College in New York, and later in the Columbia University American Language Program. Outside of class, he would play music in Central Park and in Harlem clubs where occasionally house bands would let him sing his Bob Marley covers in French, English, and various West African languages. Blondy got his big break from friend, Fulgence Kass, an employee of Ivory Coast Television who helped him land a spot on the Premiere Chance talent show. The young artist was a hit with the audience. Blondy then hooked up with producer G. Benson who recorded his eight-song debut album Jah Love in a single day. His popularity has continued to grow and is a well respected artist both in Africa and in the West.

Amílcar Cabral- “The Father of Two Nations”

Amílcar Cabral,
Amílcar Cabral,

Amílcar Cabral, (born 1921, Bafatá, Portuguese Guinea—died Jan. 20, 1973, Conakry, Guinea), agronomist, nationalist leader, and founder and secretary-general of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (Partido Africano da Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde; PAIGC), who helped lead Guinea-Bissau to independence.

After receiving his early education in Cape Verde, Cabral pursued university studies in Lisbon, where in 1948 he helped to found the Centro de Estudos Africanos. Employed by the Portuguese colonial authorities as an agronomist, in the early 1950s he traveled widely in Guinea in order to conduct a survey of the land and its resources. In September 1956 he and five associates formed the PAIGC, and in December of that year he cofounded a liberation movement in Angola with Agostinho Neto.

Cabral rapidly emerged as the leader of the PAIGC. The group organized early political resistance to the colonial power in the form of workers’ strikes—calling for better wages and improved conditions; however, when the Portuguese fired on demonstrators during a dockworkers’ strike in early August 1959, the need for a different approach became evident. Resistance activity was subsequently shifted to the countryside and was altered to make use of guerilla-style tactics.

Beginning in 1962, Cabral took his party into an open war for the independence of Portuguese Guinea, and in the late 1960s Cabral was the de facto ruler of the parts of Portuguese Guinea not occupied by army units from Portugal. In 1972 he established the Guinean People’s National Assembly as a step toward independence. On Jan. 20, 1973, Cabral was assassinated outside his home in Conakry, where his party had established its headquarters. In September of that year the PAIGC unilaterally declared Guinea-Bissau’s independence, a status formally achieved on Sept. 10, 1974.

The Battle of Algiers- “The Revolt that Stirred the World”

The re-release of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 black-and-white film The Battle of Algiers, recreating France’s suppression of the 1950s Algerian uprising, is an extraordinary experience. Granted, the audio dubbing of gunfire sounds a bit rickety now, and the way the intertitles switch between Italian and French is eccentric, but everything else makes this a newer-than-new release. It is of its time in many ways, yet somehow more extreme, and more contemporary, than anything else around. Famously, the Pentagon arranged a special in-house screening in 2003, evidently fascinated by exactly the same qualities that have mesmerised the movie’s followers elsewhere: its icy candour on the subjects of counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and the vital importance of torture in eliciting information. Those torture scenes are laid out in montage for us without any self-conscious emotional affect or drama; they include blowtorching the suspect’s naked torso, waterboarding, and clipping electrodes to the earlobes before hand-cranking the voltage. These scenes are presented without any of the internal humanising or dramatising conflict that would be considered vital now: they do indeed look almost like a military training film. Another sort of director, possessed of a more conventional liberal scruple, might have felt the need to show a torturer’s inner pain or the torturee’s hidden backstory. But Pontecorvo shows them in terms of strategy.

The anti-hero is Colonel Mathieu, played by Jean Martin, the paratroop commander entrusted by the French government with putting down the Algerian revolt. He is a tough, wiry professional soldier of the sort adoringly imagined by Frederick Forsyth: a veteran of the French Resistance who shrugs his shoulders at any possible irony. He is the centrepiece to the most remarkable sequence, captured on the film’s poster. At the head of his troops, he simply leads a triumphalist, introductory parade down the main street, to reassure loyal citizens that the French army will crush the terrorists – and to face down the terrorists themselves. He strides easily, casually, with no sidearm on show, utterly confident in the power of the spectacle he has created. With his fatigues, beret and faintly sinister sunglasses, he looks like a cross between a top para in Northern Ireland and an IRA chief. Mathieu’s face moves in and out of shadow on this sunny day: the result of the natural light that Pontecorvo is using, and integral to his “newsreel” effect.

The French authorities first license a covert bomb attack in the casbah – “state terrorism” before the phrase was invented – but then, under Mathieu, they embark on a disciplined campaign of isolating terrorist cells, torturing them for the names of operatives further up the pyramid-chain until the key figures at the top are obliterated. No nonsense about hearts and minds: this is a military solution to a military problem. “The culprits are presumed to be Muslim …” Mathieu crisply briefs his men, and a 2007 audience holds its breath. “… so they will be able to hide more easily in the Arab quarters.” This film was composed in an era when Islamic identity was not as important as it is today: there are no mosques, no religion here. Then the keyword was “Arab” and it easy to forget that as recently as the first Iraq war in 1991, the question was whether a putative brotherhood of Arab nations would support Saddam. Mathieu’s campaign is crowned with Pyrrhic victory.

The terrorists are beaten, but a later popular uprising drives the French out, precisely as Mathieu had enigmatically appeared to predict, using Dien Bien Phu as his benchmark: the Indo-Chinese imperial burden which the French fatefully handed on to the Americans. Whatever they made of The Battle of Algiers at the Pentagon, this is a must-see for everyone else now.