Saadi Yacef, catalyst and actor of the “Battle of Algiers”, dies at 93

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Saadi Yacef, a revolutionary leader who fought the French regime in Algeria in the 1950s and then sparked – and starred in – “The Battle of Algiers,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s acclaimed 1966 film about the long anti-colonialist struggle, is died September 10. in Algiers, the capital. He was 93 years old.

His daughter Zaphira Yacef, who confirmed the death, said he had suffered from heart problems.

Mr. Yacef became involved in opposition movements when he was still a teenager and in 1954 joined the National Liberation Front, the FLN, the main nationalist organization during the War of Independence. The war lasted from 1954 to 1962, ending with the liberation of the country from France.

He became the organization’s military leader in Algiers in 1956, ordering bombings and other guerrilla attacks until his arrest by French paratroopers the following year in the part of town known as the Kasbah. He was sentenced to death.

“While I was in prison the executions always took place at dawn,” he told the Sunday Herald in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2007, “so when I saw the sun go through the bars from prison, I knew I was going to live another day. . But I was very certain that I would be executed.

Charles de Gaulle, elected President of France in 1958, eventually freed Mr. Yacef. It started a whole new chapter in Mr. Yacef’s life. In prison, he had written “Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger” (“Souvenirs of the Battle of Algiers”), his account of a particularly violent part of three years of the war.

Once Algeria became independent, the ruling FLN sought to commission a film about the struggle for freedom, with Yacef leading the effort.

“At that time,” he confided to Le Monde in 2004, “everyone swore by Italian neorealism. That’s why I went to Italy to look for a screenwriter and a director for “The Battle of Algiers”.

With a screenplay based on his book, he met Mr. Pontecorvo, who was reportedly considering his own film about the Algerian War, a film he hoped to star Paul Newman as a French paratrooper turned journalist. Mr. Yacef and his supporters rejected the idea, and Mr. Pontecorvo found Mr. Yacef’s script a propagandist, but they kept talking. Mr. Yacef arranged to bring Mr. Pontecorvo and his screenwriter, Franco Solinas, to Algiers for an extended stay so that they could study the revolution, see the places where the fighting took place and meet people who fought. .

The resulting film, shot in Algeria with Mr. Yacef as producer, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1966 and caused a sensation for its startling realism. Some scenes, especially the bombings, felt so authentic that the film, when first screened, was preceded by a warning that no news footage had been used.

“There are a few sequences that look very dangerous,” director Steven Soderbergh said in a video for Criterion Collection when a new version of the film was released in 2004. “I don’t know if you could. do now. “

Mr. Pontecorvo, who died in 2006, used almost exclusively non-actors, including Mr. Yacef, who played a character largely inspired by himself.

“Pontecorvo insisted that I appear in the film,” he told Le Monde. “I must have acted in the films moments that I had lived seven years before. The war, the prison, the torture, it was all still fresh in my memory.

Saadi Yacef was born on January 20, 1928 in Algiers to Mohamed and Keltoum Yacef, bakers. His schooling was interrupted by World War II when the Allies requisitioned his school to make it a barracks.

After the war, Saadi was also an apprentice baker. He also played football for one of Algeria’s top teams, the Union Sportive de la Médina d’Alger, from 1952 to 1954. By this time, he had also been drawn into the growing anti-colonial movement.

Besides his daughter Zaphira, Mr. Yacef, who resided in Algiers, is survived by his wife, Baya Boudjema Yacef, whom he married in 1965; four other children, Salima, Saida, Omar and Amin; and nine grandchildren.

The revolution that Mr. Yacef further aided in was known for its atrocities on both sides, and Mr. Pontecorvo’s film, which focused on the fighting in Algiers from 1954 to 1957, did not hit the mark.

“Other than Orson Welles, no one before has imitated the appearance of a newsreel so imaginatively,” film critic Stuart Klawans wrote in The New York Times in 2004, “although Welles did not pulled the deal only for the ‘March of Time’ segment of ‘Citizen Kane’, while Mr. Pontecorvo maintained his delusion for 123 minutes.

The film won the Golden Lion in Venice, the festival’s highest award, and in 1967 it was chosen to launch the New York Film Festival. It was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, Screenplay and Director.

The film has been studied over the years by both militant groups like the Black Panthers and the Pentagon. Mr. Yacef, who later in his life served as a senator in the Algerian National Assembly, readily admitted that the orders he had issued had caused many deaths, but he made a distinction between actions committed for the cause. of the liberation and the actions of more recent groups in the export of terrorism. He had a particular contempt for suicide bombings, a tactic his resistance fighters did not employ.

“The fight gave meaning to our lives,” he said in 2007. “We weren’t here to die.”


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