Secret Cinema: ‘The Battle of Algiers’ Event

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Do you ever feel that the big-screen experience these days is lacking a little je ne sais quoi? I don’t just mean the extortionate ticket prices, uncomfortable seats and annoying neighbours gawping at their iPhones. Going to the movies just isn’t much of an event any more, and that is sad. The good news for cinephiles with an adventurous nature is that Secret Cinema is helping to put the showmanship back into cinema.

Since December 2007 Secret Cinema has been inviting film fans to sign up for screenings at diverse locations within London. Once you’ve registered, you get some information about when and where to meet and what you should wear. The rest remains a closely guarded secret, though you’re welcome to join in the feverish speculation on Facebook and in the blogosphere, fuelled by a smattering of clues.

I’ll admit that I am a total control freak. So it was a big risk for me to allow someone else to dictate the choice of movie. (I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be something from the oeuvre of Jean-Claude Van Damme, Eddie Murphy or the Olsen Twins, but you never know.) I’m glad I did, though. The event that concluded on Sunday night was Secret Cinema does The Battle of Algiers. So if you believe that the Criterion Collection is now the natural home for Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece about the Algerian insurrection against the French, think again.

Ambience is everything

Smell-o-Vision never really took off in cinemas and some of us still have our doubts about the merits of 3D. The essence of Secret Cinema is that it offers you an immersive experience – in this case re-creating the appropriate sights, sounds and (yes) smells of the Algiers Casbah circa 1954-1962. Notably absent, of course, was the stench of explosives and French cigarettes. Realism does have its limits.

When my friend and I arrived at the meeting place near Waterloo Station at 6.30, I already suspected that the film might be The Battle of Algiers. My cine-literate mate hadn’t heard of it, and I note from some of the comments on Facebook that a few punters found this particular choice a little esoteric. Whatever your views on Pontecorvo’s film, the venue was inspired. The Old Vic Tunnels provided a collection of hugely atmospheric spaces around which the SC designer, set dressers and actors could weave their magic. All that was needed was clutch of highly motivated film fans.

We joined a throng of people dressed – as requested — in the classic attire of the era. There were suits, shades, brightly coloured foulards and anxious faces clutching the “identity cards” we’d been asked to complete. As we filed into the tunnel, there were announcements (all in French) booming out of the PA system. We were instructed to form three queues so that our passes could be inspected. If going through airport security raises your hackles, you would have found this a slightly alarming prelude to the evening’s entertainment. But with Banksy graffiti all over the tunnel walls and the strong smell of piss (coincidental, I hope), there was already quite an atmosphere building. I was eyeballed by mastiff-like French “soldier”, who looked like he’d come straight from Central Casting. Then we were in!

I’m not sure what the head count inside the venue was. One of the challenges was trying to distinguish the paying guests from the actors dressed as military personnel, Air France stewardesses or native Algerians. We had about an hour and half to roam around different areas, which included a mosque, prison, airline office, coffee bar and dance hall, as well as various dwellings complete with all the right props. It was like touring a film set populated with both extras and movie buffs.

But what really made the place come alive was all the activity – with the actors trying to engage us in various scenarios, as food smells mingled with the period music from the dance hall. Apart from the bar staff and vendors selling crepes and popcorn, all the performers addressed us in French. Anyone without a smattering of that language might have felt rather disorientated, but perhaps that was intentional.

As you wandered around you might have picked up a few clues about the content of the film. I hadn’t seen it before, but the eerily authentic interrogation zone, complete with hooded torture suspect was a big hint about what we’d later see on screen. Other details came back to me as I watched the movie: the notice (in French) that said “closed due to strike” referred to a key passage in the story; the presence of the young newspaper vendor; and the French airline office that proved to be a key bombing target for the Algerian resistance.

The show must go on

I guessed that the screening itself would start at 8pm, but I wasn’t aware of any formal timetable for the night’s events. It’s as though people just knew they had to start taking their places in the slightly scruffy looking seats at a certain time. A guy just in front of me kept trying to open his beer bottle on the wall. I couldn’t work out whether this was part of the show or he was just a prat. (He walked out shortly after the film began). Three men dressed as French soldiers addressed us just before the camera rolled (in French, of course). I think the message was that the assembled citizens of the French Republic should understand and support the policies of the government in suppressing the Algerian rebellion.

The picture quality was a little rough, reminding me of student film club screenings in those far-off days before remastered, restored or recut prints. Over the next couple of hours background rumblings were still coming from the surrounding rooms. At the end, we filed slowly back into chambers choked with the smoke from dry ice and with grit underfoot. There were wraithlike figures clad in white burkhas standing in front of the various buildings, as though contemplating the ruins of their city.

A token gesture

Reading some of the feedback on other Secret Cinema events I can see that not everyone has been excited by the experience. At £35 per head (there are discounts for students) this isn’t a cheap night out for cash-strapped Brits. But then you are paying for something more akin to a theatrical experience than a routine night at the movies. But the whole “secret” element could backfire horribly if you really don’t like the film they’ve selected, or you watched it last week on TV.

I though the performance both before and after the film was a perfect complement to Pontecorvo’s stirring and still highly topical drama. There’s something uniquely satisfying about the experience of watching a film (as opposed to a DVD), without interruptions and in the company of others who’ve just spent the preceding 90 minutes absorbing the same experiences. Perhaps it would be overstating things to say there was a sense of camaraderie. I may just have been overcome with gratitude at the thought that no one would feel compelled to text or tweet during this movie!

My one (minor) quibble is the milk token for a free drink that was given to us on the way in. The beverage in question turned out to be some kind of White Russian, which looked pretty unappealing. If you’re going to offer people a free drink, it should be a choice between wine or a nice Algerian lager.

– Susannah Straughan

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