Review: Secret Cinema and The Battle of Algiers

Before there was the blog, there were index cards.  Instead of writing ‘previews’, we would write ourselves an index card for every cultural experience we wanted to try out, and then store it in a haphazard bundle in the kitchen until it worked its way to the top of the pile.  A little low-tech as a process, but one that has seen us through a number of happily overstuffed weekends in London and elsewhere.  Now, I admit that there had been a little card titled ‘Secret Cinema’ for over a year before we finally dressed up and headed out to explore this phenomenon.  What made us wait so long?  How hard is it to buy a ticket to a movie?  Well, as you probably know by now, Secret Cinema isn’t just a movie.  It takes some planning to make it happen – admittedly more for the organisers than for the attendees, but still, there’s a little collaborative effort needed.  And that’s the point, really.

Actors mingling amongst audience members before the film (Picture by Mike Massaro)

So, what do the organisers (Future Shorts) do?  A couple of times a year, they single out a film that is rich in atmosphere, with a strong visual and cultural signature.  They find a large and dormant building, then work for weeks to transform all its rooms and spaces into a theatrical set that echoes the film – including its food and architecture, its smells and sounds.  They fill the place with 30, perhaps 50 or 100 actors who recreate the general backdrop of the film that is being shown.  When you arrive, it’s impossible to know how many actors there are – because you’ve been given instructions ahead of time that ensure you are dressed just like the actors.  At some point in the evening, you will sit down to watch the film, but before this you don’t know what you will be watching (unless you are able to decode the clues).  You and the other 500 or so ticket holders wander around and absorb the sensory experience by interacting with the actors who play out small scenes from the film with and around you.  If the film is Bladerunner, those experiences might include a woman trying to sell you a live scorpion in a jar.  If it’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you might be pressed into accepting therapy from Nurse Ratched.  Because everyone is in costume and playing along, everyone can contribute at least in a small way to the immersive quality of the evening.

Are these the good guys or the bad guys? Hard to tell.

On the evening we went, during their April-May run, we extracted from our wardrobes our best approximation of stylish late 1950s clothes and joined a crowd pushing its way along Leake Street underneath Waterloo Station – the shivering dampness of the railway arches reminding me that there are little-known underground rivers that flow below the southern Thames flood plain.  In the queue, we stood smugly untouched as French military police harangued and searched those less well-heeled people who had been instructed to follow a different dress code.  Once inside, we ate lamb tagine and fended off a small girl who tried to sample our food, her mother rushing over to apologise for the intrusion. Soldiers stalked around barricades set close to an ancient Air France office; we drank rough red wine from the Milk Bar.  All around were north African buildings, tea shops and women in white niqabs – one of whom invited us to follow her and to be privileged guests at a discreet wedding in a lace-decorated courtyard.  We watched the ceremony from a balcony, then scattered quickly as ululations were hushed and the wedding party disbanded.  There was everywhere a sense of suppressed tension.  Or indeed, open tension, when we discovered the barbed wire prison holding pens, complete with prisoners.

The expectant and mildly terrified audience

Deep though the immersion was, we weren’t equal to the task of trying to guess which film we were experiencing.  Everyone was speaking French and Arabic, but the tone was too dark to be Casablanca.  After a couple of hours of walking, talking, watching and drinking, we filed into the old-fashioned cinema at the centre of the set.  Once full, three soldiers strode to the front and asked for us to be patient with the security measures and announced that we would “triumph over terror”.  No translations were offered for those who spoke no French, adding to the mood of curiosity and vague confusion in the audience.  And then a ripple of surprise as the opening credits rolled to reveal that we would be watching ‘The Battle of Algiers’. No blockbuster, then, but an art film.

And really, we were wrong again.  The Battle of Algiers is less an art film, more a stunning docu-drama: Gillo Pontecorvo’s uncompromising exposition of the struggle between colonial France and independence-minded Algeria.  Released in 1966, just a couple of years after the events it depicts, it controversially explored the perspective of the terrorists and cast non-professional actors recruited from the streets of Algiers to heighten the sense of realism.  Described by Edward Said as “one of the two greatest political films ever made” and by the founder of Secret Cinema as “one of the most truthful and significant films ever made about conflict”, it was reportedly screened at the Pentagon in 2003 to demonstrate ‘how to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas’.  You might have expected most of the audience to flag before its black-and-white subtitled onslaught. But its contemporary relevance and narrative power was obvious enough to the audience that more than two-thirds stayed glued to their seats throughout.  We found it gripping.

On reflection, I think you can experience Secret Cinema on one of two levels.  One is of course to enjoy the amusement of participating rather than merely spectating, of dressing up and imbibing a little of the creativity of others.  That was what I had expected, and that was certainly part of the deal.  What I had not expected was the next layer of experience.  By tuning into the fabric and characters of the film beforehand, you care far more about the little girl, the bridegroom, the soldier and the terrorist you see on screen.  You notice far more detail; you are more willing and more able to see all sides.  When the Milk Bar that served you your drinks is bombed in the film, your shock is deeper, your reaction more complicated.  You are inescapably vested in the emotional currents of the movie.  As Kevin Spacey says, “Secret Cinema has created a new way of experiencing film. The fusion of film and theatre allows for a much more powerful experience and adds an incredibly unique dimension for the audience. It certainly did for me. I was blown away”.

I don’t know how far that happens with less startling films.  After all, however excited people can get about arguing that the original pales next to the director’s cut of Bladerunner, it’s never actually been banned or used to change the course of a war.  But they do have a habit of choosing meaty films (including Paranoid Park and The Red Shoes, for example) and we found it such an enriching way of seeing a film that we will eagerly sign up for future productions.

Not that we have any idea what, where or when they will be – but we’ll find out.

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