Occupying Time: The Battle of Algiers (videoessay and supporting statement)

This videoessay has been submitted to InTransition, the online journal of videographer criticism, and the following is the supporting statement submitted along with the film.

Research aims

The treatment of temporality in The Battle of Algiers is a controversial aspect of the film. Critics have noted the film’s complex sjuzhetbut have argued that the film offers ‘an episodic view of history quite alien to the possibility of understanding [history] as an open horizon of possibilities and alternative realities’ (Sainsbury 1971: 7) and that it is guilty of an‘excess of historical teleology’ (Khanna 2006). My own study of The Battle of Algiers, a film which I have taught for many years and have recently been writing about in a short book, convinced me that the orders of time that fashion the film are not reducible to the teleological (though that dimension is certainly there, and it is wryly, I hope, registered in the essay). And so, work on this videoessay was intended to reveal something of the complexity of the film’s temporalities and to encapsulate something of the viewer’s experience of these.

Process

My working approach to the essay grew directly from the parametric exercises we were set during the first week of the Middlebury workshop on videographic criticism in June 2018. These exercises (developed from those described in Keathley and Mittell 2016) imposed strict formal constraints on the choice and treatment of material to be used from the student’s chosen text. This process appealed to me for several reasons. Firstly, parametric approaches – those that deploy methods variously described in terms of ‘obstructions’, ‘oblique strategies’, ‘constraint satisfaction’ etc. – are an attested stimulus to creativity, because they are designed to bypass the preconceptions of the creator and they lend themselves to material thinking, of which videographic criticism is an excellent example.[1]Secondly, the parametric approach bracketed the idea of theme: in that first week at Middlebury, it didn’t matter what your videoessay was about, just that it was developed in a given way. This meant that you didn’t have to begin with some prior opinion or conviction that you then hoped to illustrate. The formal constraints made for a genuine investigation, in other words, one that could lead to unexpected outcomes or discoveries. As Keathley and Mittell put it, ‘formal parameters lead to content discoveries’. Thirdly, parametric approaches can be seen to be in opposition to the Romantic idea of the artist who expresses their essential self, or to the idea of the intellectual who authoritatively pronounces on a particular theme. Using a parametric approach, the videoessayist intervenes in a system while recognising themselves to be part of that system rather than a Godlike figure beyond and independent of it.

Some of the material I produced in the first week made it into this final essay, but more important to me than any content was the formal approach itself that I played with that first week, including brevity, the arbitrary (or apparently so) division into numbered or titled sections, colour scheme limited to black and white, a certain insouciance of tone. For the final project, from which the present essay is developed, I added the constraint that all audio and visual material apart from credits and intertitles should come from the film itself (I consider the two brief explanatory phrases in square brackets a compromise in this respect). I hoped that these parameters would allow the film’s temporal moods to emerge from the text and to be grasped experientially by the viewer of the essay.

Combination, subtraction, sequence

With one exception, I will resist talking about what I feel to be the ‘meaning’ of the individual sections of the essay, the reasons that each takes the form it does, the matching or disjunction of music and image, the formal symmetries, and so on. I don’t wish to offer a coercive authorial interpretation of a work designed to be allusive rather than didactic.[2]I will say that one temporality not named in the essay, but which I hope to be evinced there, is ‘pace’. I insisted to myself that the essay be brief yet busy in order to communicate a sense of speed. Many viewers of The Battle of Algiers describe their sense of the breathless pace of the film, of the impression of events happening in bewildering succession or juxtaposition. The viewer of this essay, too, might experience a too-fast succession of sounds and images and of moments (or section changes) that happen ‘too soon’. Critical reflection I meant to frustrate – at least until a repeat viewing!

The brevity and speed of the piece had a consequence, however, which was that I had to avoid obtrusive vocabulary in the intertitles, except for deliberate (special) effect. The degree to which the relation of intertitle to section content was manifest or cryptic had to be calibrated to the pace of the viewing experience. Thus, ‘delay’ instead of ‘suspense’, ‘playtime’ for ‘reenactment’ or ‘carnivalesque’, and ‘routine’ for ‘quotidian’ or even ‘the denial of coevalness’.[3]The one title designed to arrest the viewer was ‘longue durée’: French, of course, and rare in ordinary English, though a jargon term in historiography, referring to the very long term – the history of climate, for instance. I used it here to label slow-motion images from the montage in The Battle of Algiersthat shows the types of torture practiced by the French: firstly, to connote the experience of pain, which seems to dilate time when you are suffering it; secondly, to allude to the long-term experience of colonization, of which torture is the intrinsic expression. As Frantz Fanon (1969: 66) put it: ‘Torture in Algeria is not an accident, or an error, or a fault. Colonialism cannot be understood without the possibility of torturing, or violating, or of massacring. Torture is an expression and a means of the occupant-occupied relationship.’The achronic exemplarity of the scenes in Battle’s torture montage is revealed in the light of Fanon’s remarks to refer not only to practice of torture by the French army in Algiers as part of its effort to put down resistance in the city, but also to the long-term actuality of torture, violation and massacre that was the Algerian experience of colonization.[4]I did consider finishing this section of the videoessay with the quote from Fanon (I had other quotes in mind for other sections too) but in conversation with my workshop mentor, Catherine Grant, decided to stick to my rule that all material should come from the film itself. The combinationof title, ‘longue durée’, with the torture images was intended, then, to evoke a long-term experience of pain and humiliation, and so to signal, in associative rather than indicative fashion, another temporality accessed by the film.

I hope not to be seeming to instruct in the interpretation of the videoessay. I give the reasons behind the choice of one section title in order to describe my method, which was one of combination and subtraction of elements. The sequencing then became a matter of thematic, visual or sonic continuity and contrast between individual sections.

A final note to mention that the title of the essay, ‘Occupying Time’, was suggested by Catherine Grant. Thanks again to her for coining a title that suggests at once the colonial context, the activity undertaken by the film, and the object of the videoessay itself.

Notes

[1]For Catherine Grant (2016), videographic criticism is practice-led research that ‘knows not what it thinks before it begins; it is a coming to knowledge that is “not the awareness of a mind that holds itself aloof from the messy, hands-on business of work”, as Tim Ingold writes (following Heidegger), but, rather, “immanent in practical, perceptual activity”.’ 2016

[2]I set out my analysis of temporalities in The Battle of Algiers in standard academic terms in a chapter of my forthcoming book on the film, and I see this videoessay as a companion and complement to that chapter.

[3]‘Denial of coevalness’ is the phrase used by Johannes Fabian (2014) to characterize how the study of another culture tends to imply that the studied culture exists in another time as well as another space, as ‘primitive’, unchanging and culturally static.

[4]Tomlinson (2004: 368) points out that the montage of scenes illustrating the different techniques of torture exists beyond the present tense of the unfolding diegesis, so that they are to be read as ‘typical’ rather than as specific instances.

Bibliography

  • Fabian, Johannes (2014). Time and the Other: How Antropology Makes its Object (new York: Columbia)
  • Fanon, Frantz (1969). Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press)
  • Grant, Catherine (2016). ‘Dissolves of Passion: Materially Thinking through Editing in Videographic Criticism’, in Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image(Montreal: Caboose). Ebook.
  • Keathley and Mittell (2016). ‘Teaching and Learning the Tools of Videographic Criticism’, in Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image(Montreal: Caboose). Ebook.
  • Khanna, Ranjana (2006). ‘Post-Palliative: Coloniality’s Affective Dissonance’, Postcolonial Text 2:1. Available at <http://www.postcolonial.org/index.php/pct/article/viewArticle/385/815> [accessed 12 September 2017]
  • Sainsbury, Peter (1971). ‘The Battle of Algiers’,Afterimage3, 5-7
  • Tomlinson, Emily (2004). ‘“Rebirth in Sorrow”: La bataille d’Alger’, French Studies58: 3, 357–370