the sight & sound top 50 challenge: the battle of algiers (1966) / historie(s) un cinema (1988-1998)

This year I am attempting to see more films that I ever have in a year, and whilst I can easily increase the number of new releases I see by attending the cinema on a more regular basis I also want to expand upon the number of classics in my repertoire. These ‘great’ films are the ones that many would claim are essential to expanding my cinematic vocabulary and are pieces of cinema history that have greatly impacted the discourses that come about in my classes and in my everyday film-related conversations.

With this goal in mind I am embarking on what I call ‘The Sight & Sound Top 50 Challenge’. This entails watching one film each week from the most recent Sight & Sound Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time poll, beginning with number 50 and working all the way to number 1. Each week I will publish a brief response to the film where I document my reaction, reading and understanding of the film, particularly as a piece of work holding a “greatest film of all time” title.

In this 'catch-up' post I respond with a couple of much briefer reports, in an effort to progress m writing challenge. Included are the two films listed at #48: The Battle of Algiers and Historie(s) du Cinema.

#48 The Battle of Algiers (1966) dir. Gillo Pontecorvo

  Rialto Pictures

Rialto Pictures

A powerful and poetic film that surrenders to its politics on a level previously unseen in cinema, Gillo Pontecorvo’s monumental The Battle of Algiers is a transcending watch that will have varying affects on audiences depending on where their own politics lie. The film’s aesthetic, established through a naturalistic documentary style of storytelling, has enabled history to come alive on the screen – taking a divided memory and making it collective. Pontecorvo depicts the edges of what protesting was like for Algerians confronted with the French occupation; putting a face on a nation and crystallising the Algerian revolution. He does this without adding unnecessary colour or embellishment to the atrocities of the time, instead employing confronting realism to capture the complexity of the period, and reflecting the wisdom of the people who belong to this land by the use of mostly non-professional actors who were required to merely react to what Pontecorvo was building in each scene.

The Battle of Algiers tells of a culture that, even in its most successful form in the late 1960s, is so far from most audiences’ own norm that it is largely incomprehensible. Despite this Pontecorvo still manages to draw empathy from audiences for both sides of the conflict depicted. This empathy is largely instilled and amplified through the director’s choice of score which works in concert with the imagery. One particular piece of music, a death march, is overlayed in two different scenes: firstly, when the French blow up the Kasbah, and then again when the Algerians retaliate with their own bomb. Implicating that grief is something that has no nationality, and the pain of losing someone is undeniably universal. The Battle of Algiers has been celebrated for its largely unbiased reflection on the history, and the balance with which Pontecorvo portrays both sides. A film underscored by tragedy, The Battle of Algiers transforms the viewer, providing them with a viewing experience so dense and eye-opening they begin to see the world around them differently. It is then that they unfortunately realise that despite sixty years having passed since the Algerian revolution, and fifty years since the film’s release, the world has not changed enough to learn from its past wrongs. 

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#58 Historie(s) du Cinema (1988-1998) dir. Jean-Luc Goddard



Only 40 minutes into Jean Luc Goddard’s 266 minute “masterpiece” Historie(s) du Cinema, I decided to stop watching. I was not getting any enjoyment from viewing what I had been repeatedly told was one of the most monumental additions to cinema history of the twentieth century. I didn’t understand what I was watching. I still don’t really. For this reason, I have chosen to link to someone else’s piece on the film instead of attempting to write about it myself.

After spending several hours (much longer than I dedicated to actually watching the film) reading about Goddard’s ten-year-in-the-making project I came across this piece which helped me dissect the film to a more penetrable level. Written by Associate Professor Adrian Martin, lecturer at Monash University, I began to understand the motives behind the project. I will not do Adrian Martin an injustice by simply paraphrasing his work, but what I will say is that even with a better understanding of the film, I still haven’t convinced myself that furthering my Goddard education through this film is in anyway necessary for me.

What I have learned from this experience however, through both the top 50 challenge I have set myself, and from my attempt at watching Historie(s) du Cinema is that some cinema really isn’t for everyone. It doesn’t matter how much you love cinema, or how much time you invest in understanding its processes and discourses, sometimes a film beats you. And that is okay.