Packaging Politics: The Criterion Collection and The Battle of Algiers

Curator's Note

Upon watching Gillo Pontevcorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, it becomes clear where the film’s sympathy lies: with Ali la Pointe and the FLN, with whom the story begins and ends.  Yet the film still manages to portray the Algerian War for Independence fairly even-handedly, depicting the brutalities committed by both sides of the conflict.  In this way the film complicates any partisan attempts to represent it as univocal; however, this hasn’t stopped political groups from reading the film’s politics as aligning with their own.

The trailer for the 2004 U.S. theatrical re-release also picks up on the film’s politics, informing the viewer that "[t]he most explosive film of the 1960s is now the most important film of 2004."  The opening of the trailer offers a clue as to how Pontecorvo’s film resonates almost 40 years after its release, as scenes of Algerian women dressed in western-style clothing and carrying bombs are set side-by-side with Col. Mathieu’s reports of a small minority ruling through terror.  Shots of cafes exploding reveal the reasons why these women, and their fellow insurgents, must be found and destroyed.  Due to the trailer’s focus on the French army paratroopers, files and reports on revolutionaries, and the bombings committed by the FLN—the bombing of the Casbah and the use of torture by the French are given comparatively less representation in the trailer—when the intertitle revealing the Pentagon’s 2003 screening of the film appears it perhaps comes as no surprise.  

Also released in 2004, The Criterion Collection’s impressive special edition three-disc set includes the Rialto re-release trailer as one of many bonus features.  I am interested in the way in which the DVD boxed set frames The Battle of Algiers and archives the history of its reception, influence, and political applications.    Like the trailer which prefigured its release, the Criterion Collection boxed set appears to focus on the American post-9/11, post-Invasion of Iraq context when promoting the film’s importance in and for 2004.  This begs the question of how other films, particularly foreign films, are packaged and framed through DVD paratexts and the political climate contemporary to their [re-]release.  In what ways do the bonus features on DVDs reflect not only the politics of the countries in which they are released, but also the politics of DVD production and packaging? 

Comments

Lisa Patti's picture

Trailer logic

 Thank you for your post, Brianna.  It might be interesting to consider the political framing of the film in relation to its critical framing.  In the trailer, title screens announce its Academy Award nominations, its Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival, and its rave review from Pauline Kael in The New Yorker  — "The most emotionally powerful revolutionary epic since Eisenstein’s Potemkin!" These credentials are familiar trailer elements.  A second set of title screens  (and I should note that I’m not organizing these sets according to the trailer’s order of presentation) announces that the film was banned in France in 1965 and screened at the Pentagon in 2003 and that the film contains "not a single frame of documentary or news footage."  This final assertion may be the most intriguing, pointing to a slippage between history and film history.   

Brianna E. Hyslop's picture

Helpful Observations

Lisa, thank you for your observations and comments.  Breaking up the title screens into two sets provides a useful way to access the film as well as its framing.  I also find the assertion that the film contains "not a single frame of documentary or news footage" an interesting component in the way Pontecorvo’s film is presented to its audience.  Nicholas Harrison has a piece in interventions in which he discusses what he calls the "documentary realism" of The Battle of Algiers, where he proposes that this disclaimer both invites the audience to view the film as a reliable historical account as well as warns the viewer against making any such attempt.  

Pauline Kael’s review in The New Yorker also appears throughout The Criterion Collection bonus features.  Along with her comparisons between Pontecorvo and Eisenstein, Kael states in the review that Pontecorvo is "the most dangerous kind of Marxist, a Marxist poet."  One of the documentaries included in the three-disc set takes its name from this line - "Marxist Poetry: The Making of The Battle of Algiers" (2004).  Perhaps these elements further complicate the relationship between the critical and the political framing of the film.

Thank you again for your comments,

Brianna

 

Battle of Algiers

Dear Brianna;

Thanks for your observations.  I was quite taken by the way the clip mobilizes different temporalities and spaces, its banning in France, its screening in the Pentagon, the Oscar and Venice prizes, mapping the film’s transnational itinerary and constructing it as a cosmopolitan and political object.  It’s quite clever in so far it is able to court cinephiles, political activists and film scholars.  Even though it states it is not a "documentary," it later states that it is a based a work which is about "actual events."  As you suggest, it clearly wants to have it both ways.  

 

Monika

Matthew Moore's picture

Tenuous Parallels

Brianna:

I appreciate your observations and questions about one of my favorite foreign-language films.

I was also struck by how the bonus on the 3-DVD set attempt to contemporize the film. The extras provide the usual production information, but there’s something quite consciously and pointedly topical about this Criterion package. The references to American engagement with the Middle East and the conversation with Edward Said are especially interesting.

I’m always a bit surprised by the hackneyed title "Based on Actual Events," as if this is necessary to give the film poignancy or to enhance its importance as an authentic historical text. Nonetheless, such a claim helps increase the likelihood that the film will be subsumed into an ongoing geopolitical narrative of American engagement with predominantly Muslim areas of the world. Obviously some tenuous historical parallels between Iraq in 2004 and Algeria in 1958 exist, but these really collapse under scrutiny. Perhaps what is behind Criterion’s marketing is less a claim about historicity and more about generating interest (i.e. revenues) for new audiences.

Thanks, Brianna.

Matt

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