As I grabbed a coffee at Waterloo Station last Saturday morning, I happened to glance out of the window; several members of the crowd of weekend travellers had interrupted their journeys to stare at a distinctive group of people making their way through the busy station. Dressed in 50′s styled clothes; red lipstick for the women and trilby hats for the men, they looked as if they had just stepped off an express train from sixty years ago. As my own attire was similar, and I knew exactly where they were heading, I followed in the direction of the Old Victorian Tunnels - the venue for the latest offering from Secret Cinema.
Upon arrival, we were ushered into the venue by French police, all actors of course, who scrutinised the identity papers which we had been asked to carry with us ‘at all times.’ The Victorian tunnels had been transformed into a labyrinth of streets, filled with shops, houses, bars and even a mosque and prison. A clear distinction had been drawn between the Arabic area and the French/European area. Chess was being played in a café, and young revelers danced to the Latin music that trickled out of the bar. The cast consisted of children running around the streets, women in white burkas, and, of course, the ever-watchful eye of a heavy military presence. Yet more police stood guard at the check point between the Arabic and European quarters; they asked once more to see my papers before letting me continue.
The whole cinema audience had been transported to the city of Algiers, as it appeared under French control between 1945 and the Algerian War (1954-1962).
With so much to explore, the time passed surprisingly quickly. While the other guests and I were enjoying the atmosphere and interacting with the characters, a bomb exploded in the venue, shaking us for a moment from our enjoyment as we worried whether or not we were genuinely under attack. This was all just part of the show, of course, but as the army carried some of the injured (cast) away, I began to wonder what tensions were bubbling under the surface of this bustling city – such was the power of the illusion created. I did not have long to wonder as I was ushered into the cinema, just as the film started to roll. Have you guessed what it was yet?
The Battle of Algiers (1966) is based on the fighting that occurred in the city in 1956-57 between the Algerian National Liberation Front and French occupying forces. I confess that had this film been on TV I would have been reluctant to sit through it, but as I felt I had been living through part of the experience over the last two hours, I felt a part of the action, and I was completely engrossed.
The detail of the duplicate environment was nothing short of a triumph, and it stood as a testament to the hard work that the Secret Cinema team put into each event. What I had experienced in the mock-up was all there in the film, from locations to characters, and even the film’s score had been playing throughout the venue.
The film itself is certainly worth watching. Most striking was its ability to stay unbiased towards either cause -something that films miss today. The themes addressed in the film are, sadly, all too relevant today, so much so that in 2003 the Pentagon offered a special screening in order to help its officials understand the current ‘war on terror.’
As the end credits rolled, a somewhat subdued audience stumbled over the war-torn debris of the city that had been thriving only two hours before, and picked its way towards the exit.
This month’s event was certainly thought provoking but no matter which film is screened, Secret Cinema has the ability to capture the imagination of its audience. There is no doubt that this is the only way a film should be viewed.
Discover more at www.secretcinema.org