Film: Double Bill

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The Independent Culture
The Battle of Algiers (Dir Gillo Pontecorvo, 1965)


(Franc Roddam, 1979)

THE BATTLE of Algiers is about the Algerian terrorist campaign against the French in the Fifties. Basically it was the same situation as Northern Ireland. They eventually withdrew. In my opinion it's one of the great political films of all time because it's dispassionate. It takes this brutal struggle and deals with it in an even-handed way. What is brilliant is, it doesn't preach; it doesn't sermonise. I am currently making a film about Bloody Sunday and I want it to be like a homage to The Battle of Algiers.

It tells the story of one man who joins the liberation and a rather brutal and determined colonel who tries to break the rebellion. Between the two of them it's utterly dispassionate; it doesn't judge either. Yet at the end of the film you understand its conviction for liberation and against oppression.

That's why it is a key film in the history of cinema. It led to all the political cinema in the Seventies. I saw this at a school film club and it had a shattering effect. I wanted to go out and make films that spoke to people about the real world and its complexities.

There are shocking scenes, particularly when a bomb is being planted in a busy street and it doesn't flinch from the brutal interrogation, but you never feel that it is being staged. It's all shot with a hand- held camera. It works by being utterly dispassionate, removing anything that reeks of opinion, artifice, or loading the dice.

What's absolutely amazing about it - even now - is that it has the ability to grip you with its mastery of plot. You feel you are in the hands of a master of controlled suspense. So the effect is both dispassionate in terms of its politics, its opinion, and vice-like, visceral, in terms of its grip on your emotions.

I have chosen two films that had a decisive effect on me. I think Quadrophenia is one of the greatest British films ever made. And, again, it's a film rather like The Battle of Algiers in that it set the template for so many other films that came later. I think that in many ways directors today follow in its footsteps.

It would have been 1979 and Thatcher was just about to come in. Essentially it's a film made at the tail end of the dog days of the Seventies. I remember that period well; I was just starting out in television and wanting to be a director one day, and when you went to the cinema what you had as a British film was Ealing comedies, or Merchant Ivory type of films. These were sentimental, nostalgic period pieces with corsets and Georgian houses, selling a view of Britain that wallowed in nostalgia.

Then along came Quadrophenia, which showed you could make a film about the real energy of Britain. And somehow it burst out of all those grey dog days films. Suddenly you got to the real life blood of what Britain was about: the excitement of the music; the sense of attack in the whole thing; the humour. I remember watching this film in a small cinema and being stunned and thinking that this was what British films should be like.

The truth is, it didn't come out of a vacuum. But it seemed to, because of what the late-Seventies were like. Britain appeared a hidebound, restrictive place, and the politics seemed to be going nowhere because we were walking straight in to Margaret Thatcher. It just felt like a defeatist culture. And yet there was this film that wanted to re-acquaint everyone with what was really going on.

What was also brilliant is that it was a film about kids that kids got, yet it was highly respected. And that was why it was so important for the British film industry. When you look forward, Trainspotting is classically Quadrophenia for the early Nineties. It wasn't until Trainspotting that we rediscovered what Frank Roddam did at that time, which is to say we can make commercial films about Britain today. We don't have to wallow in nostalgia, nor do we have to march into the furthest extremes of the art house.

I knew when I watched Quadrophenia that there were two roads in British film-making, and one road led to that film, and the other to Merchant Ivory. There was no doubt in my mind which road I wanted to be on - and there has never been any doubt since then.