Occupying Time: The Battle of Algiers

Creator's Statement

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 sjuzhet but 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); the film is said to be guilty of an ‘excess of historical teleology’ (Khanna 2006). My own study of The Battle of Algiers, which I have taught for many years and have recently been writing about in a short book (O'Leary 2019), has 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 registered, wryly I hope, in the video essay). And so, work on this video essay was intended to capture something of the complexity of the film’s temporalities and to encapsulate something of the viewer’s experience of these.


The essay was begun at the 2018 edition of the Scholarship in Sound and Image workshop on videographic criticism at Middlebury College, led by Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell. My working approach grew directly from the parametric exercises that were set in the first week of the workshop. These exercises (developed from those described in Keathley and Mittell 2019) imposed strict formal constraints on the choice and treatment of material to be used from the workshop participant’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 argument 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’. [2] 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 video essayist intervenes in a system while recognising themselves to be part of that system rather than a Godlike figure beyond and independent of it.

The ‘parametric’ exercises at Middlebury involved making a ‘pechakucha’ style video on the first day, and dealt with voiceover, onscreen text, and multiscreen on the subsequent days of the first week. All these exercises informed my essay as it evolved (even if it doesn’t use authorial voiceover), but the essay’s final form was suggested by the exercise set over the weekend at the end of the first week. We were each asked to make a ‘trailer’ for our planned essays, and the final piece published here, a kind of conceptual supercut of the film’s temporalities, is an expansion of the ‘trailer’ I made. As such, it can be described in terms of advertising (the trailer) and fandom (the supercut). These are modes apparently remote from the scholarly investigation,[3] so it can justly be asked what’s academic about all this. For me, the scholarly dimension inheres in the critical impulse: as a trailer, it is a celebratory piece, but it is a critical and analytical trailer. The critical-analytical aspect is meant to emerge, not in explicit argument (via voiceover, for example), but in terms of organisation and juxtaposition; and instead of the approach that makes of the reader/viewer the passive observer of the report and illustration of an argument, I adopted one that elicits the engagement of the viewer in determining the diverse tones of the ‘discussion’.

Combination, subtraction, sequence

One of the guest mentors at the Middlebury workshop was the media theorist and practitioner Allison De Fren, who has made powerful and influential videoessays on the female body and technology in cinema.[4] Allison’s videographic approach is closer to the standard academic prose essay in which the author’s conclusions are known to herself in advance and the evidence set out in order to guide and persuade the reader. At the workshop, she was critical of the parametric approach and of the ‘poetic’ pole of videographic criticism. Thinking about and rejecting Allison’s scepticism for my own purposes, I realized I liked iterative and permutational form—the theme plus variations approach—which I think of as a formal and historical alternative in the essay tradition to the conventional argumentative form. In my essay, I allowed an accumulation of examples to replace this conventional argumentative form, and I hope my critical position and my ambivalence emerges, rather than being stated, in terms of unresolved or dialectical juxtaposition, where the relation of discrete audio, visual and textual elements must be interpreted by the viewer in the light of their knowledge of and familiarity with the film.

The viewer’s work of interpretation is also meant to occur ‘affectively’, or at least as reflection upon the experience of the essay rather than just upon the content (as in standard academic prose where the form is intended to be transparent if not invisible). In any case, I think of this approach as a form of immanent criticism, where the material of the film itself is remixed to reveal its structures, rhetoric, and contradictions. Thus, all audio and visual material used in the essay, apart from credits and intertitles, comes from The Battle of Algiers itself (I consider the explanatory phrases in square brackets a compromise in this respect), as set out in the table below.

      Older bomber enters Air France offices     Young bomber at beginning of dressing scene     Ali witnesses the execution by guillotine     Café clock at moment of explosion  (These are played a second time in slow motion)  Delay 	  My captions and translation of closing voiceover 	      Non-diegetic tension/action music followed by a drone from montage of attacks on 20 June 1956     Voiceover, non-diegetic ‘baba salem’ percussion and score (Ali’s theme), and diegetic ululation chanting percussion from film’s closing moments  	      Three sections of whole film running in increasing fast motion     Prologue and long flashback truncated to pause on Ali’s close-up  Mundane 	  Interpolated frame from American print of the film, with my caption 	  Part 1      Non-diegetic score from the grieving and collection of the dead after the Casbah bombing  Part 2      Diegetic marching music played by military band during strike  	  Part 1      ‘Documentary’ images of Casbah inhabitants from the beginning and strike sequence  Part 2      Text frame     Military projectionist showing surveillance footage from the checkpoints  Playtime 	   	      Whistling and voices (mainly children’s) from the chastisement of the drunk     Crowd ululates after Omar speaks over the stolen checkpoint microphone   	      Military invasion of the Casbah during the strike and during the operation to capture Ali     Three women dressing scene of     Young bomber passes the checkpoint     Young bomber in the Milk Bar     Surveillance footage of young woman at checkpoint     Dancing in the Milk Bar     Ali leading protests after Casbah bombing     Male FLN leaders in traditional female costume (Haiks) attempt to evade capture     Crowd scenes from the closing protest sequences     Crowd ululates after Omar speaks over the stolen checkpoint microphone  Longue durée 	   	  Diegetic chanson used by the French to obscure the sound of screaming by the tortured during the strike, with short dialogue exchange between two soldiers 	  Four types of torture from the montage that follows the second press conference  Revolution 	   	  Song ‘Rebecca’ played on the jukebox in the Milk Bar bombing scene 	  Algerian crowd emerges from smoke during the protest sequences that close the film


One temporality not named in the essay, but which I hope to be evinced there, is ‘pace’.[5] 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 video 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 ‘mundane’ for what I might have dubbed a ‘denial of coevalness’.[6] 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 Algiers that 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 insurrection in the city, but also to the long-term actuality of torture, violation and massacre that was the Algerian experience of colonization.[7] I did consider finishing this section of the video essay with the quote from Fanon (I had 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 combination of 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 seem to instruct in the interpretation of the video essay; 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. I will finish with one example of this sequencing. Each new section is signalled with a cowbell motif taken from the Spanish-language song, ‘(Hasta Mañana) Rebecca’ by the Belgian group The Chakachas, playing on the jukebox in the Milk Bar sequence when the bomb is planted in Battle, and which I use over the final section of the essay.[8] The use of a pop song in ‘Revolution’ mirrors the use in the preceding ‘longue durée’ section of a Piaf-style chanson (I haven’t been able to identify this chanson but in Battle it is part of the critique of hypocritical European leisure). In the essay, the ‘mañana’ suddenly arrives, truncating the long but not eternal durée of occupation. Tomorrow is consummated. The ‘future’ anticipated all the way through via the cowbell motif is abruptly achieved (sonically satisfied) with the end, when the song continues to play…

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.


Fabian, Johannes (2014). Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia)

Fanon, Frantz (1969). Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier (New York: Grove Press)

Grant, Catherine (2019). ‘Dissolves of Passion: Materially Thinking through Editing in Videographic Criticism’, in Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image (Montreal: Caboose). 65-84.

Keathley, Christian and Jason Mittell (2019). ‘Criticism in Sound and Image’, in Christian Keathley, Jason Mittell, and Catherine Grant, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image (Montreal: Caboose). 11-30.

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]

O'Leary, Alan (2019). The Battle of Algiers (Milian: Mimesis International).  

Sainsbury, Peter (1971). ‘The Battle of Algiers’, Afterimage 3, 5-7

Tomlinson, Emily (2004). ‘“Rebirth in Sorrow”: La bataille d’Alger’, French Studies 58: 3, 357–370

van den Berg, Thomas and Miklós Kiss (2016). Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video (Scalar/University of Groningen). Open access book available at <http://scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/index>


[1] For Catherine Grant (2019: 65), 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”. 

[2] Keathley and Mittell (2019: 11).  

[3] I am thinking of the critique of current video essay practice in van den Berg and Kiss 2016.

[4] See ‘Ex Machina: Questioning the Human Machine’ (2017) at <https://vimeo.com/203960047> and ‘Fembot in a Red Dress’, published here on [in]Transition at <http://mediacommons.org/intransition/fembot-red-dress>.

[5] I set out my analysis of temporalities in The Battle of Algiers in standard academic terms in the chapter ’Time and Again' from my book on the film (O’Leary 2019: 83-110), and I see this video essay as a companion and complement to that chapter."

[6] ‘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.

[7] 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.

[8] Interestingly, the song is an anachronism in Battle (it was actually released in 1959, whereas the bomb is planted in '56).

As the author of Occupying Time: The Battle of Algiers is currently completing a book on The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966), it seems to this reviewer that this piece stands as compelling evidence for the productive potential of the video essay as an act of scholarly research. O’Leary has taken the 121-minute running time of Pontecorvo’s film and used nonlinear editing software to compress, expand, transform, and otherwise think through the temporal dimensions of the film.

The video essay is divided into nine sections, announced in the thumbnail the author has chosen for the video essay. What follows is a cataloguing of the various ways in which the The Battle of Algiers employs, evokes, and explores aspects of time:

  • dialogue (“Thirty seconds…”)
  • music (the timekeeping of military drumming)
  • onscreen text (“Alger 1945,” “Avril 1956,” …)
  • mise-en-scène (a blackboard timeline of the military operation)
  • props (timers on improvised explosive devices, modernist clocks in French cafes)
  • cinematography (the urgency of the zoom lens used to punctuate detonations)
  • narrative structure (prologue, flashback, coda)
  • voiceover/intertitle (“Two years of struggle still lay ahead…)
  • the archival (documentary footage of Cabsah residents)
  • the long take (protracted depictions of torture)

The author plays with the viewer’s experience of filmic time by layering on his own temporal variations — especially during the Delay section, in which the viewer is asked to experience and consider the three temporal sections of the film’s narrative simultaneously and through fast motion; and during the Playtime section, in which the chronology from occupation to resistance to independence is evoked via the mosaic-like dissolve of a nine-by-nine grid replaying key sequences from the film.

Few films possess the palpable sense of urgency at work The Battle of Algiers, and that dimension is not lost in O’Leary’s reworking. His use of abrupt edits, sonic punctuation, and onscreen text immediately calls to mind the rhetorical and affective strategies of Third Cinema works, like those by Santiago Alavarez and Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s La hora de los horns / The Hour of the Furnaces.

Occupying Time begins with sound before image—the sonic motif of the ticking clock, calling to mind the timed explosive devices used by the Algerian resistance fighters, as well as marking the duration of the French occupation. The ticking remains underneath O’Leary’s credits, just as the film’s influence and relevance lingers on.

The experience of 'Occupying Time'  - the verb ‘watching’ presupposes conditions that O’Leary’s audio visual incursion does its best to derange – is a challenging one. The discordant sounds, the jump cuts, the repetition and various other tricks from the bag labelled ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ fulfil their function proficiently, but I am unsure if they are the trigger for renewing my interest in Pontecorvo’s film. There is something about the coruscating monochrome mosaics that O’Leary assembles in the middle third of the video that brings to mind Bachelard’s explication of time in The Dialectic of Duration. ‘[W]hat remains of the historical past’, asks Bachelard, ‘what lasts from it? Only that which has reasons for beginning again. Thus, alongside duration through things there is duration through reason. The same is always true: all true duration is essentially polymorphous, the real action of time requires the richness of coincidence and the syntony of rhythmic efforts’. What these brief syntonic moments in O’Leary’s work show, and it is significant that these moments are not mediated by text, is that the revolutionary character of La battaglia di Algeri (معركة الجزائر‎) is as much a product of the interplay of the visual rhythms that Pontecorvo, Gatti, Morra, Serandrei, et. al. collectively construct throughout the film as it is to do with its transcribable content. In this regard, O’Leary’s video is a welcome addition to the scholarship that seeks to communicate the multifarious ways this kinetic work resists the brutal homogeneity of colonialism. 

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Dialectic of Duration. Translated by Cristina Chimisso. (Manchester: Clinamen Press, 2000), p.20.