Then Playing — The Battle of Algiers; Recorder: The Marion Stokes Story; Sleepwalking Land

battle algiers

The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966). An altogether remarkable feat of cinema, Gillo Pontecorvo’s film documents several years of the Algerian War, when rebels fought against colonialist rule by the French. Pontecorvo opts for verisimilitude, staging sequences with the rough edges and keen observation of the documentaries of the era. If most of the characters don’t go much deeper or broader than their place in the ongoing battle, that doesn’t prevent Pontecorvo from increasing the tension until it’s nearly unbearable. The Battle of Algiers commits to the basic nobility of the rebels’ cause. It also acknowledges the futility of all this savagery masquerading as the righteousness of militaristic problem-solving. No matter the outcome, these are battles where no one wins.

recorder

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Matt Wolf, 2019). This remarkable documentary considers the odd, valuable undertaking of Marion Stokes. Concerned about the news coverage devoted the geopolitical stalemate commonly known as the Iran Hostage Crisis, which took place across much of 1979, Stokes started videotaping all the major news networks with ceaseless devotion. She eventually expanded to emerging cable outlets and kept the VCRs grinding, amassing tens of thousands of videotapes that captured a tumultuous media landscape across decades. Wolf recounts Stokes’s biography with some helpful footage of her appearances on local public affairs television programs in the nineteen-seventies. He also puts together sharply selected segments from her collection, glued together like a dynamic mosaic of recent history. In particular, a composite shot that shows how coverage of the 9/11 attacks evolved across four different channels is a stunning marvel of visual storytelling.

sleepwalking

Sleepwalking Land (Teresa Prata, 2007). Adapted from a novel by Mia Couto, Sleepwalking Land takes a story of war-ravaged Mozambique and the people scuffling through it and imbues it with fable-like grace. A boy named Muidinga (Nick Lauro Teresa) and an older man named Tuahir (Aladino Jasse) are traveling together, joined by circumstance and operating as a unit in resigned desperation. Sharing the screen is a tale Muidinga reads from notebooks he finds on a burned-out bus. Prata moves between the parallel narratives with ease and expertise, keeping the film cohesive with emotional unity. Made impoverished by little more than unfortunate luck when it comes to geography, everyone on screen is forced to construct their own rickety version of hope. Prata depicts it all with remarkable empathy. There’s a clear purposefulness to her creativity, especially when the film takes turns into the fanciful, whether warmly watching at Tauhir imagines his lost profession working for the railroad or letting a more potent dose of magical realism bubbles up in the last act.

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