Les États généraux du film documentaire 2009 Political Views of Documentary

Political Views of Documentary


At the same time as university research has restored May 68 to its working class dimension (1), the importance of French militant cinema has been rediscovered. This current from 1967 to 1979, from Classe de lutte to Cochon qui s'en dédit and À pas lentes, provided the transition between the beginnings of direct cinema to contemporary creative documentary. Opposed to the clichés which denigrated the movement in order to reduce its importance, we can find lying below the ever lessening rigidity of surface sloganeering ten years of inventive and sometimes highly imaginative film-making producing innovative, turbulent forms which were impossible to recuperate by the powers that be. Stimulated by the flexibility and widely available nature of digital equipment, this cinema has appeared with renewed vigour over the past five years, adopting other modes certainly, in no case copying the original but on the contrary showing extreme formal variety and sometimes savagery in its most radical stylistic choices. Devoting a day to the contributions as well as the experience of the previous generation, that of the seventies, is not a question of nostalgia. History has no other meaning than to shed light on the present. The problem here is to give this new flowering of a cinema of combat an ascendency, a genealogy, a means to reflect during a workshop organized with the filmmaker Sylvain George, on the reasons, questions and proposals of all these films which continue to be made in number. For, clearly, there is an urgency given the suffering of the people, this people which was for so long the horizon of militant cinema and which, for thirty years, Denis Gheerbrant has been filming in its unstoppable dispersion, trying film after film, to restore its confidence in its capacity to speak out.

1. "Has May 68 been filmed?" On June 14, 2008 the Cinémathèque française organized a panel to address this question frontally. Some of us had difficulty accepting the uselessly provocative, indeed clumsily revisionist, formulation of the question. It was a sterile way of continuing the legend that the number of films shot in May, in the heat of events, could be counted on the fingers of one hand, an idea stupidly repeated by the press at each commemoration. It was only necessary to remember, to recover, to restore, in other words to carry out with competence the work of any institution devoted to the past to understand the extent to which May 68 was on the contrary the site of intense cinematic activity in France where forms of struggle and struggles over form fed into each other constantly. During a month, several dozen technicians and filmmakers, committed, rebellious and above all working in solidarity, often young and impatient, made of the Revolution not only their subject but even more their project. If in situations of urgency they oppose their images to the mendacious representations by the government, as they made their feverish chronicles of occupied factories and mass protests, it was always with the consciousness of being themselves actors of the events, banishing all pretence of neutrality, their mikes and cameras among the workers, students, immigrants as a way of showing that they were on the same side. From the cine-tracts inspired by Marker (about fifty in all, two or three minutes long, representing undoubtedly the most original form produced by the movement) to the counter-newsreels produced by the ARC (Atelier de Recherche Cinématographique founded in 1967 and constantly trying to promote the convergence of the working class and the students) via the work of Jean-Pierre Thorn (Oser lutter, oser vaincre) or Edouard Hayem (Citroën-Nanterre), the issues presented in the films were confirmed each day in the streets: mobility of roles, the end of assigned functions, liberation of a brand new form of speech, totally unheard of and unique, enunciating “in a precise, beautiful language, recalling days of old, (…) that of the films by Eustache and leaflets by Vaneigem” (2). A flood of language flowing all along Le Cheminot (Fernand Moszkovicz) or Collectif ARC, C.A. 13 (ARC under the direction of Renan Pollès), the most unexpected of the films from May. Far from the great leaders and the nights of rioting, the camera films simple citizens in their daily activity of militants within the Action Committee which has all the joyous appearance of a soviet. Remarkable presence of the women, daily discussions on strategy, integration of the camera crew: a utopia becomes concrete, that of direct democracy thinking its own organisation and inventing itself collectively, the proof that the cinema of May 68 was totally one with its subject.

In spite of the return to order orchestrated after the June elections, this cinema would continue for thirteen years, documenting a social decade which resisted more than now thought. Born of a free association between teachers and students at IDHEC (National Film School) Cinélutte is a remarkable illustration, fed by a powerful desire for cinema as much if not more than by Marxist theories. Scenarios were written (never respected but useful as a guide), characters were elaborated, distance was taken with the techniques of orthodox news (repetition of takes, invention of scenes by protagonists visibly stimulated by the presence of the camera), synch interviews were dropped progressively in favour of a more constructed and more original use of speech, original music was requested from the composer François Tusques: Cinélutte's films signal a progressive mutation, that of militant practice which originally was pretty rough in style gradually becoming converted to the virtues of a “cinéma d'auteur”. Because, for the group's members, there was not on one side politics and on the other cinema, but a single gesture uniting one and the other, a cinematic experience considered in its nature as a political act pushing back always a little further the border between those who film and those who are filmed. In 1979 in Brittany, Jean-Louis Le Tacon and Thierry Le Merre stretched this experience to its limits, offering with Cochon qui s'en dédit, a film on the concentration camp universe of modern industrial animal raising, the most pitiless of metaphors, capitalism considered as a pure pig sty. Premonitory, this film closed the period.

2. Rebellious, insurgent, enraged, in solidarity, a new generation of films has emerged recently illustrating new and radical stylistic approaches and covering a wide gamut of tones and practices, from production workshops among those bereft of hope (the unemployed, prisoners, immigrants, housing estate residents) to collective practices calling for a different organisation of work-roles, from cinematic counter news reports to pamphlets inciting riot, from chronicles from within the heart of struggles to artistic cine-tracts. A “third estate” of cinema, one might say, on the margins of the industry, a homeless cinema inventing its own modes of distribution outside traditional circuits, dispersed but peopled with unbridled filmmakers and films free of political tutelage. For these films, activist or oriented toward research, are conceived henceforth without commissioners, freed of all hope of the “grand uprising”, in other words without illusion, motivated by the sole necessity of the gesture, on the side of the immediate response, on the edge of the political disaster which is ceaselessly working away at us. In France we suffer too much from silence, we die from being misunderstood. When words are no longer exchanged because we no longer hear each other, when there are no more discussions, then civil war threatens: street cinema, guerilla cinema, ballistic cinema, but also cinema of a radical artistic novelty considered in itself also as an act of resistance. Above all, “it is about not surrendering”, about “not entering the night without violence”, and it is spreading.

3. Over three years, Denis Gheerbrant filmed the northern districts of Marseille exposed to the present state of the world to the full extent of its damage. Months of editing and seven hours of projection are necessary to bring to the surface a “people”, surely in rags and surviving on the edges of society but which, revealed by the work of the film, relearns to name that which is missing and that made up, in former times, its strength, something to do with a shared narrative. For behind the simplicity of the questions Gheerbrant asks all those he meets, what is revealed little by little is immense: a same interior exile, a shared experience of defeat, the nostalgia of a collective or an elsewhere which has disappeared, connecting each person to something greater than the individual — the social class, the people, the memory of struggles or History. Between the filmmaker and those he films, one is struck first of all by the quality of the exchange, something like an immediate recognition which is spontaneously fraternal. It is true that by presenting himself alone, without the slightest crew to support him, with as only baggage his capacity to listen and his camera, he can himself appear somewhat unequipped, a filmmaker in the simplest of apparel, naked before the immensity of his task. Between the humility of one, his position, and the modesty of the others, born of their situation, can be guessed a common fragility, a profound sense of equality, a quasi-certainty that life is felt on the same side, filmmaker and filmed subject united in a single political emotion, arching over every gap that could divide them.

Patrick Leboutte

(1) Particularly recommended is Xavier Vigna's book L’insubordination ouvrière dans les années 68. Essai d’histoire politique des usines, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2007.
(2) Jean-Louis Comolli, "Mai 68 au miroir du cinéma", in Manière de voir, Summer 2009.



On Emancipation (Notes on the Cinema which is coming)
“Whoever fights for the exploited class is in his own country a migrant” (1)

“Psalms of Actuality”

Cinematographic gestures, new, emerging over the past few years. They refer back to certain minority cinematic experiences in the history of cinema seen as a whole (anarchist cinema of the beginning of the century, militant cinema of the seventies...). And yet distinguish themselves in some ways by the questioning of a certain number of political and philosophical assumptions: the political and cinematic project and practice are no longer supported by vanguard inspired theories or the quasi aristocratic overtowering position of an enlightened elite or sentinel able to guide the people, the masses, during a night and able to accomplish a certain number of acts which announce the upcoming insurrection/revolution; in France, the events of the Paris Commune are the major historical determining and structuring references...
In the same way, these new cinematographic gestures which try radically to testify to and to be worthy of the historical issues of our period (this radical positioning can be conjugated in the plural as we shall see), by clearly affirming political stands and positions, allow, by the conditions of their emergence and the social and political context in which they are inscribed, to re-interrogate indeed to break the dividing lines, the generally admitted conceptual frontiers and make visible the underlying ideologies, in particular, the polar opposition between political and militant cinema.
These cinematographic gestures, highly critical, necessarily minority, slight, fragile compared with the productions of the dominant cinema model, could here be called, generically and following Rimbaud, Psalms of Actuality (2).
The important thing is to see, in the present, in history.

Psalm 1. Of Intranquility: to witness, target, attack

Cinema of the margins contained in school notebooks or else peripheral like “belts” preventing the city and figures of the centre, the minority from collapsing under the weight of the immeasurable profits acquired at the detriment of the majority, the issue here is to mention the absent images, those which are missing, scorned, unrecognized in their power of evocation and exhortation.
Image-testimony, image-traces, image-combats, plastic and visual critical affirmations, the problem is to record, to testify to present and hidden realities, to locate the issues and motivations of the policies carried out, to take a position and to fight disinformation, the multiple duplicities and betrayals of our mediatico-parliamentary societies.
Self-produced images, fictional production companies, penniless associations, images constructed by isolated individuals, it is about setting up against the “choices of the chief” a permanent state of intranquility.

Psalm 2. On Attention: to scrutinise, interrupt, redeem

This state of intranquility is articulated with the construction of a singular relationship with history, of a historical reconstruction. Documents of culture are also always documents of Barbary, and written history is always that of the victors, reminds us Walter Benjamin. Facing this, it is the responsibility perhaps of present generations to “organize pessimism”, to update lost histories, forgotten, lost, buried gestures, scrutinise traces, lend an ear to the sounds, cries, whispers and silent suffering of nature, buried beneath the rubble of national archives, in the dust of libraries...
In An Injury to One, Travis Wilkerson, young American filmmaker attacks the problem of the class struggle in the USA and goes off to meet John Little, militant of the Industrial Workers of the World, assassinated by the boss's militias.
In Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, John Gianvito attempts the reconstruction of a history of liberation struggles in the United States and their principal actors.
Through means which are theirs alone and eminently singular, elegiac for Gianvito or more didactic and critical for Wilkerson, these filmmakers develop within their work a theory of attention. Malebranche talked of this as a “natural prayer of the soul”. An attention to what is lacking. On this basis, the images come to suspend the flow of time, interrupt a historical continuum. Past and present telescope and shed light on one another as Gianvito indicates and underlines by showing, at the end of his film, images of current demonstrations. Time is suspended, history stops, and objects like beings can reconstitute themselves in their entire integrity. At issue then, is the idea of rendering justice. A human justice, always, but which differs profoundly with that of the courts. The problem is in no case to pronounce a judgement, hand down a sentence or a penalty. The problem on the contrary is to carry out dialectic reversals by revealing, shedding light on the levels of reality, albeit carried by a minority, shunned by the established order, but which are nonetheless very real. Presenting the multiple strata that compose our realities, playing one with and against the other, operating displacements, discontinuities and dis-identifications to the benefit of new symbolic, moving, mobile reconfigurations, this is what cinema as a device and form of communication favours. Presenting poetically and politically, a new state of the world, this is what cinema as a device and form of communication as well as field of experimentation authorises: to provoke the emergence in a movement of experimentation of a Utopia at the heart of the present.

Psalm 3. On Experimentation: to destroy, overflow, rise up

What is this experimental movement? A process. A process which causes the emergence - like in the cinematic gestures of Etienne-Jules Marey - of the infinite hidden in the finite, mobility within fixity. A process is at work which selects and liberates new forces within beings like fractures in the existing order. It operates a break with the common world and dominant representations, a breach in the weave of space and time, liberating in this way the virtual and real possibilities of individuals, the “dominated”, the exploited, the forgotten. These latter are invited to take a distance from themselves, with the limited character of their present individuality, to open - by associating with others and by virtue of trans-historic combinations - to the indeterminate which constitutes them as autonomous, irreducible subjects, to form more powerful and freer individualities. New subjectivities delivered of all belonging to a native country, a soil, a line of blood, utopian subjectivities which express the powers of the Real and mortify and make allegorical by a simple glance the deterministic factors of all sorts and other principles of reality.
In If Fog Had Roots, black and white Super 8 film shot in Algeria whose images are sometimes of a rare beauty, Dounia Bovet-Wolteche shows in action the construction of multiple processes of becoming a subject, of emancipation. Ali was an Algerian militant condemned to death by France in 1954. On his natural death, much later, Dounia and her mother Axelle, leave for Algeria to explore the bodies, spaces, stories and promises which inhabit, constitute and trouble them. Different levels of temporality are superposed: there is a “time” of the film, the time of historical events... the cinematic strategy becomes almost in real time a seismography of time. The issue in question involve the categories of identity and alterity: nationality, social class, sexual identity, sexually defined body. What is a man? What is a woman? A biological musical score? A conceptual paradigm? On his hospital bed, Ali softly enunciates these magnificent words: “I believe I am a woman. Not physically. But in my mind”.
In Off Season by Jean-Claude Cottet, cinematic strategy is also used experimentally in order to question and favour the conditions of existence of a shared life, the emergence of a process of deterritorialisation and reterritorialisation. The film becomes an experimental scene in which renewed contact can be attempted. Alternating different shots of the seasons in a non chronological manner, the film is structured around documentary scenes, but which are systematic reconstitutions of past events, facts, conversations. Repeating a past scene, acting out again a traumatic or non traumatic event, is a way of distancing oneself, of disengaging oneself, introducing not the “same” but some different aspect, some “other”. Otherness which can reveal and thus reconsolidate social ties; and this in a suspended time, in a period “outside the seasons” that the cinematic strategy fosters and helps create.

A brief epilogue
“The historian is a prophet turned to the past” (3)
The “Psalms of Actuality” here briefly presented attempt to attack frontally and radically with different aesthetics, perfectly defined and constructed or not, issues which have run through our societies for decades, problems which for long have been obviated, undiscussed and still today considered taboo. Among these, the problems of social and racial discrimination and segregation, the existence of social classes and class warfare...
In 2002, Romano Prodi, then President of the European commission, declared that immigrants are "temporal bombs".
Following the same reasoning, we should adopt in turn a dialectical reversing and produce true temporal bombs.
Such is without doubt the “cinema which is coming”: traces which punctuate history like so many “prophecies of liberty” (4).

Sylvain George

(1) Walter Benjamin / in Essais sur Brecht, Paris, éd. La fabrique, 2003.
(2) Arthur Rimbaud, in Letter to Paul Demeny.
See also Georges Didi-Huberman, in Quand les images prennent positions. L'oeil de l'histoire 1, Paris, Éditions de Minuit, 2009.
(3) Fredrich Schlegel, in Athenüm.
(4) Saint-Just.


Coordination : Sylvain George and Patrick Leboutte.


Guests : Jean-Denis Bonan, Naïma Bouferkas, Dounia Bouvet-Wolteche, Jean-Claude Cottet, Denis Gheerbrant, Alain Nahum, Nicolas Potin.