12. La Commune, Problems and Rewards

ELSEWHERE IN this website I've written about the need for the contemporary MAVM to work with alternative forms and processes, to search for less hierarchical ways of communicating with the public. I would like to briefly describe how we tried to achieve this in LA COMMUNE, with the hope that the ideas will help to animate other alternative uses of film and TV, in an attempt to challenge the Monoform structure and its accompanying problems.

Broadly speaking, our 'process' manifests in the extended way in which we involved the cast in the preparation for, and during the filming, and in the way that some of the participants continued the process after the filming was completed.

Our 'form' is visible in the long sequences and in the extended length of the film which emerged during the editing. What is significant, and I believe very important in LA COMMUNE, is that the boundaries between 'form' and 'process' blur together, i.e., the form enables the process to take place - but without the process the form in itself is meaningless.

Before the filming we asked the cast to do their own research on this event in French history. The Paris Commune of 1871 has always been marginalized by the French education system, despite - or perhaps because of - the fact that it is a key event in the history of the European working class; when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject.

It was very important that people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, in order to gain experience in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process.

The French education system definitely does not function in this regard; its marginalization of the Paris Commune is only one part of a bigger problem - which includes an almost complete absence of critical media education.

Research by the cast on the Paris Commune in the months prior to the filming supplemented over a year of intensive investigation by our own research team (led by Agathe Bluysen and Marie-José Godin, with Laurent Colantonio, Stéphanie Lataste and Laure Cochener, working with such eminent historians as Alain Dalotel, Michel Cordillot, Marcel Cerf, Robert Tombs and Jacques Rougerie).

Our work necessitated a very broad, and at the same time detailed sweep through dozens of different aspects of the Paris Commune, and of this historical period in France - ranging from the personalities of the Commune and the Versaillais government, debates in the Hôtel de Ville and in the National Assembly, the role of women, and of the Catholic Church and its education system, the problems of sanitation, potable water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc.

At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming into groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; members of the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; soldiers of the National Guard; officers and men of the Versaillais forces; elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect upon the connection between the events of the Commune, and society today. In this way, we were asking the cast to contribute directly to the manner of telling their own history - as opposed to the usual hierarchical and simplistic process utilized in TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.

The cast were also engaged in a collective experience during the filming itself, constantly discussing - amongst themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen - what they would say, how they might feel, how they would react to the events of the Commune about to be filmed. Marie-José Godin was simultaneously preparing the two 'Catholic priests', and the young girls and older women, who played the pupils at the Catholic school in rue Oberkampf and their supervising nuns.

The results of all of these discussions were then inserted - or emerged spontaneously - within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune.

Most of the cast appreciated this method of filming, for they found it a very collective process, as well as one that offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the pre-planned and pre-scripted manner of making most films.

This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society - which they confronted on the spot.

There are also scenes in the film in which the FORM is entirely different again: for example, when the camera is static (except for a few gentle moves left or right), i.e., when it covers extensive discussions among various groupings of Communards - during which time the cast speak with each other (with no intervention by myself or the TV Communale). These are recorded non-stop, sometimes for up to 30 minutes (the only pause being to change the magazine in the camera). These scenes occur, for example, when the women of the U.D.F. speak in the cafe - first about organizing in 1871, and then about conditions for women today - and when the National Guard heatedly discuss the pros and cons of centralizing decision-making during a revolution, etc.

In both the 'static' discussion scenes and in the mobile sequences, people are rarely, if ever, framed in close-up as individuals - usually there are at least two or three people in the frame at the same time. This, and the manner in which people speak with each other, allows for a group dynamic which is very rare in the media today.

Centralizing? Collective? - or both?

It has to be said, however, that working in this way is both exhilarating - and very difficult. The more conscious I was of the liberating forces I was unleashing, the more conscious I was of the hierarchical practices - and personal control - I was maintaining. I say 'more conscious' - but this is not entirely true. It cannot be entirely true, because my training as a filmmaker, and exposure to the consistent methods of the MAVM, have imprinted so many hierarchical practices, that it is difficult to consciously identify and surmount them all.

It is even more difficult when a shortage of funding forces one to produce a film in only eighteen days of actual filming (a 'standard' feature production takes anywhere from three to six months to film). This inevitably causes the sort of pressure and panic which can knock asunder the best of intentions.

That said, I also deliberately did want to retain certain hierarchical practices (including that of being the director with over-all control), in order to see whether a 'mix' of these and more liberating processes could offer something satisfying both forms of creativity - the lone ego-bound form, and an open and pluralistic form.

Certainly many of the cast recognized, and felt some of the tensions between these opposing ideals and practices. Most accepted the situation, but several people found it very difficult. Specifically, a few of the cast felt the filming of the long sequences to be inhibiting, even aggressive.

Most of these sequences followed the TV Communale team (Gérard Watkins and Aurèlia Petit) as they moved with their microphones in sync with the events of the Commune. Certain of the cast found the presence of the TVC microphones - sometimes thrust in their faces, and then withdrawn before they had enough time to formulate many sentences - a limiting and frustrating experience. For some, this method of filming detracted from - rather than expanded - the possibilities for an open expression of the ideas which had been developed during their group discussions. I understand this criticism, for it is directly related to the problems outlined elsewhere in this website - i.e., to the practices of the Monoform.

Certainly there were aspects to the use of the TV Communale and filming of the long sequences which resembled the hit-and-run tactics of contemporary TV. I admit that, due to the pressures of the filming, I paid less attention to the negative sides of this process than I should have done. But even this is complex! Looking back on the filming of LA COMMUNE, I find it difficult to say how much my lack of attention to the fragmenting aspects of the long sequences was due to the pressure I was under, how much was due to habitual professional practice, and how much to the fact that I deliberately permitted certain potential problems to evolve because I wanted to explore the collective process to the full - even if this meant on occasion overriding individual needs for space. This may sound contradictory, and I would like to explain this idea a little further, because despite its attendant problems, I believe that the process of the long sequences in LA COMMUNE opened up significant possibilities for future audiovisual communication.

It is true that a camera arriving and departing quickly can be seen and experienced as limiting, especially from the point of view of an individual positioned along the route. It is quite different, however, from the point of view of an audience or the group of actors as a whole, because we can see how the individual statements and utterances within a long sequence can form a collective whole. I believe this notion of collective expression to be extremely important - whilst realizing the dangers of fragmentation which accompany it.

The tension - and, I must admit - the pleasure in filming LA COMMUNE in this way, occurred while pushing and testing the possibilities of the cast - and myself - to rise to the rare opportunity available in those few days, to create a series of spontaneous, and yet collective statements - which came from the depths of personal experience, and were aided by the collective process of preparation for the filming.

I realize that such a large cast, and the need by many people (who in more traditional films would be relegated to the role of silent 'extras') to speak, limited the length of time, in certain situations, for them to express themselves as individuals. But I believe that this was balanced by the other scenes where people had the opportunity to speak, and by the sheer length of the final film. Since an overall objective of LA COMMUNE was to present a collective voice, I believe that the filming achieved this, in a way which is highly unusual in the MAVM today.

Another reason for such an emphasis on the long sequences, including during the editing, was because fragmentation due to the camera arriving and departing was not the only ensuing process. A study of these sequences shows that Gérard and Aurèlia often approach a group, ask a question, and then retreat while discussion develops between the members of the group, who speak over and across the TV interviewers; the technology is thereby used only to facilitate people's communication with each other. I find these moments exciting - they were often very spontaneous, and exemplify how 'La Commune', while ostensibly implementing a Monoform technique, departs radically from it.

There are, however, aspects of LA COMMUNE - its conception, filming methods, the form it acquired during the editing - which do have certain centralizing features to them. The fact that I am trying to develop alternative TV forms and processes does not alter the reality that, in a number of ways, I remain anchored in traditionally hierarchical practices. One could say that this is inevitable - ? - that the creative process requires a single guiding force. At the same time, one must keep in mind the drastic extent to which this has happened in the mass audiovisual media, and the excessively hierarchical, producer-audience relationship which has developed as a result. I believe that LA COMMUNE gives examples of both egocentric, and more open, pluralistic forms.

It is the role of LA COMMUNE to offer these issues for open discussion at a community, workplace and classroom level, for they touch directly upon the urgently needed debate regarding the media and the globalization process - which is the major theme of this website. If a reflexive debate involving the practices implemented in our film aids in this process - so much the better!

© Peter Watkins 2016