La Commune (de Paris,1871)
- - France
- - 13 Production
- - La Sept Arte
- - Musée d'orsay
- - 1999
- - 5 hrs 45 mins
The Paris Commune of 1871 - a brief historical background
March 1871: Adolphe Thiers, chief executive of the provisional national government, is alarmed by the revolutionary activities of the Paris National Guard, an armed militia of some 260 battalions organized by the previous government to help defend Paris against the Prussians in the last days of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War. The social situation in Paris is appalling, with massive unemployment and people still suffering the after-effects of the Prussian siege of Paris. Increasing socialism and militancy have been accompanied by the formation of many ‘red clubs’, which were supported by many of the National Guard battalions, especially those recruited from the working class arrondissements (districts) in the capital.
On March 18, Thiers makes a foolhardy (some say deliberately provocative) attempt to seize the cannon of the National Guard, and is foiled by the women of Montmartre. The women appeal to the government soldiers, many of whom refuse to fire on the people of Paris and reverse their muskets in a gesture of solidarity. Within a few hours Paris is in a state of insurrection, and the Mairies (town halls) of most arrondisements within the capital are in the hands of the rebellious National Guard. During these feverish hours, an angry mob has seized two government Generals, one of whom was involved in trying to capture the cannon, briefly held them prisoner, then summarily executed them against the wall of a garden in Montmartre. The firing squad included members of the National Guard as well as disgruntled government troops.
Thiers and his government hurriedly decamp to Versailles to join the National Assembly (with a majority of Monarchists from the recent elections). Henceforth the government forces are known as the ‘Versaillais’, and the National Guard and the Communards in general as the ‘Fédérés’ (in line with their vision of a loose-knit federation of Communes throughout France). A Central Committee of the National Guard occupies the abandoned Hôtel de Ville (the principal town hall governing Paris) and announces preparations for new municipal elections. On March 26, the left-wing gain enough votes to establish a socialist-oriented ‘Commune’ - which will last until May 28. On March 28, the Commune installs itself at the Hôtel de Ville, and for the next two months does its best to run the administration of Paris and to implement a programme of social reform, while fending off a growing siege from the Versaillais, who advance closer and closer in a singularly brutal war fought on the western edges of the capital.
The Communards try to introduce a series of radical social measures, e.g., to separate the Church from the State and establish a lay education system, give pensions to unmarried women, abolish night-work for bakers, introduce professional education for women, etc. But the lack of time and sheer disproportion in numbers (by May Thiers has rebuilt a standing army of 300,000) forces the issue, and the Versaillais army enters Paris on May 21 through an unguarded gate in the outer walls. Thus begins la semaine sanglante - ‘the bloody week’. In an orgy of reprisals, the French army, under the direction of its most senior generals, kills between 20-30,000 men, women and children in a series of bloody struggles for barricades right across Paris, before finally eliminating the last blocks of Communard resistance in the working class 11th, 19th and 20th districts.
Why this film, at this time?
We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history - where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered “old fashioned.” Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm - to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia - which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.
In February 1998 I met with Paul Saadoun of 13 Production, a documentary film company based in Marseilles, and we agreed to produce a film on the Paris Commune. During sixteen months of intensive research and pre-production, with the exception of La Sept ARTE in France, all of the major global TV associations which were approached, refused to participate in funding for the film. “I do not like Peter Watkins’ films,” said the Commissioning Editor for the BBC in London. Early in 1999, one of the major art centres in Paris - the Musée d’Orsay - learned of our film, decided to organize an exhibition on the Paris Commune (consisting of contemporary photographs, and the works of Corbet, a member of the Commune), and allocated 300,000 francs to our film budget. It is interesting in this context to note that cultural institutions, museums, and art galleries are beginning to fill the vacuum left by the increasingly conservative MAVM, which has all but ceased to produce serious works for the mass market!
The filming of ‘La Commune’ took place in July 1999, in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris. The factory stands on the site of the former film studios of French film pioneer Georges Méliès (1861-1938). Méliès, who died in poverty, discovered and exploited many of the basic camera tricks used in the cinema: stop motion, slow motion, dissolve, fade-out, superimposition, and double exposure. From 1899 to 1912 he produced more than 400 films, the best of which combine illusion, comic burlesque, and pantomime - treating themes of fantasy in a playful and absurd fashion. Méliès’ films include ‘Cleopatra’ and ‘Christ Walking on the Waters’ (1899), ‘A Trip to the Moon’ (1902), and ‘Voyage Across the Impossible’ (1904). Given the nature of our own film, it is interesting to note that Georges Méliès also filmed studio reconstructions of news events - an early type of newsreel. The factory which was built on the site of the Méliès studios recently became a performance venue for the theatre group ‘La Parole errante’, which, under the administration of Jean-Jacques Hocquard, is based around the work of dramatist, poet and director Armand Gatti.
Working with Agathe Bluysen, one of our main researchers, and our casting crew - principally my elder son Patrick, and Virginie Guibbaud - I enlisted over 220 people from Paris and the provinces to take part in the film; approximately 60% of them had no prior acting experience. Among the cast were a number of people from Picardy and other regions of France, with specific dialects and accents (since many migrants from the provinces took an active role in the Commune). Through the conservative press in Versailles, and newspapers like Le Figaro, we also recruited people from the Paris area to join the project specifically because of their conservative politics (to act in roles opposed to the Commune).
The set in the disused factory was designed and constructed by Patrice Le Turcq as a series of interconnecting rooms and spaces, designed to represent the working class 11th district of Paris, a centre of revolutionary activity during the Commune. The set was carefully designed to ‘hover’ between reality and theatricality, with careful and loving detail applied for example to the texture of the walls, but with the edges of the set always visible, and with the ‘exteriors’ - the Rue Popincourt and the central Place Voltaire - clearly seen for what they are - artificial elements within an interior space.
Cinematographer Odd Geir Saether filmed ‘Edvard Munch’ in 1973. To implement my plan in ‘La Commune’ for long, highly mobile uninterrupted takes, Saether and chief lighting technician Clarisse Gatti covered the ceiling of the factory with regularly spaced special neon lights, to give an even luminescence to the whole area, and to prevent the use of traditional lights on the floor obstructing the path of the hand-held camera. Jean-François Priester developed an equally ingenious method for the highly mobile and flexible recording of the sound, using two boom operators with radio-microphones and portable mixing system, which moved around the labyrinthine set.
Filming ‘La Commune’ - before, during, and after
Elsewhere in this website I have 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 then during the filming, and in the way that some of the people 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 has always been severely 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, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process 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 is definitely one aspect which is not functioning 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.
The cast research 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, and 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 sewerage, drinking water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc. etc.
At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; the soldiers of the National Guard; the officers and men of the Versaillais forces; the elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect on the links 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 of TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.
During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing - between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen - what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed. Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed - 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 really liked this method of filming, for they found that it 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 preplanned and prescripted 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 had to confront on the spot.
There are also a number of scenes in the film in which the FORM was entirely different again: 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) - 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 as if 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.
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.
After the filming of ‘La Commune’ (as a result of their intensely collective experience), a number of the cast continued to meet regularly over the following months, to socialize and to exchange ideas. Cast actor, painter and pedagogue Jean Marc Gauthier developed the idea of forming a non-hierarchical association called Le Rebond pour la Commune, to continue the work begun with the film - to expand on its ideas and its critical debate vis-à-vis society.
In March of this year, Le Rebond organized a weekend of public talks in Montreuil, with ca. 300 people attending presentations and discussions on the role of women, the media, work, power, and other key themes. Woven through the events of the weekend were debates on the Paris Commune - a direct link from the present to the past. Le Rebond is undoubtedly the most important ongoing development in the process of any film I have made, and shows that it is entirely possible to create processes within the audiovisual media which can move beyond the limitations of the rectangular frame.
Centralizing? Collective? - or both?
It has to be said, however, that working in this way - as well as being very exhilarating - is also 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, because the training one undergoes to be a filmmaker, and the exposure to the consistent methods of the MAVM imprint so many hierarchical practices that it is difficult to consciously identify and surmount them all. It is even more complicated when a lack of funds forces one to produce a film in only thirteen 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. At the same time, I also deliberately wanted to retain certain hierarchical practices (including being a director with over-all control) in order to see whether a ‘mix’ of these, and more liberating processes could result in something satisfying both forms of creativity - a lone and 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 time with the events of the Commune. Some 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 them, this method of filming took away 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 - 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 filming of the long sequences which resembled the hit-and-rush tactics of contemporary TV. And 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 complicated! Looking back to 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 overriding individual needs for space on certain occasions. 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 audio-visual 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, while at the same time I realize the dangers of fragmentation accompanying it.
For me - the tension, and I must admit, the pleasure in filming ‘La Commune’ in this way, was in pushing and testing the possibilities of the cast - and myself - to rise to the rare opportunity given in those few days to create a series of spontaneous, and yet collective statements - ones coming from the depths of personal experience, and helped by the collective process of preparation for the filming.
I realize that a large cast, and the necessity for many people (who in more traditional films would be relegated to the background as silent ‘extras’) to speak, did frequently limit the length of time in which they could express themselves as individuals. But I believe that this was balanced by scenes where space was given to individual expression, 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 emphasis on long sequences, including during the editing, was because the fragmentation caused by 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 a discussion develops between the members of the group, who speak over and across the TV interviewers; the technology is thus used only to facilitate people communicating with each other. I find these moments very exciting - they were often very spontaneous, and exemplify how ‘La Commune’, while ostensibly implementing a Monoform technique, departs radically from it.
And yet, there are aspects of ‘La Commune’ - its conception, its filming methods, the form it acquired during the editing - which 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 open, pluralistic forms. It is the role of ‘La Commune’ to pose these issues for open discussion on 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 carried out in our film aids this process - so much the better!
‘The Universal Clock’, and the length of ‘La Commune’
‘La Commune’ was originally planned as a two hour production. But the method of filming long sequences expanded the internal construction of the film to the point where it became impossible to reduce it beyond a certain stage during the editing, without destroying the very process which had developed in the filming. In the end, ‘La Commune’ emerged as a film of five hours 45 minutes. For me, this was a very difficult decision on certain levels; reaction to my other later films (‘The Journey’ and ‘The Freethinker’) has shown that herein lies the road to complete marginalization - partly by film critics, and totally by today’s MAVM. I was very conscious of this as I began to make decisions regarding the length of ‘La Commune’.
I have written about the problems of FORM and PROCESS, and the ways in which ‘La Commune’ has tried to address these issues. Now we come to the question of LENGTH in the MAVM - the way that time is used (or abused). The existing tendency - ruthlessly enforced by TV executives, especially Commissioning Editors - is to increasingly reduce and fragment the format and space available to filmmakers and the audience. At the present time, filmmakers producing TV dramas or documentaries are usually permitted a maximum of 52 minutes - in order to allow commercials to fill up the remainder of the hour. There are indications that this may be dropping to 47 minutes, and in some countries, e.g. Canada, a maximum of 22 minutes is increasingly being applied to documentaries. I have heard executives within the MAVM state that these time-spans are the result of what they refer to as ‘the universal clock’. This being the case, we can now see how the MAVM use the Monoform as a metronome governing the rhythm and internal structure of their global audiovisual ‘clock’.
But the rationale for these internal lengths and structures is entirely commercial, superficial and arbitrary: it has nothing to do with the material or the people who appear in the films; nothing to do with the multiple complexity of the audiovisual language; and nothing to do with the viewing public, who have never been informed or involved in a debate regarding these practices. Regarding the 'universal clock', one TV executive has said: "I work in the grammar of the people".
We need to ask, 'Whose grammar?' Who taught this grammar? And who are 'the people'?
It is amazing to hear these TV executives confidently stating their 'universal truths' about the structure of TV, subsequently standardizing everything which now appears on global TV, and suppressing all alternative work. And thereby revealing their contempt of the audience...
It is amazing to hear TV executives stating, with complete confidence, their ‘universal truths’ about the structure of TV - standardizing everything which now appears on global TV, and suppressing all alternative work. And thereby revealing their contempt of the audience...
“Some people can make the universal clock sing at 47 minutes ... others can’t. It’s perfectly possible to do the 100 Years War in 5, 10, 20 or 47 minutes ... the depth of information value is not about duration, it’s about the anticipated expectation of the audience.”
“Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy and those are the films we don’t transmit.”
What is so disgusting - on top of everything else - is the use by TV executives of the word 'respect'! These people have absolutely zero respect - for filmmakers or for the public. 'Respect' for work they marginalize, and for the public on whose behalf they make their decisions, is contempt and ridicule of the highest order.
This is absolute fascism at work, and anyone who still doubts the direct links between the contemporary MAVM and globalization in all its worst aspects, should carefully reflect on what is happening.
The MAVM dogma on length and form is not only GLOBALIST because of its application, but also because it directly contributes to loss of history, to the increase of hierarchical forces sweeping through society, and to a growing passive acceptance of the global economy. Without time or space to reflect, formulate questions, integrate memory and feelings into the daily experience of receiving the mass media we are lost, and history becomes dead. Time and sustained process are crucial for counteracting the frenetically fragmented and abbreviated language form of the MAVM.
I hope that this website has elucidated the fact that desperate though the need for length from a creative point of view, it is far more urgent on social, human, political and environmental grounds. Which does not mean that all TV films must be long! It means that filmmakers should be able to make their own evaluations re the appropriate length and internal structure of a creative work - whether it be 5 minutes, or 5 hours. It also means that if the hierarchy running TV simply ignore filmmakers’ decisions because they will marginalize these films anyway, that the public demand the right to openly debate such fascist limitations vis-a-vis the audiovisual process with all of its consequent implications.
Introducing La Sept ARTE and the marginalization of ‘La Commune’ in France
For those who are not familiar with La Sept ARTE, I should first explain that it is a Franco-German TV consortium, composed of elements of the old Channel 7 (Sept) in France, and the 13 principal regional stations of the ARD network in Germany. ARTE has production offices in Paris, and a huge headquarters bureaucracy in Strasbourg. Almost singularly in today’s world of TV, La Sept ARTE has a reputation for funding more serious documentary films, and often presents “theme evenings” devoted to a particular subject. Consequently, it has become the principal - perhaps the only - source of funds for documentary films in Europe. In the course of its development, ARTE has acquired immense power, and has become a highly centralized arbiter of programme standards and formats. Although ARTE sometimes funds and broadcasts films which would receive little support elsewhere, the environment accompanying such gains is in itself extremely conventional. Most of ARTE’s programmes, including documentaries, use the Monoform, and in this respect alone one can say that ARTE’s output is generally rigid and standardized.
The marginalization begins
The signals were not obvious to me at the outset. Several executives who later reacted very negatively to ‘La Commune’ appeared to support the film very strongly in the beginning. Especially painful for me, on a human as well as a professional level, was the savage contrast between ARTE’s initial praise for the originality of the project, and their actions after the film was completed.
Having made lavish public statements endorsing the film, and totally supporting ‘La Commune’ to the editing stage, La Sept ARTE abruptly changed tack past that point. Immediately after seeing the edited film, the Commissioning Editor praised it highly and said that he had no intention of showing a shorter cinema version, that he would only broadcast the original long version which he had just watched - to as broad a viewing public as possible. An hour or so later, however, ARTE began trying to interfere, and it became clear that the positive comments were simply rhetoric masking a fear of what the film had achieved. Sneering comments were made about some of the cast, and the film was castigated as being “incomplete”. It soon became obvious that it was not the length of the film per se, but its special form, which ARTE found problematic. During the next weeks, I followed directives from the Commissioning Editor to remove certain scenes, but when it became clear that this was not enough, that I was expected to eliminate more and more - to the point where the essential process of the film would have been compromised - the producer Paul Saadoun, and I informed ARTE that the editing was completed.
ARTE responded by announcing that they would now only show the shorter cinema version of the film - because the long version was still “incomplete”. We agreed to this proposal, but only if they informed the public of their reasons for not showing the original version, as we had requested. Then ARTE changed their mind again, decided to screen the original version after all - and proceeded to ban it to the outer edges of their programme schedule, announcing that it would be shown from 22:00 to 04:00 on May 26. This obviously meant that approximately two-thirds of the film would be screened while the public was asleep. We asked ARTE to either show the film earlier, or in two parts over consecutive evenings. They refused. The Director of Programming in Strasbourg, who apparently did not even wish to see it, dismissed ‘La Commune’ with the statement that “this film is not for prime-time!”. In so doing, ARTE deliberately prevented ‘La Commune’ from reaching more than ca. fifty people throughout France (“mostly night-watchmen”, as one paper commented), and in one stroke not only marginalized the film as effectively as if outlawing it, but also perpetuated the long-standing marginalization of the historical 1871 Paris Commune by the French media and education system.
It was clear that ARTE’s nocturnal programming of ‘La Commune’ was a) an act of revenge because I had refused to submit to bullying during the editing; b) an example to other filmmakers who might attempt to break free of the system; c) the result of commercial and reactionary forces within La Sept ARTE not liking the film. ARTE’s behaviour was thus extremely dishonest, for they pretended that the reason for not showing ‘La Commune’ amounted to the film being “incomplete”, needing “a tighter structure” - an artistic failure. As the Commissioning Editor patronisingly told me, “there are certain rules of editing”, which one must follow “to help” the audience. And dismissed me with - “You do understand, don’t you, that you have failed in what you set out to achieve?”.
What can we learn from this episode?
Following the history of my films as outlined in this website, you will have seen how TV repeatedly described my work as being ‘sub-standard’ in order to cast it aside. Using a rationale very similar to that ascribed by the BBC when it banned ‘The War Game’ (publicly calling it a failed TV experiment), the vice-president of La Sept ARTE wrote to tell me that they could not show ‘La Commune’ at a better time (e.g., when the audience was awake) due to “its nature and its length”. I asked to know what aspect of “its nature” justified showing the film while the audience was asleep? And never received an answer.
The lessons to be learned from this? First of all, - if you are a filmmaker - to never trust TV organizations which claim to be ‘progressive’, or which offer possibilities for producing or screening alternative films. For their inflated reputation rests largely upon the fact that they occasionally show something ‘different’ - while what is ‘different’ invariably lies within controlled and acceptable ‘standards’ which challenge neither the language form nor the dominant European mercantile order. ARTE’s banning of ‘La Commune’ demonstrates very precisely the limits of their acceptance, and of their position within the global TV power structure. As soon as ARTE felt that ‘La Commune’ challenged this power structure, they began to marginalize this major European TV production, which only 24 hours earlier they had publicly praised. And having made this decision, ARTE did everything possible to prevent the film from being seen by the French public - including cancelling a contractual agreement to distribute video cassettes of the film. There lies power for you.
In retrospect, the signals appeared in large letters on the wall, and I should have taken heed. While I was still preparing for the film, I had lunch with several senior ARTE people, including the Commissioning Editor in charge of co-producing ‘La Commune’. Everyone seemed very nervous. The Commissioning Editor left at the end of the meal, and almost immediately one of his colleagues turned to me and said, “You do realize, don’t you, that we get highly involved in the editing process here? That we will expect to go through your film at least 8-10 times?” Since I had assumed up to that moment that I was considered a reasonably experienced and responsible filmmaker, and since it had always been inferred that I would show my film once or twice to ARTE in the final editing stages, and since I had been repeatedly assured that ARTE would never interfere in my work, I was somewhat dismayed by this declaration. I in turn therefore said, “I hope you understand that I have no intention of showing my film to you that many times during the editing. Once or twice, certainly, but more than that should not be necessary!” The executive suddenly looked very embarrassed, and abruptly changed tone, saying, “Yes, yes, of course, you’re quite right!”. This executive had clearly inadvertently revealed the process of excessive editorial control and interference for which ARTE is apparently legendary ... as I was to discover some months later.
The second lesson to be learned - if one recognizes that ARTE’s tactic of citing “artistic failure” as a reason for marginalizing ‘La Commune’ is common practice throughout global television - is that we need to identify and strongly denounce this tactic every time it is practised by the MAVM. La Sept ARTE has every right to express its opinion of any film it co-produces, and the director is obliged to listen seriously to that opinion; but ARTE does not have to right to impose its own vision onto a film, for that is something else altogether. ARTE does not have the right to use its Commissioning Editors to enforce the code of the Monoform, nor do those Editors have the right to force their own egos, and their own visions, onto any film. That is completely outside their professional mandate, which is - or should be - to help artists fulfill their own vision.
Furthermore, I think that one could assert that TV organizations should be obliged to honour their commitment to a film, and to broadcast it in good faith instead of publicly bad-mouthing it, or declaring it an artistic failure before it has even been screened! While a number of critics in France dislike ‘La Commune’, others have written very positively about the film. The few people who were able to see it have mainly reacted positively, and there have been favourable reactions from abroad. It is not ARTE’s function to side with negative opinions even before the film has been shown. Prejudice, power and control are busy at work throughout this sad episode, and if there is a further lesson to be learned from ARTE’s marginalization of ‘La Commune’, it is that this repressive mechanism can have a devastating impact on the French documentary film industry, and on the integrity of the French press.
Silence towards the marginalizing of ‘La Commune’
In 1965, when the BBC banned ‘The War Game’, there was a huge public outcry in Britain, mainly because the press leapt into action and drew attention to the scandal. Although a number of British journalists did not like ‘The War Game’, and/or thought that the film should not be shown on TV, they did write about the banning of it. There was no way that the BBC were going to be allowed to prohibit a major film without raising some very serious questions.
In 2000, La Sept ARTE has deliberately prevented the majority of the French public from seeing ‘La Commune’. Yet with the exception of several lines in small print in a few newspapers, the French press are silent regarding this form of censorship - even though a certain proportion wrote about the film after the screening (as the next section will show). But not about its censorship! In the weeks prior to the broadcasting, I distributed a press statement and letter describing what ARTE had done, to 45 journalists representing all of the leading (including some of the most radical) French newspapers. Only L’Humanité replied. Otherwise - silence.
It was as if the marginalization by French TV of a major film about one of the most seminal events in French history never happened. And the consequences are inevitable; already we have noticed that there is no discussion regarding ARTE’s behaviour during the public debates in France which have accompanied the showings of ‘La Commune’. The public simply don’t know about it - because no French journalist had the courage to set this event into any cultural (or political) perspective.
A French film journalist recently told me that the well-known radical newspaper for which he writes requested that he remove a paragraph from his article about ‘La Commune’, in which - with considerable prescience - he had queried how far ARTE would go in their support of ‘La Commune’ (this was before ARTE had banned it). When I asked this journalist why the censoring, he said that he presumed it was because his paper - like others in France - maintains a sort of complicity with La Sept ARTE. In this case ARTE provides the newspaper with air-time for TV debate programmes. And therefore it did not want to upset ARTE by appearing to criticize it!
An article which indirectly touches upon the suppression of ‘La Commune’ appeared under the heading ‘French Political Class Smothers Yet Another Scandal’, in a recent edition of the International Herald Tribune. The IHT article, which outlines how the scandal surrounding Chirac’s accepting illegal campaign funds has been smothered by the French political class, goes on to say that “collusion across ideological labels” has become a way of life in French politics; it then comments more broadly on France’s “culture of complicity - the notion that the establishment (politics, segments of the media, the judiciary, and the economy) functions through a series of self-protective, tacit understandings, and without the sharply defined checks and balances of other advanced democracies.”
I would not agree with the implication that other so-called ‘democracies’ are any healthier, but I do agree (from my own recent experience in France) that the IHT article touches upon a very real and dangerous aspect of the current French climate - one which in this case has made it easier to suppress ‘La Commune’ in total silence.
Clearly in France, as in all Western countries, there is much confusion and unease about the future, about the degree to which the middle-class should continue to support the consumer society, and about the extent to which individuals should remain complicitous in an increasingly corrupt system. Or the degree to which they should oppose the dominant order; and the nature of the personal / professional price paid by those who speak out. A silent and acquiescent press does not help people resolve these questions - it makes things worse, for it solidifies a social climate of fear and withdrawal.
Collusion in the French MAVM
Partly as a result of the aforementioned problems, there is now a very marked collusion in the mass audiovisual media in France. I have witnessed first-hand the state of dependency to which TV executives can reduce ‘independent’ TV producers and filmmakers. The entire French audiovisual world - especially the cinema - is trapped in this dilemma: of the last 150 full-length films financed in France, only 10 were produced without funding from TV. One can well imagine the power that this gives TV executives - and the way in which they can, and do abuse this personal power.
It is clear that few, if any, French producers dare to challenge ARTE, for fear of losing funding for their projects. If ‘La Commune’ is any example, it is also clear that ARTE is responsible - along with the other major TV channels in France - for an unprecedented standardization of format, film language, and probably theme. In a healthy professional climate, producers and filmmakers would challenge this problem. This is visibly not happening in France (or elsewhere).
Undoubtedly there are a number of independent French documentary filmmakers producing interesting and highly original work. But the aforementioned journalist told me that the situation is especially depressing for older filmmakers, who are now fully aware of the price they have to pay - not only in terms of the integrity of their projects, but also of their own self-respect - if they wish to get funding for their films.
This collusion, this climate of fear and complicity continues to spread. It is part of a global pattern. But it would take only 20 or 30 leading filmmakers and producers in France to stand up to La Sept ARTE and the other TV channels, to persistently denounce them, and to threaten a boycott against this repressive apparatus (including the corrupt TV fests where Commissioning Editors hold hierarchical sway) - and for similar action to be taken by media workers in other countries - for the entire rotten mechanism to collapse.
Where does this leave us?
Regarding the general situation - I would like to add a few final remarks about the MAVM. There seems to be no point in discussing the world of mainstream film production and distribution any further, because this is now hopelessly compromised, almost entirely in the hands of mega-corporations, multiplexes, huge costume epics, soap-opera melodramas, violence, digitized space-age nonsense, European, Scandinavian and Asian clones of the American model, etc. Alternative, serious works which do manage to squeak through are akin to a religious miracle, and in the end are usually only seen at festivals and the few remaining art-house cinemas.
But TV is something else altogether! Although it is hard to imagine or remember, television was originally conceived with the idea of serving the public in many ways other than by simply pumping out endless consumerism, and mindless so-called ‘entertainment’. It is specifically THIS medium - the people who control it - who have blocked the development of filmmakers such as myself, and many other, younger and older pioneers who have (or had) the capacity to bring change and reform to television’s programming formats, to its ways of relating to audiences, to its very processes of ‘communication’.
My description of what happened to ‘La Commune’ in France shows the route we have traveled since the promise of TV in the 1960s - and how far the medium has collapsed. Imagination, talent, diverse formats, conviction and creative searching - let alone the voice of the public, or democratic processes - are all anathema to the world of TV today. The medium has become a thoroughly mean-spirited profession, ruthlessly resisting all dialogue for change, completely devoid of respect, and allied without reservation to the development of globalization in its most centralizing and brutal forms.
Our society, in this new millennium, will desperately need filmmakers, TV producers, and media-workers in general who are willing to resist, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the nightmarish hierarchy and centralization of media power. And to take up the anti-globalization struggle. It should be clear now that the world is in an intolerably dangerous situation, with a hopelessly inefficient, totally exploitative, morally corrupt free-market ideology sweeping aside everything before it - even, apparently, the education system. The mass audiovisual media are not only supporting, they are driving this catastrophe - and clearly need to be challenged by many people both within and outside the profession.
But even more, we need an active and critically conscious public, who will forcefully debate, and finally resist media corruption. Who will seek alternative forms of creative, more open and collective processes to replace the synthetic and divisive experience of the existing audiovisual media. For this to happen, we also need critical (media) teachers, who will equally resist and expose what is happening within the education systems which are allying themselves with the onslaught of consumerism.
Response in France to ‘La Commune’
Thus far (this is written in 2000), reactions in France to ‘La Commune’ have - needless to say - been very mixed. And since the film has not been shown to a wide audience, it is impossible to comment broadly on how the public have responded to this film. It has only been screened at several film festivals in France which supported the film, and at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, during its exhibition on the Paris Commune, which ran from March to June 2000. The audiences have been either relatively small and generally very positive to the film, with most people staying to the end, or they have been much larger and with more mixed reactions, in which case usually about one third of the viewers leave part way through the screening. Some people find the length of the film quite insupportable, and do not like the style of filming; they react negatively to the improvisation, to what is perceived as undue repetition in what people say, to the lack of formal dialogue, traditional narrative structure, etc. Others find the length and the form - including the possibility to engage in a long and complex audiovisual experience, the chance to connect with PEOPLE in a strong and sustained process - an unusual and welcome alternative to the problems in the MAVM experience which I have analyzed up to this point.
The following are extracts from letters after the ARTE screening, and sent to ARTE - two from viewers in France and one from Germany :
“I was completely astounded by the documentary of Peter Watkins ‘La Commune’ ... it is really what I have been waiting for from the television. The film, which contained everything, emotion, a sense of struggle, poetry, psychodrama, a critical look at the world and the media, beauty and audacity, is truly masterly. Bravo to the genius of the director, and to you, who had the courage to produce this masterpiece and to show it in its entirety. It was so beautiful that I still have tears in my eyes.” (Nantes)
“I was knocked out by this film on the Paris Commune, and I want to firmly tell you this. Oh how the “television”, when it wants to be, can be exciting! Congratulations to everyone! It is our History, and if I cried from my heart and in thanks for our ancestors, I am not ashamed! Bravo, there is nothing else to say! and thank you again. A pensioner from 1940.” (Merignac)
“... As an actress in the theatre, I was fascinated and very impressed! You have found a genuinely artistic process to bring an important historical event forward to our time ... I thought that I already knew the history of the Commune, because on another occasion I had seen ‘Les Jours de la Commune’ by Bertolt Brecht in the ‘Berliner Ensemble’ theatre, but the film gave me a clearer view! This is because we can follow the thread through the revolutionary moments of 1789, 1848, 1871, 1918, 1968 and 1989. This last date was for many also the end of hope. In effect, it was the epoch where dreams and ideologies ended, a period poor in passion. But despite everything, it is necessary to do what one can to keep alive! And for this, I thank very much the cineastes, and all the actors and actresses! They have my respect for their political and social engagement and for what they said! ... It is necessary that this [film] reaches all the countries in the world! ... “ (Berlin)
Critics in France
The following extracts are from reviews which appeared in French TV journals, daily newspapers, periodicals and film magazines, after either a screening at the Musée d’Orsay, or the nocturnal broadcast on ARTE.
In several cases I have added [my own notes or comments]. The translation of the articles is my own, and I accept full responsibility for any errors or distortions which might appear (- hopefully not!). There is one unavoidable bias in these reviews: they nearly all emanate from Paris, since I have very limited access to reviews from the provincial press.
As noted earlier, though there are a number of publications which write positively about the film, there is almost no mention of it being censored by ARTE.
‘... a failed work ... this interminable verbal diarrhea ... far from subverting television, this happening of five hours forty-five minutes bogs itself down, with its painful introductory scenes, its long messy filming takes ...’ (Télérama)
‘The intention was good. The achievement was less ... The simplistic, semi-improvised dialogue and the minimalist direction sometimes give the whole thing the air of a theatre of forbidding patronage ... as far removed from the popular anger of the 1870s as that existing at the end of this century ... The ogre in this fable [the role of TV] which some want to make responsible for all our misfortunes, explains neither the crushing of the Commune nor the miseries of today.’ (TéléObs)
[The high profile of the media in ‘La Commune’ is due to the active and interventionist role played by the press on all sides during and after the events of March-May 1871, including the efficacy with which the French establishment was able to justify the crushing of the revolution, and to reassert a conservative regime in France. And the media can hardly be said to have no responsibility in what is happening today either - including the escalation of a consumer society and the development of globalization.]
‘An amazing reconstruction’ (Télé Sept Jours)
‘A fictional newsreel’ of great intensity, which attempts to prove that history is constantly repeating itself. An original and militant work ...’ (Télé Star)
‘A programme that cannot be categorized, from which emerges a vigorous critique of the media’ (Télé Cable Satellite)
‘The film is punctuated by long black screens followed by captions, which ... develop the theories close to the Marxist vulgate. This ideological straitjacket imposed by the editing and the post-production brings forth the vanity of the enterprise. To hear them speak, one very quickly has the impression that the volunteers recruited by Peter Watkins are already converted [to Marxism]’ (Le Monde)
[This review especially angered the cast, who wrote in protest to Le Monde. Not because they had any particular problem with being considered Marxist, but because nearly all of them aren’t - and this review implies that one has to be a Marxist in order to have a social (or any critical) view of contemporary society. For the record, the name of Marx is actually used only once throughout the entire film.]
‘Watkins does not reconstruct la Commune except to speak of our submission to the ‘permanent mercantilism’ of the televisual media; of our defused anger. And after three and a half hours, in a meeting in the local quarter, the actresses throw away their masks, suddenly evoking the combat of the ‘sans-papiers’ [immigrants without resident papers who risk being ejected from France], the condition of women put to sleep by comfort ... The film becomes a furious ode to direct democracy: Watkins makes sure that the actors take power in the film, as did their personages in Paris. They denounce the media as organs of Versailles. Screen title: “What the media is afraid of is to see the little man in the small screen replaced by a multitude of people - the public”. Alas, Watkins, too late! The public, the “people”, we see only this, today. Everywhere and at all times ... assimilated by our all-digesting gaze. All the same, a Communard actress finishes before she dies, by crying out directly [to the TV Communale filming her], “Whether this is film or reality, all you do is watch us, but you don’t give a damn! It’s this that I want to kill!” It’s 3:30 AM, and we, the last of the television viewers, are roused by this cry; at this instant, the Versaillais, they are us.’ (Libération)
‘With an accelerated sense of realization, history is written directly, under our eyes ... If we meet historical personalities, we also discover the people of Paris of 1871: workers, artisans, dressmakers, cleaners, who have just spent an impossible winter besieged by the Prussians. They are hungry, they want work. They have a bitter memory of the 1848 barricades. They dream of a lay school system, of nurseries, of the right to work, they speak of equality and liberty. There is nothing more difficult than to film utopia, the hope for a better world. The actors interrogate each other, look into the camera and via this medium interrogate the spectator: ideas of revolution and power are discussed. These questions were raised during the Commune as they are today ... It is in the locale of Armand Gatti ... that the filming took place, and this is more than simple symbolism. The actors in the film take over the ‘wandering speech’ (parole errante) so dear to Gatti and Watkins ...’ (L’Humanité)
‘Since his first films, Peter Watkins has committed himself to a cinema which one can call - in the manner of an impure cinephile - “interactive”. In the sense that all his works are constructed around a going and returning, links, shifts between reality and fiction, theatre and cinema, participation and distance ... Watkins has never stopped playing with the confusion of genres, mixing the different levels of reality and representation which he manipulates with a didactic aim, so much that his approach aims at the public conscience. Cinema of interaction, of return onto itself; interrogating his own practice even during the course of his films ... With an obsessional target, the modern media - television above all - of which the work of Watkins does nothing but castigate its damaging effects, without any pretence at nuance ... In a sparse and minimalist theatrical decor ... Watkins creates a singular device with an express intention, symptomatic of his method of filming. Camera on shoulder, he [photographer Odd Geir Saether] threads his way through the crowd in a series of long and magnificent plans-séquences, in splendid lightly desaturated black and white. He simultaneously follows several events (local meetings, reunions of the National Guard ...), finally to make the spectator understand how each interacts, one on the other. To increase what he calls “the challenge of cinematographic simultaneity”, Watkins multiplies the movements of the camera. He films the protagonists of one scene, making us listen to the sounds of the preceding scene. He brings forth an impression of great disorder, of intense activity, a liberation of energies and statements which surge forward from all sides ... This frenzy of statements and utterances is channeled by the journalists who play a central role in this film ... More than the result on the screen of these 5 hours 45 minutes of harangues - difficult to follow after an hour, so much so that the artificiality and excessive theatricality of the actors becomes irritating and tiresome - the finest demonstration of the militant élan resides in its extensions, beyond the filming. ... an association, Rebond, designed to deepen the collective dynamic, the group identity. Regularly meeting in discussion forums, the actors agree in this way to continue the struggle; ... Jean-Marc Gauthier explains, “to invent another system of social relationships in the process of creation”. Sign, once again, of an experience out of the ordinary, a UFO in the audiovisual landscape, a work apart, beautiful and aggravating, dynamiting the mechanisms of habitual creation ...’ (Les Inrockuptibles)
‘REBIRTH OF A POLITICAL CINEMA ...The challenge of ‘La Commune’ is first of all to film ideas, to represent thought, showing the mechanism by which ideas materialize, how ideas become acts. As a consequence [we have] a film on the idea of the Commune, on this idea which is always living, where we see the Paris uprising not as a failure but as the beginning of a reflection, the beginning of a conception of solidarity and commitment. With a number of parallels with our epoch: racism, the position and role of women, the inequality of wealth, globalization, censorship, the bankruptcy of the school system ... You should not go to see this film to meet the well-known figures [of the Commune], such as Louise Michel, Jules Vallès and the others, this is not the subject. This project, driven by a care for historical exactitude, is protean, and therefore far more ambitious. It is the voice of the people (parole populaire), the birth of this voice, and democracy at the dawn of the 21st century. It is the difficult working out of a discourse and of a collective approach, because ‘La Commune’ is also not a panegyric to the first proletarian revolutionary power: gropings, mistakes, individual differences and conflicts are not avoided. It is, further still, the desire not to produce a film which is a one-way-street, but to push back the traditional borders between the public and the media, even if, vigilant, the director admits that he is “conscious of not having avoided all the traps.” (Le Monde Diplomatique)
‘THE LIBERATED AND NAÏVE COMMUNE OF WATKINS ... Even if it is extremely artificial, revealing without inhibitions the conditions of filming, following the dictates of the left-wing cinema, the universe which Watkins creates achieves a troubling reality, because the filmmaker does not organize, instead he plunges in and manages as best he can. The spectator is left with the impression that the Commune too, in effect, must have happened like this, in disorder and continual improvisation ... what is troublesome is not the artificiality of the proceedings, which is in the logic of what Watkins is doing, but his extreme naïvety. To confront two channels of TV reduces this medium to an objective discourse, whereas we well know today that if TV manipulates the world in which it exists, it is not by its explicit statements, but by the norms which it implicitly circulates. [You don’t say!! What on earth do you think this entire film is about? - PW] Happily, this dull and flat analysis of the use of images, astonishing for an experienced documentarist, does not too greatly spoil the pleasure which one takes in following the tribulations of a living world.’ (Les Cahiers du Cinema)
‘The Commune has only rarely been a subject for the cinema...’ [- begins the magazine Positif, and then lists the films made on the Commune, starting with Armand Guerra’s ‘La Commune’ of 1914, the Soviet film ‘The New Babylon’ of 1929, and several films made in France. The article continues -] ‘The Commune has been put back into the cupboards of History for twenty years. One could even say a black hole. Until Peter Watkins. A filmmaker who works with history must often struggle, or unravel what others have said (in film) before him, in order to open a path to new approach and debate. For the man of ‘Culloden’, it is a path, or more exactly terra incognita, devoid of imposing figures, which has opened before him. Since ‘Culloden’, the British filmmaker has proved himself. He does not pose the question vis-à-vis “the truthfulness” of a reconstruction of history (a term in fashion three or four years ago). One of the first phrases of his film, stated by an actress who is going to interpret the role of a TV journalist in insurrectional Paris, is addressed to the audience: “I ask you to imagine that it is 17 March, 1871”. The two first pillars of Watkins’ approach have thus been stated: imagination (theatricality) and anachronism. We are first shown the empty set, the perfunctory dressings in an abandoned factory ... the filmic device is laid out, no-one is fooled ... The anachronism is first of all the presence, as in ‘Culloden’, of the TV - here of two, TV Nationale ... and TV Communale, whose two débutante reporters take their microphones and cameras to the discussions and to the barricades. ... Then there are the sequences where contemporary life (ours, that of the spectators) is introduced (more as counter-point than as an analogy) into the 1871 discourse: for example the occupation of the Sainte-Ambroise Church by the ‘sans-papiers’ of Montreuil [On March 18 , 1996, 350 ‘clandestine’ immigrants from a hostel in Montreuil occupied the Sainte-Ambroise Church in Paris, to protest the long refusal by the authorities to regulate their stay in France.], or the negative effects of globalization. Finally, in the last part of the film, women members of the cast debate their status in the film, and what the experience (or the ordeal) represented for them. We are no longer in an anachronism, we are in the heart of Watkins’ method. In the beginning, this resides in solid information, divided between, and discussed by, the cast. The roles shared could be those of historical “personalities” (... Thiers, Varlin, Jourde ...), but are mostly those of unknown people, National Guards or the citizens of Paris, allied or not to the Commune. During the course of the filming, they ally themselves with the person whose identity they have borrowed. It is never a question of “reconstructing” the events which haunt the memory of the Commune; we never see the burning of the Tuileries Palace or the Hôtel de Ville, we do not see the shooting of the hostages. This information is given to us via television, and is even the subject of a debate comparing the trustworthiness of the TV news with that of the press. History is shown being staged, rather than made into narrative, with the sense that history passes via text, the confrontation of various discourses.
This sense also comes through an incredible work of cinema. Peter Watkins wanted and obtained from his Norwegian photographer (his collaborator on ‘Edvard Munch’) a filming method which was based on using particularly long takes (plans-séquences). The creative principle which is put to work relies on the coming together of the work by the actors and that of the camera; at the same time it is both very free, and precise. The actors are called upon twice. Each of them bends to the position of the personage they are interpreting. Then all together, they become ... a collective body responding to events. In the first hour ... the collective body is lumbering. In the final hour, that is to say, five hours or later for the spectator, when time for the Commune is the terrifying massacres of la semaine sanglante, the collective body (associated with the camera which also has learned to perfect its mobility within this body) reaches an expression of tragedy and emotion close to sublime.’ (Positif)
‘La Commune’ and its application
I sincerely hope that associations, community groups, secondary schools and universities in France and elsewhere will show ‘La Commune’, and use it as a point of analysis and resistance. And I hope that the open form of ‘La Commune’, and especially the process of discussion and community activity which can accompany the film screening, will help to forge the kind of collectivity, and frontal resistance to globalization and its satellite mass media which is now needed. Le Rebond is there to help and to encourage this process within France.
In conclusion, I would like to include three letters written by members of the cast of ‘La Commune’. The first is from Maylis Bouffartique, of Le Rebond. Maylis, a theatre actress, lives in Paris, and has accompanied ‘La Commune’ to various screenings and discussions.
“It is certain, Peter, that your film, your project, is a part of my personal evolution. I live daily with it, with the questions it raises, with the proposals that come with it. I am moved a little more each time I see “this thing” which is ‘La Commune de Paris 1871’ of Peter Watkins. Certainly, there are statements in the film which irritate me and with which I do not agree. But what carries me along is all the process around this film, we are confronted by another way of proceeding forward, another way of creating, with an event [the 1871 Paris Commune] which in itself has this force to create happenings. This film, and I think this is one of its main impacts, leads to a reflection around a new way to distribute and show a film so that it is seen as often as possible and in the best conditions. It is not a product of consumption which can be purchased in the supermarkets and the stores, no, it is a work, a jewel, too precious to be appreciated at the level of those who retail flashy, glittering junk jewelery. Indeed, its form and its contents oppose the industry of image. It is necessary to accompany this film, to show it as an event (one to two days), to recommend debates on the subject of the media, and to use this occasion to discuss the problem of ARTE. Le Rebond can certainly participate actively in the distribution and accompaniment of the film in this way. We can counteract the classic distribution, and not abandon this film as an unconsumable consumer object, thereby to a living death, simply because it is unusual and outside the scheming and cynical ‘Monoform’. I have the impression that the function of this film can be compared to that of live theatre. It can tour villages, schools, universities, everywhere. This demands methods, an apprenticeship around a new organization, because a showing of ‘La Commune’ calls for volunteers, amateurs who engage themselves because this film and its process are important to them, and they are conscious that if they do not move, they will not see this film. Naturally, these spectators, the potential viewing public, make themselves ‘actors’ in order to see this film and create discussions around it. In doing this, they even defend the film.
Speaking of this, I have encountered people who had never seen this film, nor heard of it, who, after a very heavy day of work, had switched on their TV before going to bed, and who fell - completely by accident - onto ‘La Commune’; their reactions were always like an hallucination, and they generally watched the film as far as their fatigue permitted, which means never after four hours of film [during the ARTE screening, this means until two in the morning]. The people who did this usually always made efforts to find out where they could see this film in better conditions. Those who saw the whole film told me, without exception, that when they finally switched off the TV, they only wanted one thing, which was to speak with others, to telephone, to go outside and wake people up! These are fairly positive reactions, I think. Naturally I asked these people ... to write to ARTE to put this question: why was this film not shown at a better time? Did they? These people were so enthusiastic after seeing this film, that they were above all preoccupied by “this thing”, by what it said, by what it denounced, by what it showed, that their first question was to the actors, to know how it all took place? And to know what happens now?
I think that we are in a society which insidiously suffocates things, which is expert in smoothing over outstanding facts, in rendering completely insipid something with immense flavour. We live in a completely cynical indifference, and this is the principal aim and strategy of the media. We accumulate things, possessions, that’s the French spirit. We say ‘yes’, the anger which leads to a constructive ‘no’ is now out of place, now we practise a self-centred, artificial anger, provocative, decadent, which leads in turn to a facile freeing of guilt, of self-satisfaction, egocentrism and finally, a murderous apathy. Also, the silence around the marginalization of this film is nothing else than proof of a scandalous cowardice by the so-called intellectuals who specialize in a beautiful discourse about nothing. Sometimes I really want to send a letter to these gentlemen, the artists, the so-called “subversives” (who are nonetheless constantly honoured and in the eye of the media), and ask them what do they think of the actual situation in the media, why the marginalization of ‘La Commune’ by ARTE, what are their profound and human preoccupations, do they actually have any? For you are right, ARTE passes for a progressive television. But I say, with my small conscience, my small lucidity and my even smaller culture, that ARTE represents Europe, a well-ordered Europe, really clean, full of hope, full of extraordinary artists to whom we teach what is beautiful, with a trademark, we are faced with a school which teaches us how to think correctly, to be responsible as Westerners, as much as Whites, for the thinking of others. This channel [ARTE] speaks in the name of the people, but rare are the moments when the people speak on this channel; of this channel, yes, there are the letters from the viewers; but it is grotesque how they “slum it” and look down in a sneering way on the ‘beastly, uncivilized’ behaviour of the public. Their documentary films are clean and full of self-satisfaction, politically correct, and set in motion nothing, rather they lull people with their small doses of Monoform information. I am wary of seeing an aesthetic touch that reeks of the decadent atmosphere that France and Germany has already lived through.”
The second letter is in the form of a statement by Marcel Cerf, who is Vice-President of the Association ‘Les Amis de la Commune de Paris 1871’, and who also acted in the film.
“Amongst the films produced in the year 2000, there is one which, because of its stunning message and the originality of its style, breaks radically with the stereotypical productions of the globalist ideology. This work which disturbs and shakes up the dictates of the audience ratings, is ‘La Commune’ by the indomitable rebel, Peter Watkins. Under his firm but sensitive direction, the actors (for the most part non-professional) externalize their true personality and become the men and women of 1871 with their energetic enthousiasm and their immense hope in ideal of a democratic and social republic.
It is not by chance that Peter Watkins situates the action of his film in Popincourt, the XIth district (arrondissement) of Paris, the most populated of the capital, where the revolutionary fervour is especially intense, where they have just burnt the guillotine, and where a direct democracy functions at the heart of the district sub-committee, the Proletarian Club (Club des Prolétaires), the opposition force necessary for the expression of the will of the people.
You can feel the vibration as these people in revolt organize themselves and proclaim, “No more oppression, slavery or dicatorship of any sort; but a sovereign nation, citizens free to govern themselves as they wish!”.
The women are not forgotten, several sequences witness the importance of their participation in the revolution. They know how to combine their political activities with the economic and social demands. They demand respect and dignity, and an improvement in their extremely difficult working conditions. As one of their proud militants expresses, “I would like to have the time to think”. The Second Empire with its arrogant Capitalism did not give them this possibility.
A pleasant anachronism (the introduction of Television into the scenario), permits the film to critique the disinformation of the media, and their mind-numbing effect on the public.
Peter Watkins, with his talent and his pugnacity, exalts the struggle of the exploited, but he is careful not to fall into hagiography; if the work of the Commune is, rightly so, celebrated, its errors and its weaknesses are not hidden.
A constant to and fro between the social struggles of the past and those of the present brings out perfectly the modernity of La Commune. Thanks to this film, we take an active part in this too brief period of a government by the people and for the people. In effect, it is not a ‘digestive spectacle’ which we are shown, but a work which obliges us to reflect, and to engage in a struggle - one which concerns all citizens conscious of the future of Humanity.”(Marcel Cerf)
Finally, extracts from a letter by Jean-Yves Staropoli, an actor in ‘La Commune’. Jean-Yves is an activist who has accompanied the film to several screenings and debates.
“... ‘La Commune’ was a step for me. There was a before and after ‘La Commune’. It made me grow. It provoked a radicaltransformation in my intellectual revolution! For me... this meeting with you and all our friends has awakened a realpolitical conscience in me, an opening in my way to express myself, and a militant engagement, nationally and internationally, against a power-structure which maintains and controls people in a state of unawareness, and against the mass media, principal vector of lethargy-inducing information such as the Monoform.
... I think that our film is such a condensing of statements, utterances, beliefs, information and disinformation, and of a length which is not normal, that it is difficult for the TV viewer to identify it in its globality without some form of accompaniment. The environment of Associations in France (le milieu associatif) can serve this purpose, and also allow us to broaden the distribution of our film, and become a complement to our websites as a process for the viewer.
I think that our media, and French intellectuals, prefer to marginalize ‘La Commune’ and its presence, rather than to confront Peter Watkins and the theme of this social revolution of 129 years ago ... Today I have really become aware of the role of the mass media, and it is clear that any form of opposition media is really absent from the struggle. It is therefore really necessary to emancipate oneself from this censoring audiovisual system, and to work together to imagine the creation of a new form of critical, informative television.”
Le Rebond pour La Commune
An Association for the promotion and distribution of ‘La Commune’ formed in March 2000. In a collective statement written in 2000, Le Rebond wrote the following regarding their aims and intentions :
“Seeing the difficulties which a film of such scope encounters : the insidious censoring by ARTE on TV and their refusal to distribute the film on video, the marginalizing of the work, the refusal of French film distributers to release the film, the silence in the media... This asks questions of our capacity to prolong and develop the process of resistance and participation. This is why our Association also sets itself the objective of developing communal experience by the creation of places and spaces where discussions which propose thought, reflection, and organization against the abuse of power by the dominant mass media can take place. To initiate, propose and organize collective projects and debates around the questions which « La Commune (Paris 1871) » raises for us. To create free speech, with or without the institutions ... A ‘wide-angle’ vision rather than ‘tele-objective’.”