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The Uncivil Servant: After the Revolution

Mitchell Abidor
January 29, 2018



WE ARE JUST a few months from the fiftieth anniversary of the events of May ‘68, the great uprising that seemed as if it would topple the French ruling class but which, in the long run, proved that ruling class’s flexibility and strength. João Moreira Salles’ brilliant film essay, In the Intense Now, is an absolutely essential work on that annus mirabilis. Rejecting the triumphalism that was so much a part of the militant films of the time, while constructing his film precisely out of those triumphalist ciné-tracts, Salles casts a cold, clear eye on the struggle and is perfectly aware of its wonders and its flaws. But he aims higher, using a close examination of films of May ’68 and the end of the Prague Spring, as well as of home movies of his mother’s visit to China in 1966, at the height of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, to ask: How do you go on when you sense that you’ve already lived the highest point of your life?

In May ‘68 the world was stood on its head, and in that new world a Nobel Prize laureate -- Jean-Paul Sartre -- interviewed a political star of the moment, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, while a bearded young man sitting next to Sartre fell dead asleep while the great existentialist writer addressed the students at the amphitheater of the Sorbonne. It was a world in which the cops didn’t fire live ammunition on the demonstrators because the children of ministers were among those who would have been targets.

The charm of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, his puckish humor, his ease when confronting those in authority, his ability to represent in his person and attitude exactly what the students in revolt were attempting to prefigure, is the heart of Salles’ vision of the positive aspect of May ’68. Cohn-Bendit, Jacques Sauvageot, and Alain Geismar, the three main leaders of the events, debate authority figures on TV with an assuredness well beyond their years. Cohn-Bendit’s aplomb, sitting at eye level with his elders, unintimidated, is the purest expression of May at its best. As Salles says, to see Cohn-Bendit in action is to think the future belonged to the young.


BUT AMBIGUITY creeps in during another filmed moment from May, in which the spatial relationship between the subjects is key. Students went to visit striking factories around France, and at a Renault plant the striking workers are perched above the locked gates of their factory while the students harangue them from below: They are separated for good and all, despite the illusions of the young. Alain Krivine, the leader of the Trotskyist Jeunesse Communiste Révolutionnaire is quoted speaking of the suspicion towards the students that reigned among the workers. Elsewhere it is pointed out that the workers referred to the students, who spoke and wrote constantly of  “Worker-Student Unity,”  as “our future bosses.”

When I interviewed Alain Krivine for my oral history of the events, May Made Me, he had an even more striking image. For him, when the workers and students marched together, they occupied the same physical space, but not the same political space. They were pursuing different goals.

Salles’ special gift is in choosing significant moments from the masses of documentary footage shot in the heat of action. More than the films of barricades and burning cars, Salles locates the spirit of the May that he admires in the disarmingly charming footage of a young woman on the phone in an office of some kind, who is reassuring the woman on the other end that her son, David, who hasn’t been home in days, is fine, and promises to tell him to call home. The young woman’s face is beaming with joy the whole time and, unlike the young men in the room with her, there is no hint of condescension in her conduct. Salles also picks up on the scenes of strangers conversing on the street, which every participant says was the most remarkable element of the events.

Yet it is Salles’ examination of the funerals of 1968 that provides the most food for thought. After we have seen film shot clandestinely during the Soviet invasion of Prague in August 1968, Salles shows us the funeral of Jan Palach, the Czech student who immolated himself in protest of that invasion, in January 1969. While the films of the invasion were shot from behind closed windows or off TV screens, the funeral footage is official, not clandestine, showing the crowds honoring the young man. Palach’s protest was not merely against the invader, but against the indifference that had set in, the acceptance by the Czech people of the situation.

The filmmaker also shows us a funeral of a young man killed by the police in Brazil, and points out that only eighteen seconds of the twenty-three minutes of film show anyone in a state of grief, and that although the dead man’s family attended the funeral, they are nowhere to be seen in the footage. Similarly, during the funeral in France of Gilles Tautin, the only student killed during the May ’68 events, we are shown how this 17-year-old high school student is treated as a symbol, not as a person.


THERE WERE FOUR deaths in France during the events, and Salles shows us three of the funerals, that of Tautin, of Pierre Beylot, a worker killed in Sochaux, and of the policeman Lacroix, who died in Lyon during a night of rioting, either run over by a truck or of a heart attack. It’s not underlined in the film, but we can see that there were not just two Frances in May, those protesting and those defending authority, but three -- the students, the workers, and those in authority -- and that the worlds did not mix. Look at the way the people at the three funerals are dressed in such different attire. Look at the composition of the crowds, at how those attending are strictly of the same class as each dead man and of no other. The funerals tell us that May was a far more complex event than the popular image on either side of the barricades.

But Salles also shows footage from a moment of May that is normally omitted: the mass pro-De Gaulle demonstration of May 30, 1968, when 500,000 people marched on the Champs Élysées waving the French tricolor and not the red flag. The other France, conservative, attached to a traditional France, still existed while the barricades were up. The people behind the barricades had ignored them. But these forgotten French men and women got their revenge and emerged victorious from those heady days.


ALONG WITH BEING a filmmaker, João Moreira Salles is the editor of the Brazilian monthly Piauí. I had the pleasure of interviewing him over Skype and later meeting with him in New York.

Q: You’re a writer as well as a filmmaker. Why did you choose to make a film of your reflections on May rather than write about them?

A: The starting point was the footage of my mother in China in 1966. Ten years ago, while I was finishing my last film, I needed home movies of my family and found these films shot during my mother’s visit to China. What struck me in them was the sheer happiness of being alive that we see in them, a happiness my mother eventually lost. So what triggered the film was the idea of being able to be happy and then losing that ability. This was the idea behind the film.

For reasons that are both biographical and political, I decided to read the memoirs of people who took part in May ’68,  and in almost all of them I found the problem my mother faced: How do you face the loss of such intensity? I saw a connection between what my mother went through in her visit to China and what they went through after May ’68, living on when the intensity is gone. And because it was images that set this off, it had to be dealt with as a film, and not in a book.

When you’re doing a film like In the Intense Now, you have archival footage in front of you and you try to gauge what it tells you -- why are these images the way they are? I’m interested in that. For instance: what is the relationship between images and the political regimes in which they were made? How do you film a democracy? A totalitarian society? You can actually tell what kind of society the filmmaker is living in just by the images filmed.

The images from May in France are completely different from those in August and later in Prague. In Paris, the camera is always close to the action, because even with everything that’s going on you have a functioning democracy, so the filmmaker can move freely. In Prague, things were dangerous: There were tanks, guns, soldiers, so the images you see in my film are shot from within apartments and behind windows or even of the TV. What separates the sets of images is the relationship to fear. In France you’re safe: You can run around with a wide-angle lens, which draws you close to the action, and not worry. The image is stable. In Prague, your life is in danger. You need a telephoto lens, you approach things optically, not by getting close to them, and so the camera shakes. In the vein of Chris Marker and Harun Farocki, I tried to see images as not just illustrations of a certain period, but as filmmakers saying things they didn’t mean to say, or didn’t know they were saying.

Q: You were 6 and living in France in May ’68. Do you have any memories?

A: None.

Q: Not even of school being closed?

A: No. But even so, when I later thought of 1968, it was the French May that struck a chord. Of all the many ‘68s around the world, the French May is the one that took hold of Brazil’s imagination. It is always portrayed as sunny and victorious. So when I read the memoirs and saw the sadness and the disillusion, it got more complex and, therefore, more beautiful. You can have mediocre victories and beautiful defeats, like May in France and Prague that same year. They fought for another life, for the right to live differently. They didn’t win, or at least not in the way they wanted to. But even if it was a loss, the events changed society, though not at a speed they could perceive. Human time is very different from historical time.

Q: Even though the uprising didn’t result in a victory, the films taken by the militant filmmakers all have a triumphalist tone. Since you knew what happened later, how was it to listen to those revolutionary phrases?

A: The tone of them frightens me because, through it, people become symbols. Individuals who’ve been killed become martyrs, they’re instrumentalized. There’s a certainty in the tone of all these films. They are made by people who don’t seem to have doubts, and I don’t trust that. That’s the sad part of the corpus of militant films from May, though the impulse to make them was generous — to leave your privileged life and your bourgeois university and enter the factory in order to make a cinema of the working class. “Let’s make films about workers” — but they never got to do that because the workers never come through as people, but as social types. I have the soundtrack of a film Chris Marker made about a strike that he showed the workers, and they tell him they didn’t recognize themselves in the film. They asked him, “Why do we only suffer? Why do we never laugh, love, sing? Don’t you think we have ways to make our lives bearable? You’re exploiting us the way the bosses do.”

This, for me, is the tragedy of militant film.

Part of the problem of the mythification of May is the wish to turn everything into a victory and not confront the limits of the movement. Ideology is a way of lying to yourself. For me, it’s a matter of being moved by the movement of May while acknowledging its failures, looking at the losers as losers. When I showed the film in Paris, the audience, many of them people who were there in ‘68, many of them filmmakers, said it was defeatist and attacked it, along with attacking each other. Anarchists, on the other hand, seemed to like it.

When I watch the footage of the funeral of Gilles Tautin, the high school student who died on June 10, 1968, drowned while fleeing the police outside a factory, I sense that there’s almost a celebratory tone in the narration: He has died in order to bring about a new society. It’s as if his death was useful, and I don’t want to be part of a movement that sees the death of a 17-year-old as useful. Instead, I’d like to live in a society with people like the young woman on the phone with the mother. She’s being gentle and nice to a woman who hasn’t seen her son for a week. Her niceness isn’t naïve, it reveals empathy. I think it’s important to be nice in that way, and I mean that in a political sense. With that girl, everything is possible. A society infused with that kind of sentiment seems to me to be a desirable one.

Q: You also seem to be very fond of Daniel Cohn-Bendit.

A: There are many things about Cohn-Bendit that appeal to me, like his sheer happiness. He succeeded in combining revolution and joy, which is not a common combination. There’s an element of light in his actions that is appealing. He wasn’t an ascetic -- I fear ascetics -- and you feel that with him, there wouldn’t be a Terror. Perhaps it’s the Brazilian in me, but I don’t trust enragés who don’t dance. Even his trip to Berlin in the middle of the events, paid for by Paris Match, gives him a human dimension. He is not perfect, and I like his contradictions.

Q: There are people who say that it was precisely this that made him the dream opponent for those in power. His openness, his gift of gab, remove any threat he might have posed.

A: It could be that he was non-threatening, but then again, in May ’68, who was? In any event, I’d still place my chips on Cohn-Bendit. He was, after all, one of the ones who started the whole thing, who called for the general strike. And he was a natural, talented leader who truly wanted to give a shock to the system.

Q: The girl who is on the phone with the worried mother is the next-to-last image of the film. The last is the forty-three seconds of the workers leaving the Lumière factory, shot in Lyon in 1895. Where were they heading to?

A: First off, what is a factory? In the context of 1968, a factory is like what you see in The Return to Work at the Wonder Factory: it’s horror. It’s the return to the everyday life you thought would change. It’s the end of the public happiness you experienced during the weeks of May. It’s the realization that the dream to live differently has come to an end.

So the final image of my film — which is also the first image in the history of cinema — shows workers leaving the factory, and leaving is the opposite of life inside it. Leaving means going back to your family, to your friends, to food, to music; in a word, it’s getting back to life.

I didn’t want to end the film depicting the aftermath of May as sheer failure — those who thought so were the ones who ended up killing themselves, like Killian Fritsch, who came up with the slogan Sous les pavés la plage [under the paving stones, the beach], and threw himself under a metro train, and the people in Romain Goupil’s film, To Die at 30. May was like a match struck in a dark room. Suddenly, and briefly, there was light. Now you knew where things were, and what needed to be changed. You could move. The Lumière film is also there for an important second reason. My film is a film made with other films. I owe it to those who filmed. In a very real sense, it’s a film about the cinema, so ending with Lumière is a way of paying homage to all those who went out with their cameras in Paris and in Prague. 

Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.