There have been, over the course of human history, unexpected cracks in the seemingly solid structures of reality that open onto new worlds. Never-before-seen shapes, new schools of thought, and even feelings that sometimes well up, to our great confusion, and leave a strange and unnameable taste in our mouths. These moments don’t appear out of thin air; they are carried by subterranean currents, running for longer than we realize, that suddenly find some breach that allows them to surge from the earth. They are a spectacular thing to see, to experience. They are dramatic. Intense. All-encompassing. Their futures waver, uncertain. We have no way of knowing whether they hold refusal or the promise of more to come.
May ’68 was one of those political events that leaves its mark on the global imagination. It was an unheard-of insurrection that drew just as much from the mythic barricades of 1848 as the student movement and anti-capitalist struggles. It quoted from such diverse thinkers as Antonin Artaud, Herbert Marcuse, Guy Debord, Mao, and Che Guevara. Its influence cut across all political allegiances, finding echoes in Québec, the United States, Italy, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Japan, the Czech Republic… In the West, there were protests against the Vietnam War, puritanical moral systems, social hypocrisy and an ossified post-war world that was ravaged by consumerism. In the East, there were struggles for humane socialism and a democratization of society.
Our goal with Echoes of May was to highlight the events in France specifically. With five works that each revisit a different facet of the period, the goal was to create a portal that transports today’s viewer across time into the heart of the action. Zero commentary, zero analysis. Our interest was in letting the perspectives, actors and witnesses of that era speak for themselves, with all their biases, anger and hope. What can we learn today from these inestimably valuable documents, through which we can almost feel the heat and palpitation of those bygone bodies? Hold your ear to these films: listen to the echoes that reach us from that present which was captured.
AT THE HEART OF THE BARRICADES
May Days, William Klein’s cult film, allows us access to the conversations of May. Klein, wandering through the streets of Paris, caught between amusement and captivation, filmed the clusters of bystanders, discussions, snubs, and scuffles. Some of those filmed were May figureheads: we hear speeches from de Gaulle, Pompidou and Mitterrand, while those in the street seem hopped up just to be there: waiters from cafés haranguing intellectuals, farmers silencing the petit-bourgeois with a few choice words… 15 days in May, shown chronologically in a delectable morsel of direct cinema.
Klein’s fine work suggests that trouble is in store. May 68, A Fine Piece of Work is an unprecedented work on the police violence and political repression used to brutally cut down the uprising. Filmed in the flames of the events and presented at the 1969 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight, the film hands the microphone to traumatized victims and bystanders. Journalists, doctors, students, passersby: they each describe in detail what was, by all appearances, a coordinated effort of repression and terror. May 68, A Fine Piece of Work is an unnerving and powerful film that takes us on the other side of the barricades and shows the abuses of the rule of law.
REINVENTING THE DISCOURSE
Films on May ’68 helped create a mythic glow around the events of that month: an idealized struggle and an idealized resistance in all its virility, heroes that we put on pedestals, students who overshadow every other group of protestors. But, like always, reality can’t be put into neat little boxes. The working class didn’t follow the students: these movements happened simultaneously. In January 1968, a hard-line strike broke out in Caen, hinting at what would unfold in May. Working conditions were disgraceful in France at the time, so managerial structures and hellish production speeds were roundly criticized. The unions got involved. Class of Struggle bears witness to the labour struggles unfurling in May ’68 and the attempts to make the discourse more accessible by opening up to different types of knowledge. Indeed, the film was made by the workers themselves, guided by Chris Marker and the group SLON by way of the Groupe Medvedkine. We have the chance to see not only political theory in practice, but a type of empowerment through the appropriation of the means of production of discourse. The analyses from Suzanne Zedet, a working-class activist at the heart of the film, offer a vision of social class dynamics and the violence beneath them that is just as eye-opening, complex and lucid now as it was then. Class of Struggle is a film of capital importance.
May ’68 was also an artistic revolution that marked a jarring transition into modernity. It’s not for nothing that protestors shouted “L’imagination au pouvoir !” (“All power to the imagination”). Pierre Clémenti, an emblematic figure of the counter-culture and a darling of many of Europe’s leading filmmakers, brings us The Revolution is Only a Beginning. Let’s Continue Fighting., a psychedelic pamphlet for a permanent revolution, mixing shots of the Paris uprising with home movies. It’s a crack through which the light gets in, an echo of the famous graffiti “Plutôt la vie”. Life instead, indeed.
We close this layover by passing the microphone to those who were censored the most that May: women. Censored, but not absent. They were everywhere—on the barricades, in the streets, in direct action committees, in the universities, in the factories. But their words are absent. It’s particularly striking in the first two films shown. May ’68 was a fertile learning ground where women could hone their offensive skills—the creation of the Women’s Liberation Movement (MLF in French) in 1970 was a logical next step. With Y’a qu’à pas baiser !, we take a short jaunt three years into the future to visit the burgeoning women’s movement, seen here through the prism of abortion rights. We’ll remind you that May ’68 included struggles against the era’s puritanism and patriarchy. Sexual liberation was underway, with women at the forefront!
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