France has seen its share of revolutions: time and again the established order is shaken up by a group of young warriors and a new regime is established. The most famous French revolution in 1792 ended the monarchy and gave birth to the “first republic”; France is now on its fifth republic. The most recent revolution occurred less than fifty years ago in May 1968, when students and factory workers brought the nation to a halt: barricades were erected in the streets of Paris and a civil war ensued between the people and the National Guard. Philippe Garrel was 20; although he was nonviolent and participated very little in the events 1, this period would mark his life and work indelibly.
The events of May 1968 were also inextricably linked with cinema. Three months earlier, on February 9th, Henri Langlois was relieved of his post as director of the French Cinémathèque. Langlois, who had created the Cinémathèque in 1936 virtually by storing film cans in his bathtub, was a mentor and a hero for the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague 2. Godard, Resnais, Rivette, Truffaut and many others demonstrated outside the closed Cinémathèque, attracting students and creating petitions. Even Renoir, Bresson, Chaplin, Welles, Rosselini, Fritz Lang and Jerry Lewis lent their support. By April 22, Langlois was reinstated and the Cinémathèque reopened on May 2nd. But by then a spirit of revolt had spread through Paris and to the universities and factories across the country. Within three weeks an estimated 10 million students and workers went on strike, two-thirds of the actual work force of France 3.
Philippe Garrel started filmmaking young. In April 1968, at the age of 20, Garrel showed his second feature Marie pour mémoire at a festival in the south of France where he won first prize 4. There, Garrel met fellow filmmakers and artists Alain Jouffroy, Serge Bard, Jackie Raynal and Patrick Deval. They formed a loose association and collaborated on their films under the name Zanzibar. They also found a patron, 25-year old Sylvina Boissonnas. From a rich family of bankers, she decided in April ’68 to donate money to any artistic projects she felt agreed with the anti-capitalist, non-materialist, revolutionary spirit of the moment 5. With her help, generosity and passion, Bard, Raynal, Deval and others started making 35mm films. Garrel made Le Révélateur, La Concentration, Le Lit de la Vierge and La Cicatrice intérieure. Within two years, Boissonnas financed 13 films for the group6.
The origin of the name Zanzibar was an African island with a Maoist government (Mao at that time was the inspiration to the intellectual revolutionaries of Paris) 7. The group of young artists inscribed their take on the violent uprisings in Paris through 35mm feature films that were often slow, quiet and impassive, in part a reaction against the Nouvelle Vague 8. Their films had no titles or credits and they intentionally refused commercial distribution 9. They were enigmatic visual poems with undercurrents of a radical political message espousing individual freedom bordering on apathy 10. One of the principles of Zanzibar was that the film should provoke the spectator. Neither entertainment nor art, the films were meant to awaken the viewer’s consciousness, to play a true role in society. The films were in themselves acts of revolution.
Garrel shot Le Révélateur during May ’68. Sensing hopelessness with the student uprising, he retreated to Germany with a small cast and crew. He had met the actors Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff in April at the festival in Hyères. The German Black Forest of 1968 evokes wartime (some shots are obviously meant to evoke battlefields), yet the real conflict is one of generations. While the adults try to find balance after the war with Germany, the child proclaims a silent war of independence. The boy is naïve and innocent yet violently demonstrates against the nuclear family, finally finding freedom only in solitude and contemplation. At the same time, the child projects his fantasies and directs the camera, controlling the mise-en-scène and holding the key to its secret meanings 11. The title of Le Révélateur refers to this child. The word in French means “revealer” but also “developer” – the chemical substance used in photography to reveal the latent photographic image in the emulsion.
The film is silent, returning cinema to its roots as a silent art. Langlois insisted on projecting classic films without subtitles or intertitles, to concentrate on cinema as a visual artform. After the talkfest of May ’68 12, Le Révélateur refuses to speak 13.
Garrel avoided making his cinema spectacular. He did not cater to an audience 14. In fact he preferred his films to be disturbing for them 15. He did not necessarily want to tell stories 16. He did not want his characters to signify or symbolize a class or an ideal. His work consisted of finding a place and a time and treating it as the center of the world for his cast and crew; the excitement of the camera running would do the rest 17. Garrel preferred shooting long takes that made up the building blocks of his films. He avoided editing; his shots fit into a logical intuitive continuity. He did not write screenplays. He would pick up a camera for three days or a week, the time it took to shoot a new film. The film was finished when it was finished 18.
Zanzibar was only a brief period in Garrel’s career. Most of the Zanzibar filmmakers stopped making films altogether after 1969, but Garrel has continued. And like the multiple French revolutions, Garrel’s cinema has gone through many transformations. Today he writes screenplays; his cinema tells stories; he spends months preparing and weeks rehearsing and shooting; he has wealthy producers and he is interested in ticket sales. Filmmaking is his livelihood, so he must play by certain rules. Still, at the heart of his cinema, one can still find a seed of independence, of anarchy, of uprising, of revolution.
Le Révélateur (1968 France 67 mins)
Prod Co: Zanzibar Films Prod: Sylvina Boissonnas Dir, Scr, Ed: Philippe Garrel DOP: Michel Fournier
Cast: Stanislas Robiolles, Laurent Terzieff, Bernadette Lafont
- “I am very non-violent and I didn’t do much: I attended one meeting of the March 22 Group in a basement, and I participated in the collective that made Actua I. This was a revolutionary newsreel film. We thought it obscene to show the barricades. After filming the demonstrators’ feet, I showed the bridges of Paris occupied by the CRS, the city cut in half.” Philippe Garrel, Thomas Lescure, Une caméra à la place du cœur, Admiranda/Institut de l’image, Aix-en-Provence, 1992, p.47. ↩
- “Fantastic anarchist, constantly at war with the whole world, friends with nobody besides poor artists, fantastic man.” Philippe Garrel, ibid. p. 67. Henri Langlois screened Garrel’s films every Christmas. ↩
- Louis Menand, “After the Revolution,” The New Yorker, 20 October 2003. ↩
- Grand Prix du festival du jeune cinéma de Hyères. The public booed when the jury awarded it. When television journalists sought him out for an interview during a dinner after the award ceremony, he proclaimed, “I am not a filmmaker, I don’t care about cinema, I am a prophet!” ↩
- Philippe Azoury, “Un zeste de Zanzibar,” Libération 6 June 2001. ↩
- Sally Shafto, “The New, New Wave” in The Guardian, 9 February 2002. ↩
- The group planned to go to Zanzibar. They left together to travel through Africa when in Algiers Serge Bard suddenly converted to Islam and traveled East towards Mecca to make hajj. He since goes by the name Abdullah Siradj. ↩
- Kieron Corliss, “No Rest ’til Zanzibar” in Vertigo vol. 2, issue 3, Summer 2002. ↩
- Jackie Raynal, in conversation with the author. Garrel however admits that credits were simply too expensive. ↩
- “The Zanzibar films made between ’68 and ’69: Détruisez-vous, Acéphale, La Concentration, Le Révélateur, Deux fois… have this in common: one by one they say something terrible in their ambivalence: they call for the birth of a new world, a renaissance of the being.” Philippe Azoury “L’éclaireur,” article published with the DVD of Acéphale by Patrick Deval, editions Re:Voir 2007. ↩
- Emeric de Lastens, “Childhood Secret,” article published with the DVD of Le Révélateur, editions Re:Voir 2001. ↩
- “Last May, we took the word, as the Bastille was taken in 1789.” Michel de Certeau, 1968. Many felt that the 1968 revolution was nothing but a marathon of talking. ↩
- Sally Shafto, “Le Révélateur and a Brief Introduction to Zanzibar Films.” article published with the DVD of Le Révélateur, editions Re:Voir 2001. ↩
- “We must unfortunately make a cinema of identification if we want people to stay in the theatre.” Philippe Garrel, op cit 1, p. 40. ↩
- “The cinema must never be the place where the viewer feels pleasure. Yet this is what the cinema tends to do in the capitalist system. The film must absolutely disturb: if it has a function, it should fall like a rock in the water, in the theatre where the bourgeois come to nest. It must be intolerable for the viewers.” Interview with Philippe Garrel “Cerclé sous vide,” Cahiers du Cinéma #204, Sep. 1968, p. 54. ↩
- “We do not have the economic right, in France, to make a film which does not tell a story.” Philippe Garrel, op cit 1, p. 49. ↩
- Interview with Philippe Garrel, “Art is Really a Physical Thing,” Cinéma 72 #169, sep/oct 1972, p. 88. ↩
- ibid, p.87. ↩