Cinéma Militant is academic and film historian Paul Douglas Grant’s admirable attempt to recover and reconsider the long-overlooked cadre of hard-left filmmakers and films inspired by the socio-political flashpoint of May 1968 – France’s most revolutionary moment on the world stage since, arguably, 1789. Although the cinéma militant movement is often associated with names like Chris Marker, William Klein, and Jean-Luc Godard, Grant’s book acknowledges these filmmakers as influential avant-garde figures but chooses to direct his focus not on the more well-known individual figures connected with the cinema militant movement but on the period’s more obscure Marxist-Leninist collective filmmaking efforts.
Grant concentrates on the low (and no-) budget short films made by directors such as Jean-Pierre Thorn and a handful of long-obscure collectives such as the ARC (Atelier de recherche cinématographique), Ligne rouge, Cinélutte, Les groupes Medevedkine, Cinéthique, and various offshoots, all of which had their own distinctive pet theories about how best to represent the plight of the oppressed French worker; this usually meant shooting grainy 8mm to 16mm black-and-white footage of workers’ strikes, demonstrations, and the specific factory conditions that workers were confronting on a daily basis. While the goal of these cinéma militant filmmakers was to find effective ways of using film to manufacture political solidarity between the intelligentsia and the working classes, as Grant’s book shows, this was a sociocultural chasm that could never quite be bridged regardless of what political filmic strategies were employed by these high-minded collectives.
Grant dedicates the first chapter to positing the reasons why this particularly hardcore-left activist wing of French cinema has failed to get its historical due up until now. And of course, none of the major reasons given are exactly surprising: “the eclipsing of production by the proliferation of theory” (p. 13) is an important one, which also goes hand in hand with cinéma militant work being “popularly conflated with a cinema of propaganda” (p. 12). Grant delves into the stylistic particulars of the major factions of cinema militant filmmaking in the second chapter by contrasting the “wildcat” naturalist techniques of a collective like the ARC with Jean-Pierre Thorn and Ligne rouge’s more hands-on approach to political cinema, which used similar techniques of spontaneity but also had the ambition to “articulate the contradictions of the reality filmed” by using formal techniques like title cards and montage. Thorn’s first major achievement was Oser lutter, a film cited throughout the book, which both documents and comments on a non-union worker-directed strike at the Renault factory in 1968.
Although Thorn made films under the guise of collectives such as Ligne rouge and Cinelutte, it’s no surprise that Grant assesses Thorn as more of a solo auteur than any other cinéma militant filmmaker. Thorn was at the forefront of the movement in the late 1960s known as établissement, which according to Grant, “wanted students to give up their career aspirations and plant themselves within the working class” (p. 58). In this case, it meant getting a job in a factory and clandestinely inspiring the workers there to organise. And so Thorn took menial work in textile factories and eventually worked his way to some influence in the ranks. Thorn’s long career arc shows a significant development from the more overtly propagandistic Oser lutter to more insider filmic documents that were increasingly deferent to their working-class subjects in telling their own story, no doubt a positive career development partly due to his longtime immersion in factory life. Perhaps no other filmmaker of this May ’68 movement would have such a privileged insider’s vantage point in depicting the struggles of workers on film.
Yet as Grant’s close readings of the methodologies at play in many of the notable militant film collectives show, the intellectuals making the films about the working class could never quite find a formula that would allow for an effective fusion of theory and documentation (or what might be called “direct cinema”). The Cinélutte collective’s approach was equivocal at best – they did not believe in a completely naturalist, wildcatting spontaneity as ARC did (ARC, according to Grant, “quite simply tried to shoot everything that was transpiring)” (p. 32). Nor did Cinelutte believe in simply handing the cameras to the workers themselves, which was the modus operandi of Chris Marker’s SLON and Les groupes Medvedkine. However, Cinélutte also wanted to avoid a dogmatic political line that would shut out the voices of the workers – they seemed to want a “cinema for the masses, as opposed to politically avant-garde films addressing a politically avant-garde audience” (p. 85).
But constructing such a cinema was easier said than done – and if Cinélutte’s statement of purpose is any measure, it wasn’t easily said, either: their work involved “a constant back and forth between those who film and those who struggle, those who film those who struggle by struggling with them, and those who struggle by filming their struggle alongside those who film” (p. 84). So it should not be surprising that Cinélutte could only hold as a collective unit for a few short years, finally fragmented by shifting political allegiances and individual members becoming more attracted to auteurist modes of cinema. According to Grant, it was the group Cinéthique that achieved the most credible parity between the political and the practical, although they still faced accusations of elitism and being out of touch with proletariat lives.
Grant cites predictable reasons for why these militant films did not fare well in the sweep of world cinema history: of course, most of the cinéma militant productions were black-and-white shorts (6 to 30 minutes long on average). And not surprisingly distribution and promotion were always difficult matters. But the question of whether aesthetics was a help or a hindrance (or even necessary) in getting across political ideas is one that never seems to get a definitive answer in the book. It is easy to understand the critical biases and other misunderstandings by French critical arbiters of taste that helped cast these films into the remote nether reaches of French cinema history. But Grant’s weakest arguments are ones that attempt to refute long-standing critical claims that the films of cinema militant were something other than cinéma chiant (boring/annoying film): “While it was a cinema rooted in the political language of its time”, writes Grant, “it was nonetheless an extremely passionate cinema.” (p. 11) Although Grant ably describes the production process and the technical elements of dozens of these cinéma militant films using a reasonably accessible mix of academic jargon and more organic descriptive language – not to mention the inclusion of helpful marginal black-and-white thumbnails of scenes from said productions as a visual aide – it is difficult to get a sense of these films as anything other than perhaps well-meaning, once-relevant political statements. Their importance, of course, was rooted in their specific place and circumstances and not meant to hold up under any sort of historical decontextualization or future value judgments from critics.
One would think that cinéma militant films’ anachronistic qualities would be a given and well within these filmmakers’ original intentions: to serve as vital in-the-moment political agit-prop (making a “timeless” film would be a task better left to the auteurs). If you consider these films functioning under the rubric of the Third Cinema model,1 then temporal limits are supposed to be these films’ very strength. “Historical reflection” is “one of the most adept machines of reification,” as Grant points out in his conclusion, and this reification, he explains, reduces the film to Second Cinema, or “a static and terminated materialisation” (p. 175). Grant considers two possibilities for dealing with the “temporal status” (175) of the Third Cinema militant works described in the book: either foreground their aesthetic value and leave the political aspects out of one’s assessment of the film’s merits, or ignore the film completely. But if Grant’s critical handling of the films produced by these radical cinema collectives is any gauge, the act of separating the aesthetics from the politics in these films is a tricky operation indeed. Foregrounding aesthetics in any critique of these films would seem beside the point when considering the emphasis in cinéma militant oeuvre was always more about production, distribution, and ideology – if aesthetics played a role, is was usually a subordinate one.
What Grant’s book really cries out for is some sort of visual primer or companion piece to complement his text and to dynamically resuscitate these cinéma militant projects in visual terms. Such an aide could not only push these films out of the reifying process of historical re-evaluation but would also better contextualize them against the backdrop of the societal upheaval they were a response to. With that in mind, consider In the Intense Now, João Moreira Salles’s recently released 2017 documentary. It is an interesting melange of late-1960s revolutionary images, including Salles’s own personal philosophical ruminations on the events of May ’68, adding a narrative voice-over to footage of political struggles—student demonstration, strikes, etc.—assessing equally both the successes and failures of these grassroots uprisings.
In the Intense Now briefly turns its gaze on the work of the cinéma militant movement and its place in the larger global chain of events and radical political happenings of the day. Interestingly, it includes some powerful footage and a scene from the 10-minute 1968 film La reprise du travail aux usines wonder. This is a student film of the return to work after a strike at a French battery factory, one that Grant’s book places as a pivotal point in French revolutionary filmmaking – not to mention “the most interesting filmic document to emerge from the [May ‘68] events” according to Jacques Rivette (p. 27). It also serves as a statement about the impossible dream of students ever achieving political solidarity with workers. Grant’s own description of the spectacle captured in the film can’t possibly compare to witnessing the powerful sounds and imagery emanating from the actual film: “the sequence takes form as it focuses on a young woman who refuses to return to work and a young student who intervenes and defends the woman and her refusal.” (p. 28) This text, along with the photographic stills in Grant’s book, can give only a faint sense of the real human emotions the woman in the sequence expresses about the appalling working conditions in her factory and the gut-wrenching drama her desperate pleas for justice actually create. And it is examples like this that call into question the overall effectiveness of Grant’s book to do more than simply document the efforts of the cinéma militant movement and acknowledge a gap in the recorded annals of French cinema history. The only flaws in Grant’s book are not rooted in subpar research or lack of academic rigor; and it’s not that he fails to adequately shed light on a long-obscure movement.
The deficiency here, however minor, is lack of critical and argumentative thrust related to cinema militant’s potential: by the book’s conclusion we still only have a faint idea of just how the cinema militant movement influenced the future of French (and world) Third Cinema and how it compared to, for example, other such cinematic movements globally. The question we’re still left asking is: Why is serious discussion of these once-radical films and filmmakers still relevant? And can an in-the-moment Third Cinema form like the cinema militant movement even be discussed in historically reflective terms without trivializing the original intentions of these filmmakers and their collectives?
Paul Douglas Grant, Cinéma Militant: Political Filmmaking and May 1968 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)
- The term Third Cinema was coined in 1969 by Argentine filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino. See “Towards a Third Cinema”, in Bill Nichols (ed.), Movies and Methods: An Anthology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974). Third Cinema situated itself in opposition to First Cinema (Hollywood mainstream) and Second Cinema (e.g. European arthouse films) by a strict adherence to politically charged social realism and overt anticapitalist stance. ↩