As inexorable as the executioner’s axe comes the 50th anniversary of ’68, the most innocuous of “revolutionary” commemorations, which Cinéma du Réel wisely decided to celebrate against the grain. Firstly by avoiding the further institutionalization of May ’68—not an insignificant detail for a festival taking place in Paris—and secondly by considering the entirety of that year and its global ramifications (which by no means emanated solely from the French capital). Considering the national chauvinism and islamophobic drifts of too many soixante-huitards, the program “For Another ’68” was a welcome diversion from the nauseating platitudes that Parisian bobos specialize in.
Loosely structured around thematic and formal affinities as well as national categories, this collection of films aspired to embody rather than chronicle the events that marked that fateful year. Arguably inaugurated by the Tet Offensive in January, when the Vietnamese resistance under the visionary guide of General Võ Nguyên Giáp dealt the first major blow to the world’s most powerful army, 1968 witnessed its most utopian moments occurring far from the romantic barricades of the Latin Quarter. The revolutionary impulse that drove European youths to demand the impossible came from the wretched of the earth, not the other way round. It is the Việt Cộng that inspired American students to “bring the war home” and break the spell of the affluent society. It is precisely the distance separating the perception of the Vietnam war from its actualities that is explored in Hybrid by Jack Chambers and Viet Flakes by Carolee Schneemann. Both films oppose the inurement that images of war inevitably produce by editing into their flow moments of cognitive dissonance able to restore, if not meaning, at least the aesthetic indecency of imperialism. Extremely successful and effective on this front is Harun Farocki’s White Christmas, which measures the Christological idyll of consumerism, soundtracked by the titular song, against the violent apocalypse of warfare.
Often believed to belong exclusively to the Western canon, formal experimentation, which the political upheaval of ’68 helped liberate and popularize, can be found in and traced back to different cultural traditions. The two sub-programs dedicated to Palestine and India, respectively, proved to be a case in point, bringing to light works of surprising formal audacity. As far as Middle Eastern cinema is concerned, visual abstraction and non-linear narratives are by no means derivative but, on the contrary, descend from a long-standing anti-figurative trend in Islamic art. Kais al-Zubaidi’s The Visit, for instance, sublimates narrative and visual conventions into a diaphanous haze of lyrical evocation. Linearity is here dissolved not through anti-narrative deconstruction but through a refutation of its alleged logical primacy.
Equally radical in its all-encompassing critique and reinvention of militant cinema is Christian Ghazi’s A Hundred Faces for a Single Day, a film of remarkable self-reflexivity that recognizes and denounces the limits of political cinema. The critical decolonization of form as well as content emerged just as cogently in the “Exploding India” section which gathered together shorts produced by Films Division, the governmental organ assigned to the production and dissemination of documentary cinema. A colonial remainder the British left behind along with their genocidal bequest, Films Division’s institutional mission was simultaneously fulfilled and subverted in the shorts screened as part of the program. Though the political turmoil of ’68 left India untouched, an invisible umbilical cord linked the local cinematic tradition with the psychedelic propulsion of 1960s British cinema. While addressing local issues, not without a subtle dose of anti-authoritarian mischief, most of the shorts looked stylistically indebted to their British counterparts. Brilliant though they were, one could not help noticing the formal preponderance of an artistic history that is visibly not their own.
If the vestiges of colonialism still burdened and influenced cultural production in the so-called Third World, filmmakers and artists in the West radically questioned the configurations of their own tradition and their overbearing universalism. Walter de Maria’s Hard Core, Robert E. Fulton III’s Reality’s Invisible, Brian De Palma’s Dionysus in ’69, and Mario Schifano’s Umano non umano all epitomize the symbolic rejection of their paternal predecessors. The burning need to destroy and rebuild anew a libidinal realm of possibility traverses all of these films to varying degrees, which reflect ’68 from a corporeal perspective rather than a merely political one. Not that politics and the militant dedication they necessarily involve are less artistically inclined—quite the contrary, creativity and discipline were by no means antithetical in the year of our lord 1968. Even the most overtly political films in the program in fact displayed an ingenious determination not to split struggle from (aesthetic) pleasure, analysis from spontaneity. Helke Sander’s Brecht die Macht der Manipulateure is a germane example of counter-information aimed at the editorial firepower of Springer, Germany’s right-wing publisher, who was then busy demonizing the extra-parliamentary left from the pages of its newspapers. Helena Lumbreras and Mariano Lisa in El cuarto poder apply the same methodology to Franco’s Spain to dissect the way the regime propagated a highly redacted version of reality, one devoid of any political contradiction. One of the strategic victories achieved in 1968 was the demolition of the wall that had up to then kept daily subjectivity separated from the collective dimension of politics. A film that epitomized this revolutionary collapse is Madeline Anderson’s I Am Somebody, which documents the 1969 strike of black female hospital workers in Charleston, South Carolina. Self-determination is here a totalizing process which includes racial and gender equality as well as social justice, a struggle where politics is not based on identity, but it is identity itself to be politicized.
Dezsö Magyar’s Agitátorok was the only film in the program to touch upon the vast, contradictory, and violently repressed experience of the “anti-communist” ’68 in the Soviet Bloc. Produced by a group of students in the experimental Béla Balázs Studios (the workshop for documentary and experimental filmmaking) in 1969, Agitátorok is a response to 1968 and the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia presented through a cinematic portrait of Hungary’s short-lived 1919 revolution. The film, using newsreels from 1919 edited with reenacted scenes from Party debates, remained banned by Hungarian authorities for nineteen years. In it, the incipient nationalism that would sweep the grey, socialist hemisphere after the fall of the Berlin Wall is already tangible under an exhilarating dose of anti-dogmatic irreverence. The failed attempt to rejuvenate the oppressive application of Marxism on earth would have catastrophic consequences but remains a vital lesson for those determined to overtake communism from the left. It’s a lesson many of us could benefit from, habituated as we are to passively consuming “radical content” behind the fences of institutional culture. After all, it’s right underneath the Beaubourg, where Cinéma du Réel takes place, that the Swiss sociologist Albert Meister launched an enduring experiment of lived utopia in specular opposition to the respectability of its upper echelons. Fifty years after 1968, the cultural liturgies and their weary rituals are in desperate need of a radical reconsideration and revitalization of their social function.