In the recent Winter 2012 issue of October, Trevor Stark has published an impressive essay entitled “‘Cinema in the Hands of the People'”: Chris Marker, the Medvedkine Group, and the Potential of Militant Film.” Thankfully not put behind a pay wall, the article is available for download from mitpressjournals.org.
Stark takes a comprehensive look back at the rencontres of filmmakers and striking workers under the name Groupe Medvedkine, situating Marker’s role and that of many others in the making of À bientôt j’espère (1967-68) and Classe de lutte (1968), while connecting the film-making initiatives to Marker’s personal journey excavating the legacy of Alexander Medvedkine. He also touches strikingly on Godard’s attempts to tackle issues of self-representation of workers in his Groupe Dziga Vertov, “with its parallel but ultimately irreconcilable claims for self-reflexivity, collectivity, and class consciousness” (119).
In the process of reading this piece, we get to know the broad canvas and many fascinating details; its focus includes but is in no way limited to Marker’s involvement. Indeed, we encounter some of the lesser-known activists and their vital roles in a period of strikes, self-education and the realization of cultural production/consumption loops on the part of these engaged workers.
Between 1967 and 1971, a group of workers at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Besançon, with no prior training or experience in cinema, produced a number of extraordinarily variegated films reflecting what Kristin Ross has called “the union of intellectual contestation with workers’ struggles” that culminated in 1968. (119)
The essay provides historical context and close readings of À bientôt j’espère by Marker, Mario Marret and SLON and Classe de lutte, the Medvedkine Group’s first collective film. Stark relates how, shortly after the occupation of the Rhodiaceta factory, Marker received a letter from René Berchoud informing him what was going on and inviting him to visit personally: “If you aren’t in China or elsewhere, come to Rhodia—important things are happening” (121). In this context, Stark recalls one of Marker’s earliest publications: Regards sur le Mouvement ouvrier, co-authored with Benigno Cacérès. Marker left Loin de Vietman on the editing table to come, accompanied by cinematographer Pierre Lhomme and others.
One of À bientôt j’espère‘s voice-overs—dialed back in this film from Marker’s usual deep weaving of commentary and image, as Stark notes—states: “The tangible result of the strike is not the percentage of pay augmentation achieved but the education of a generation of young workers who have discovered in the identity of their conditions, the identity of their struggle” (123). In the era of Occupy, it is fascinating to read this summation: “As attested by the men interviewed in the film, what was most shocking was the experience of entering the factory and feeling calm, of setting up a cinema in the factory, of dancing, of appropriating the space of dehumanization as a space for community” (123-24). The essay, in dealing with Classe de lutte later, shows how the representation of women, largely missing from the first film, is foregrounded in the second.
There is a kind of historical palimpsest brought to life here too. The essay opens with two quotes, one from 1871 by August Villiers de l’Isle-Adam regarding workers taking on the work of philosophers, the other by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, coming to Besançon to parrot and appropriate the idea of a common culture. In between these citations lie two other eras, the Stalinist era that all but swallowed the creativity of Alexander Medvedkine and Dziga Vertov, and the May ’68 era that brought French filmmakers to the factories and streets. The eras link, but not without friction. The names Medvedkine, Vertov, Marker, Godard are more ciphers than protagonists; they seek, in a sense, to disappear into a collective fabric, never entirely successfully. The real protagonists are the workers, and their encounters not just with film but with film-making.
Stark’s essay, strong on history, has some nice theoretical moments to it as well. He draws on Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of the “inoperative community” (communauté désoeuvrée), on Guy Debord, Deleuze, Lukács and Lucien Goldman, always tactically and in context, never imposed on top of the main exposition. In addition, the scholarship is patient and exploratory, giving us a sustained feed of context surrounding the strikes, the issues, the films and the times. The background on Pol Cèbe, a key figure in the events chronicled, is in-depth and fascinating. Stark is honest about the workers’ reaction to À bientôt j’espère: one claims they have been exploited, another accuses Marker of being a romantic who “has seen the workers and the union romantically.” Marker responds (in part):
We have also carried out a parallel activity, putting cameras and tape recorders into the hands of young militants, led by a hypothesis that is still evident to me: that we will always be at best well-intentioned explorers, more or less friendly, but from the outside; and that, as with its liberation, the cinematic representation and expression of the working class will be its own work. (126)
We encourage you to read the whole essay to learn more about the Medvedkine Group’s films; Marker’s revelatory discovery of Medvedkine himself; the parallels and disjunctions between Medvedkine’s ciné-train and the work during the French strikes; the factography/operativism movement of Tret’iakov; the work of Godard’s Vertov Group and the gaps both in his films and between the two auteurs; the ensuing bureaucratic interruption of filmmakers and workers by the French Communist Party itself; and the paradoxical and presumptuous philosophy of class consciousness that does not know itself, as seen in Goldman and Godard.