1968 and Global Cinema: Ciné-tracts

by Julia Nelsen

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a watershed year that shook the world with radical political and social change. Co-curated by IES Visiting Scholar Christina Gerhardt, the series 1968 and Global Cinema at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive explored how the revolutionary energy of that historical moment found expression on screen across national boundaries. Among the diverse films on view, the selection of Ciné-tracts screened on November 14 transported viewers to arguably the most iconic site of that iconic year: Paris. Demonstrations erupted across much of the world in 1968, from Prague to Mexico City, but it was in the French capital and cities throughout the country that nearly eleven million citizens went on strike in mass protest, even causing President Charles De Gaulle to flee.

Cinema itself was a major catalyst for the civil unrest. For many, the fuse was lit in February of that year, when Henri Langlois was ousted from his long-held position as founder and director of the Cinémathèque Française, after he’d resisted attempts to cede its control to the state. Within days, hundreds of filmmakers, actors, producers, and writers mobilized en masse, clashing with police and demanding that Langlois be reinstated. He was, at the end of April; on May 2, the Cinémathèque reopened its doors, just one day before students of the Sorbonne flooded the streets and set the stage for the general strike. While not the direct cause of the demonstrations, the Langlois affair helped fuel discontent towards De Gaulle’s government, just as the shutdown of the Cannes Film Festival amid the May riots offered a further platform for protest and debate. Cinema expressed the militant spirit of that month, and also served to respond to the events as they unfolded.

The Ciné-tracts are the direct result of a coordinated effort by filmmakers to document the movement while actively taking part in it. A group known as the Estates General of Cinema coordinated the project during the general strike as part of broader demands to democratize film and set up alternative, autonomous channels for production and distribution. Bringing together amateurs and veterans of the French avant-garde, including Jean-Luc Godard, Philippe Garrel, and Alain Resnais, the Ciné-tracts were largely the brainchild of Chris Marker, known for his role in forming the anti-war film collective SLON the previous year. As political pamphlets in bite-sized form, their primary intent was to bypass traditional news circuits and offer counter-information on what was happening in the streets, in response to the state-enforced media blackout.

A pamphlet issued by the Estates General, with its imperative title “CINÉTRACTEZ!”, outlined the goals and framework of the project. Each silent “tract” was to be shot on a single reel of 16mm black and white film, using a rostrum camera to animate still images with pan and zoom effects. Photographs of the events are intercut with newsprint, advertisements, posters, and other texts, in a radical montage style that is clearly indebted to the Soviet avant-garde of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Images are inscribed with text that subverts their original meaning, echoing the practice of détournement made famous by the Situationist International and its critique of modern consumer society. Many of the found materials came from a stockpile organized by the SLON, which both facilitated production and reinforced the collective, anonymous principle of the project. (Though Godard’s hand is said to be evident in some, all are uncredited.) Because the films were edited in-camera with no sound, they could be quickly and cheaply shot one day and screened the next---at committee gatherings and university assemblies, and on factory floors, where they were meant to serve as agit-prop in support of the movement. In short, they take the cinematic medium outside the realm of entertainment and into one of militant action. While each tract stands on its own, taken together the films speak to each other through common images that demand from the viewer the same political engagement that they enact.

The radical images of the Ciné-tracts broaden the revolutionary impulse of May 1968 into a wider sphere of influence beyond France. Alongside protesters and police in Paris, we see images of Vietnam, of Che Guevara, of Mao, of General Franco merged with the face of De Gaulle. Just as the inclusive “we” that recurs throughout the films unites students and workers in a common struggle, it also points beyond the nation to other times and places of revolution, situating the Ciné-tracts into the global context of BAMPFA’s timely series.

The Ciné-tracts presentation was made possible with the support of the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, with thanks to Amélie Garin-Davet and Natacha Pope.