Peter Watkins on La Commune (Paris, 1871)
We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history – where the conjunction of Post Modernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking in the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered “old fashioned.” Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm – to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia – which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born.
In February 1998 I met with Paul Saadoun of 13 Production, a documentary film company based in Marseilles, and we agreed to produce a film on the Paris Commune. During sixteen months of intensive research and pre-production, with the exception of La Sept ARTE in France, all of the major global TV associations which were approached, refused to participate in funding for the film. “I do not like Peter Watkins’ films,” said the Commissioning Editor for the BBC in London. Early in 1999, one of the major art centres in Paris – the Musée d’Orsay – learned of our film, decided to organize an exhibition on the Paris Commune (consisting of contemporary photographs, and the works of Corbet, a member of the Commune), and allocated 300,000 francs to our film budget.
The filming of La Commune took place in July 1999, in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, on the eastern edge of Paris. Working with Agathe Bluysen, one of our main researchers, and our casting crew – principally my elder son Patrick, and Virginie Guibbaud – I enlisted over 220 people from Paris and the provinces to take part in the film; approximately 60% of them had no prior acting experience. Among the cast were a number of people from Picardy and other regions of France, with specific dialects and accents (since many migrants from the provinces took an active role in the Commune). Through the conservative press in Versailles, and newspapers like Le Figaro, we also recruited people from the Paris area to join the project specifically because of their conservative politics (to act in roles opposed to the Commune).
The set in the disused factory was designed and constructed by Patrice Le Turcq as a series of interconnecting rooms and spaces, designed to represent the working class 11th district of Paris, a centre of revolutionary activity during the Commune. The set was carefully designed to ‘hover’ between reality and theatricality, with careful and loving detail applied for example to the texture of the walls, but with the edges of the set always visible, and with the ‘exteriors’ – the Rue Popincourt and the central Place Voltaire – clearly seen for what they are – artificial elements within an interior space.
Cinematographer Odd Geir Saether filmed Edvard Munch in 1973. To implement my plan in La Commune for long, highly mobile uninterrupted takes, Saether and chief lighting technician Clarisse Gatti covered the ceiling of the factory with regularly spaced special neon lights, to give an even luminescence to the whole area, and to prevent the use of traditional lights on the floor obstructing the path of the hand-held camera. Jean-François Priester developed an equally ingenious method for the highly mobile and flexible recording of the sound, using two boom operators with radio-microphones and portable mixing system, which moved around the labyrinthine set.
Broadly speaking, our ‘process’ manifests in the extended way in which we involved the cast in the preparation for, and then during the filming, and in the way that some of the people continued the process after the filming was completed. Our ‘form’ is visible in the long sequences and in the extended length of the film which emerged during the editing. What is significant, and I believe very important in ‘La Commune’, is that the boundaries between ‘form’ and ‘process’ blur together, i.e., the form enables the process to take place – but without the process the form in itself is meaningless.
Before the filming we asked the cast to do their own research on this event in French history. The Paris Commune has always been severely marginalized by the French education system, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is a key event in the history of the European working class, and when we first met, most of the cast admitted that they knew little or nothing about the subject. It was very important that the people become directly involved in our research on the Paris Commune, thereby gaining an experiential process in analyzing those aspects of the current French system which are failing in their responsibility to provide citizens with a truly democratic and participatory process. The French education system is definitely one aspect which is not functioning in this regard; its marginalization of the Paris Commune is only one part of a bigger problem – which includes an almost complete absence of critical media education.
The cast research on the Paris Commune in the months prior to the filming supplemented over a year of intensive investigation by our own research team (led by Agathe Bluysen and Marie-José Godin, with Laurent Colantonio, Stéphanie Lataste and Laure Cochener, and working with such eminent historians as Alain Dalotel, Michel Cordillot, Marcel Cerf, Robert Tombs and Jacques Rougerie). Our work necessitated a very broad and at the same time detailed sweep through dozens of different aspects of the Paris Commune and of this historical period in France – ranging from the personalities of the Commune and the Versaillais government, debates in the Hôtel de Ville and in the National Assembly, the role of women and of the Catholic Church and its education system, the problems of sewerage, drinking water and lighting in Paris, military uniforms of the period, music and songs of the period, etc. etc.
At a later stage, the research work involved the actors forming groups (e.g., those playing the Union des femmes; the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune; the soldiers of the National Guard; the officers and men of the Versaillais forces; the elected members of the Commune, etc.) to discuss the background of the people they were portraying, as well as to reflect on the links between the events of the Commune and society today. In this way, we were asking the cast to contribute directly to the manner of telling their own history – as opposed to the usual hierarchical and simplistic process of TV and filmmaking. This is a central part of the process of our film.
During the filming the cast were also engaged in a collective experience, constantly discussing – between themselves, and with myself and members of the team led by Agathe Bluysen – what they would say, how they might feel, and how they would react to the events of the Commune which were about to be filmed. Simultaneously, Marie-José Godin was preparing the young and older women who played the girls in the Catholic school in the rue Oberkampf and their supervising Sisters, and the two Catholic priests. The results of all of these discussions were then placed – or emerged spontaneously – within the scenes which were filmed in long, uninterrupted sequences, following the chronological order of the events of the Commune. Most of the cast really liked this method of filming, for they found that it offered much more continuity of experience than the usual fragmented practice of filming short, disconnected scenes. Many of the people felt this whole process to be exciting and stimulating, quite unlike the preplanned and prescripted manner of making most films. This process also enabled the cast to improvise, change their minds, relate to each other in actual discussions during the filming, etc. Many found this filming method to be dynamic and experiential, for it forced them to abandon pose and artifice, and led to an immediate self-questioning on contemporary society – which they had to confront on the spot.
There are also a number of scenes in the film in which the FORM was entirely different again: when the camera is static (except for a few gentle moves left or right), i.e., when it covers extensive discussions among various groupings of Communards – during which time the cast speak with each other (with no intervention by myself or the TV Communale) – recorded non-stop, sometimes for up to 30 minutes (the only pause being to change the magazine in the camera). These scenes occur for example when the women of the UDF speak in the cafe, first about organizing as if in 1871, and then about conditions for women today, and when the National Guard heatedly discuss the pros and cons of centralizing decision-making during a revolution.
In both the ‘static’ discussion scenes and in the mobile sequences, people are rarely, if ever, framed in close-up as individuals – usually there are at least two or three people in the frame at the same time. This, and the manner in which people speak with each other, allows for a group dynamic which is very rare in the media today.
Our society, in this new millennium, will desperately need filmmakers, TV producers, and media-workers in general who are willing to resist, perhaps for the first time in their lives, the nightmarish hierarchy and centralization of media power. And to take up the anti-globalization struggle. It should be clear now that the world is in an intolerably dangerous situation, with a hopelessly inefficient, totally exploitative, morally corrupt free-market ideology sweeping aside everything before it – even, apparently, the education system. The mass audiovisual media are not only supporting, they are driving this catastrophe – and clearly need to be challenged by many people both within and outside the profession.
But even more, we need an active and critically conscious public, who will forcefully debate, and finally resist media corruption. Who will seek alternative forms of creative, more open and collective processes to replace the synthetic and divisive experience of the existing audiovisual media. For this to happen, we also need critical (media) teachers, who will equally resist and expose what is happening within the education systems which are allying themselves with the onslaught of consumerism.
The full, 5hr 45m cut of La Commune (Paris, 1871) screens during Document 2016 at 12pm on Friday 21 October in the Andrew Stewart Cinema at University of Glasgow. The event is free but ticketed.
This article is excerpted, with permission, from a series of Watkins’ writings on La Commune, which can be found here.