Before and after 1968: documentary film-making and its role as “labour archivist”

Before and after 1968: documentary film-making and its role as “labour archivist”

A still from the film “Vivent les dockers” (Long live the dockers, 1951) by Robert Ménégoz, a short documentary film which “pays tribute to French dockers, to their hard labour and to their heroic struggle for peace”


“No, I’m not going back. I’m not setting foot in that hell hole again!” The worker’s cry of protest against his employer and the trade union leaders who have just called off the strike, shown in the short documentary film Return to Work at the Wonder Factory, has become a crucial audio and visual record of the events of May and June 1968, a classic example of cinéma direct.

May 1968 and the art of cinema are inextricably linked. The reason is that one of the key events that triggered the movement in France was the sacking of Henri Langlois, the head of Cinémathèque française (the French Film Library), by the then culture minister, André Malraux, in February 1968. In response 1,500 film makers, technicians and students organised a ‘General Assembly of Cinema’ at which they called into question the established order in the industry, and in art. This assembly sent a delegation to Cannes that brought new ideas with it, leading to the early closure of the festival, in the name of solidarity with the students and workers.

The year 1968 marked a revival of cinema’s interest in labour and workers, and in documentaries as a genre. Reeling from the shock of the biggest workers’ strike in the history of France, film makers realise they are out of touch with the majority of the country’s working class.

“Not one of our films shows the problems of workers and students…I am talking to you about solidarity with students and workers, you are talking to me about travelling and close-ups,” says a furious Jean-Luc Godard at the general assembly that interrupted the 21st Cannes Film Festival that year. At the same assembly, on the other side of the barricade, the wife of actor Jean-Pierre Léaud fulminated into the microphone: “Our job is to entertain”. She was loudly booed.

For the cinema of 1968, the documentary is seen as a genre that can raise the awareness of the working classes and lead them to revolution, while fiction just distracts them and takes their minds off social issues.

The Public Information Library (Bibliothèque publique d’information, or BPI) in Paris is currently charting this historic turning point in cinema through a series of 75 documentary films being screened between April and the end of June 2018.

“Labour is a central theme of documentary cinema. The first “vues Lumière” are of workers coming out of a factory,” recalls Arnaud Hée, programmer of the On the job. Being(s) at work festival, referring to images shot by the Lumière brothers, the pioneers of French cinema.

The film expert goes further: “There is something original in the relationship between cinema and labour. Labour has shaped cinematographic productions, with its locations, its actions, its sounds. The documentary serves as a labour archive. It is the memory of a present that is about to disappear,” he says. To create the cinematographic path of the series, Hée delved back into his own filmography, from the catalogues of the International Documentary Film Festival Cinema du reel created by Jacques Willemot, himself the director of Return to Work at the Wonder Factory. He has also mined other archives, such as the German film library.

Echoes of revolution

The series is divided into four themes. The first two are historical, “because the memory of labour allows us to travel through the 20th century,” says Hée. Hence the theme titled Symphony, Disenchantment which tells the tale, through a number of films, of the passions aroused by the advent of people’s democracies in eastern Europe and the disillusionment that followed in the 1960s and 1970s. Enthusiasm, or the Donbass symphony by Russian director Dziga Vertov is one of the stand-out productions. “It is an epic that defines the heroism of the Soviet worker. It is the putting into practice of the communist utopia, in which the worker is a central figure, the linchpin of the accomplishment of communism,” Hée explains.

Another film on the programme, Komsomols, or the Song of the Heroes by the Dutch director Jori Ivens, also pays tribute to the glory of the Soviet ‘new man’, telling the story of the construction of a blast furnace in a desert region.

The second theme, 1967,68,78-..., is the highlight of the series, simply because May 1968 did not happen in a day.

In 1967, activists within the world of cinema came together around French director and writer Chris Marker to make the collaborative anti-war film Far from Vietnam, and to form a film collective that would go on to support striking workers in Besançon, at the Rhodiaceta textile factory.

Marker tries to answer the question of how to portray the worker’s world by giving workers the means to show themselves. He and his colleagues trained the striking workers and lent them material, an unprecedented experiment that gave rise to the film A bientôt, j’espère (See you soon, I hope).

Activist films, collective films

After the film came out, many other groups were formed, bringing together artists, technicians, workers and students. “The film world of 1968 was activist, it was a collective. Le droit à la parole (The Right to Speak), one of the only ones to film the student movement was, for example, produced by the ARC collective (Atelier de recherche cinématographique, or Cinematography Research Workshop) which included the directors Michel Andrieu and Jacques Kébadian. They asked themselves how they could link the student and workers’ movements through film,” Hée explains.

The films screened by BPI date from 1968 and the decade that followed, because the social explosion carried with it the idea that “cinema must be an agent of revolution” the programmer continues.

“After that activist film-making began to run out of steam as revolutionary hopes faded. But traces remain, small films continue to be made,” says Hée.

Hence the selection of films by the Les scotcheuses (The Splicers) collective, which filmed, with a Super 8 camera, the Tarn farmers and other citizens’ battles in France. The cinematographic fight goes on.

Finally, the third part of the series, Beings, Places and Utopia focuses on the different levels at which work can be filmed. The film Belfast, Maine by the Oscar-winning Frédéric Wiseman, tells the story of a small American town north of Boston. Another follows the daily life of an Afghan bakery, filmed in secret by Guillaume Bordier, while small workers in a museum in 1990, as seen by Nicolas Philibert feature in La Ville Louvre. Finally, in The Boot Factory, Lech Kowalski films a punk-owned boot-making cooperative in Krakow. “There is something very romantic in the way we follow the adventures of this company. Kowalski has a talent for filming music,” comments Hée.

This story has been translated from French.