La Commune (de Paris, 1871)
by Peter Watkins
(see also an old article
about Punishment Park) filmed in 1999 is the absolute reference for the NY Commune project as it addresses the question of the Paris Commune through a cinematographic work being itself a democratic construction. This film is basing its plot on a historical event and its reconstitution in order to question the contemporaneity of the class struggle. In order to do so, it limits its setting to a warehouse in the North of Paris, films the action through an anachronistic documentary crew and construct itself in very long shots during which the (mostly non-professional) actors express themselves in a contemporary language while improvising for most of it. Using this method, the film, in its totality, almost reaches 6 hours long (see the full version on youtube below).
P. Watkins pushed the democratic process of making a film to the point of hiring actors opposed to the Paris Commune to play the Parisians who flew the capital city or remained hidden during the three months of its existence. It does not forget either the important faults of the Commune, the execution of the clerical hostages, the cowardice of some members of the Central Committee (elected group of decision in all districts of Paris and from every professions), the strong lack of organizations in front of the Versailles Army, the crowd syndromes etc. This antagonism of facts reflects the antagonism in the numerous debates showed on the screen with actors who reach a very high level of passion as they have no problem identifying with their character who has a lot of similitude with their own person. In this regard, the pseudo-documentary crew go as far as asking those same actors if they would also risk their lives today if confronted to the same situation while they act the fight on the barricade (see the 31st chapter on the video).
The film was badly received when it was released on TV, even by its own producer, Arte (probably the only channel that is worth watching in France) as P.Watkins himself explains on his website
. The reasons for that are probably numerous and the first one is of course the institutional form of censorship that never gave to the 1871 Commune the place in history that it deserves. However, another interesting reason for it can be seen in the very means of this film. We could think of an alternate film from a liberal filmmaker who would have the favors of the industry to gather an important budget in order to create a glorious aesthetic film that would narrate an individual (love) story within the history of the Commune (a grotesque example of this form an aesthetics can be seen in the videoclip No Church in the Wild as I wrote about
earlier) . The liberal media would applause this work and through it, self-congratulate for their open-mind.
However, the way P.Watkins has filmed this movie subverts the order of cinematographic creation (although he was not the first one to involve improvisation to this level) as he voluntarily gave up a very important part of his transcendental power on the actors and therefore his absolute control upon what becomes obsolete to call “his” movie. Giving up on this control constitutes, of course, a danger for the cinematographic industry as it implies that one does not know in advance what a film will show and express at the beginning of its production. In a more general spectrum -and that drives us back to history- an intelligentsia is, by definition, always afraid of a distribution of power, not only in the field it controls, but also at a more societal scale.
This question is a difficult one for every creator who has a clear idea of what (s)he wants to produce, especially if this will is trying to express a clear political manifesto. Starting the moment where one needs the participation of others, (s)he cannot avoid the question of the hierarchical relationships that will link them together. It is indeed a difficult question as the “right” answer is probably more complex than the simple absolute horizontality of those relationships. Finding the fulfillment of all parties involved requires experiments, reflection and efforts. What is true for a film is also true for the construction of a building and, by extension, for the whole organization of society. The film directed by Peter Watkins was one of those experiments just like the Commune was and that is the greatness of this way to question history through a creative process.
Other articles from the series NY COMMUNE PROJECT
Full Version of La Commune: