Rene — The films of the Zanzibar Group or the dandies of May ’68

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Cinema on the run
The films of the Zanzibar Group or the dandies of May ’68
Nicolas Siepen
»Free money for artistic projects … Please come to 31, rue de l’Échaudé, Tel …«
Sylvina Boissonnas’ small ad in the »Herald Tribune« in 1968
In April, Nicolas Sarkozy, still on the high of the electoral campaign, promised to free the French from something that had long burdened them: »May ’68 imposed intellectual and moral relativism on us. The heirs of May’ 68 managed to promote the idea that everything is of equal value, that from now on there is no difference between good and evil, true and false, beautiful and ugly. […] The cult of Mammon, short-term profit, speculation, the excesses of financial capitalism were underpinned by the values of May ’68. If there are no rules, no standards, no morals, no respect, no authority, then anything is permitted.«[1]
The interesting thing about this revisionist statement is not so much the ideological content, but instead the widespread and dogged persistence of the phantasm that we still have not really come to terms with something or other about May’68 and its »heirs«. The continued evocation of May ’68 as a bogeyman that must finally be vanquished (through values, rules, standards and morality) remains an integral part of the political struggle for cultural hegemony, which has indeed never ended. Whether one thinks about the current debate on the RAF (the Red Army Faction), controversy in Germany as to whether Christian Klar should be pardoned, or indeed multiculturalism, over and over again European politicians are obsessed with firing up topical political issues by references to the political landscape of the 1960s and particularly May ’68, seeking to glean the upper hand when jockeying for more power, a move that aims in one fell swoop both to delegitimate the reality of previous political struggles and to hold radical strands in contemporary manifestations of resistance in check. It’s the same old game. You find yourself wondering how political events so long ago can still serve as a backdrop for ideological struggles if the uprising was pronounced a flop shortly after it broke out.
If there is anything that one can still learn from May ’68, leaving behind left-wing romanticism and both right-wing and left-wing revisionism, it is that the complexity of political events in the 1960s and 1970s cannot simply be laid to rest. Any attempt to devise a conclusive judgement or even a preliminary appraisal is doomed to fall apart at some point, shedding an entirely different light on the situation. Often a small detail is enough to make conventional historiography and assertions of ideological monopolies start to teeter. Some remnant of fears that May ’68 might once again bubble up are to be found in hysterical pronouncements that try to consign events back then to the grave once and for all.
Until recently many believed that the close links between social and political struggles and the artistic avant-garde, one of the hallmarks of that era, particularly in Paris, were woven primarily by the Situationists and various proponents of the Nouvelle Vague, and that the European and American avant-garde are not intimately linked in this particular respect. The Situationist International, as we know, has been working consistently towards initiating a revolutionary situation ever since the 1950s and their events, posters and graffiti made a fairly considerable contribution to propagating the chain reaction when the time actually came and the spark from a small student protest at Nanterre University in Paris ignited the working class and civil society. Jean-Luc Godard also identified the revolutionary trends that began to take shape in the 1960s with remarkable acuity in films such as »La Chinoise«, expressing these in a stylised form typical of his works from this period (such as »Weekend«); ultimately he ending up responding to the influence of May ’68 by looking for another type of film-making that would dovetail better with the revolutionary process. One result of these efforts was that he set up the Groupe Dziga Vertov in conjunction with Jean-Pierre Gorin, which gave rise to a collective working methodology: »Not making political films but making films politically «[2]. Here it would be appropriate to mention other Nouvelle Vague filmmakers, specifically Chris Marker, who were moving in a similar direction during this period. Even if one simply considers the Situationists’ violent rejection of Godard’s pre-May ’68 films, and their view of him as nothing but a pseudo-critical vassal of the capitalist spectacle (»the children of Godard and Coca Cola«), it becomes apparent that all the events subsumed under the catch-all slogan of May’68 do not amount to a uniform phenomenon with a clear political agenda, just as it is clear that it does not make any sense to take one’s leave of May ’68 and its »heirs« just because of the career path pursued by someone like Daniel-Cohn Bendit.
Whilst the emphasis in linking the cultural and political struggle in Europe was clearly on the political aspects – everything should be political in a Marxist sense, including film-making –, the focus in the USA was much more on cultural codes per se. Hippies, Woodstock, beatniks, Black Panther, free jazz, Warhol and Jack Smith are eminently political as expressions of a cultural and aesthetic revolt.
Destroy yourself!
The film series »Underground/Overseas: from Jack Smith and Andy Warhol to Zanzibar«[3], curated by film scholar Marc Siegel at the start of this year in the Arsenal cinema in Berlin, casts a different light on this landscape. The series concentrated on the various strands connecting the Factory scene around Warhol and another cluster in Paris, an informal group that had adopted the name Zanzibar and in just a few years made about thirteen films directly influenced by the upheavals in May.
The name refers to the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, which back in the 60s was ruled by Maoists. The group had roughly 9 members clustered around Philippe Garrel, who at the time was only 18; none of them had ever visited Zanzibar, they did not always present themselves as a group, and they were certainly not well organised; however they rather spontaneously began to shoot films during those chaotic days in Paris, which, seen from today’s perspective, are a kind of missing link between European revolutionary cinema and the American underground. It is astonishing how few films by Warhol and Jack Smith we are actually familiar with, or rather how few are archived and accessible. In the case of Jack Smith this is also partly due to his lackadaisical approach and his complicated relationship to making his films available and distributing them. A similar attitude on the part of the Zanzibar Group explains why their films are still virtually unknown today or are considered to have vanished, and have therefore not played a part in appraising the relationship between political struggle and artistic production.
Many of the films were not even edited into a final version back then and little attention was paid to distribution, as the protagonists of the group started to make films precisely when the centrifugal forces of May ’68 were just beginning to develop. That also signified taking flight abroad in the face of the imminent collapse of the movement and turning one’s back on Europe.
It’s thanks to American film historian Sally Shafto that the films and the group’s history are accessible again after all; while she was working on Godard she stumbled across traces and references, which she pursued with such assiduity that she produced a book, available in French and English and bursting with information.[4] The work allows us to glean a better understanding of a crucial aspect of the history of revolutionary cinema.
It is no coincidence that Shafto made this discovery via the roundabout route of researching Godard; in addition to supporting the filmmakers, his film »La Chinoise« (1967) was also a decisive influence on them. Taking this as a point of departure, it is easier to understand the particularities of these films and how they were made. The film »Détruisez-vous« (Destroy Yourself) by Serge Bard, the first Zanzibar production, was shot in and around Nanterre University while it was occupied by the students at the start of May ’68. The title refers to a legendary piece of graffiti at the College of Art in Nanterre. Serge Bard, who studied sociology at the university there, dropping out around the time of the protests, was fascinated by the fact that the developments in Nanterre seemed to have been pre-empted or anticipated in »La Chinoise«, leading him to decide a year later to shoot a kind of remake or free interpretation of the film. What is striking about »Détruisez-vous« is that the film seeks to take Godard’s stylised filmic language, which at this point still always maintained a certain ironic observational distance, and to give it a more modern touch by establishing a direct link both with the social protests unfolding at the time and with the specific locus of Nanterre, also one of the focuses of »La Chinoise«. As a consequence Serge Bard substituted »real« people for Godard’s »portraits« of students.
The leading lady in »Détruisez-vous«, Caroline de Bendern, was a professional model and was nicknamed the »Marianne of May ’68«, as she was photographed on the shoulders of a militant demonstrator waving the Vietnamese flag, a shot that did the rounds of the international press. In one of the most fascinating scenes in the film we see the virtually deserted large lecture theatre in Nanterre, the university that had still not returned to business as usual, and a professor, first lecturing on the revolution, then leaving the lectern. This professor is »played« by Alain Jouffroy, a critic and poet who supported the group and was also politically active himself. The audience comprises just a few isolated figures and of course the idea here is to enact the ruination of a particular regime of university discipline: like the state, the university is dead, it’s out in the streets that music is playing. The aesthetic approach adopted here, with this very direct reference back to one’s own existence, working with friends and others trying to develop a position in response to the pressure of events, is highly reminiscent of films by Warhol, who was the major influence on Serge Bard, along with Godard. »Détruisez-vous« creates a very curious blend of Godard’s politicised constructivism, which is strongly language-driven and seems to be carefully planned and calculated down to the smallest detail, and the rawness with which Warhol turns the camera on reality and takes a greater interest in the emotions and dramas of everyday life than in the process of political construction. This generates an intermediate space, which becomes steeped in the protagonists’ real confusion in both formal and physical terms. Caroline de Bendern flits about the film rather than really playing a part, while despair and exhaustion already gnaw at her reflections on the revolution even as it unfolds. The film concludes with the following sentences spoken in darkness: »Repeat. Language is regressive. The illusions of an alternative. Answer the call of the galaxy.«
Even if the Zanzibar productions are very diverse, a characteristic of all these works is a space fluctuating between new beginnings and resignation, in which a particular type of political language begins to falter and the desire for a way out is articulated. It is therefore entirely logical that Philippe Garrel’s 1968 »Le Révélateur« is a silent film, shot in black and white and on 35mm, typical for the Zanzibar group. Produced under the influence of LSD and shot in a somewhat underground manner in Germany without any permits, the odyssey of a family unfolds in vivid scenes imbued with mystic energy; the family undergoes strange transformations, caught between highly emotional encounters and a sense of loss, played out in rooms, tunnels, on rain-sodden streets and in forests in the depths of night. In his contribution to »Four Manifestoes for a Violent Cinema«, Garrel describes his method: »A revelation revealed to an author, after the burst of the need of the expression in the meditation, may reach expression only in a state of awakened somnambulism.«, and Serge Bard concludes his piece with the sentence: »Of each film, we will make a question mark whereby the thought of the spectator will be, as the case may be, the only response, or absence of response. In short, that means war.«[5]
This »war« against viewers, authorship and language as a narrative medium constitutes the inner link between the method, the aesthetic products and the configuration of the Zanzibar Group, in which filmmaking offers a direct possibility of creating a short circuit between one’s own inner life and reality, as well as a technique to do so. That perhaps also explains the self-evident ease with which Jackie Raynal could move from being an editor to become a filmmaker, shooting a lucid feminist self-reflection in »Deux fois« (1969), which enabled her to move away from what was a rather passive kind of role (editor or actress), even in progressive cinema à la Godard, and to take a more active stance, presenting her own version of May ’68. She was encouraged back then by oil heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, who not only funded and produced most of the Zanzibar films with great gusto, but also exerted considerable influence on the group’s working methods and on the films through her idea of simply passing on her fortune to the filmmakers with no strings attached. This meant not only that the films could be shot on 35mm and are of a remarkably high technical quality, despite the group’s anarchistic working methods, but also signified that thanks to this gesture the intrinsic link between money and images, which profoundly shapes cinema to this very day, could be severed, at least for two years. Perhaps that is also why Boissonnas was so disappointed when the Zanzibar members were unenthusiastic about her idea of renting their own cinema to show their works and reach out to a broader audience, opting instead slowly but surely to take their leave of Europe. In the meantime virtually all of the Zanzibar Group, with the exception of Philippe Garrel, have abandoned filmmaking. These are the kind of details that matter if you want to learn anything from May ’68 nowadays.
Translation: Helen Ferguson
1 Quoted in http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mai-Unruhen and www.phoenix.de/131350.htm
2 Cf. Kippeffekte Störungen. Gespräch mit dem Filmemacher Jean-Pierre Gorin, in: springerin 4/2004, pp. 36–41. See also: http://www.springerin.at/dyn/heft.php?id=41&pos=0&textid=0&lang=en
3 http://www.fdk-berlin.de/arsenal/programmtext-anzeige/article/744/212.html
4 Sally Shafto, Zanzibar – Les Films Zanzibar et les Dandys de Mai 1968
5 Ibid, p. 191.