This history covers the filmmaking tradition often referred to as cinéma militant, which emerged in France during the events of May 1968 and flourished for a decade. While some films produced were created by established filmmakers, including Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, and William Klein, others were helmed by left-wing filmmakers working in the extreme margins of French cinema. This latter group gave voice to underrepresented populations, such as undocumented immigrants (sans papiers), entry-level factory workers (ouvriers spécialisés), highly intellectual Marxist-Leninist collectives, and militant special interest groups. While this book spans the broad history of this uncharted tradition, it particularly focuses on these lesser-known figures and works and the films of Cinélutte, Les groupes medvedkine, Atelier de recherche cinématographique, Cinéthique, and the influential Marxist filmmaker Jean-Pierre Thorn. Each represent a certain tendency of this movement in French film history, offering an invaluable account of a tradition that also sought to share untold histories.
Promotional Material from Cinema Action’s Rocinante – found in the archive.
Last week in the BFI’s Essential Experiments slot, William Fowler presented the work of the filmmaking collective, Cinema Action. Two films were screen from the collective’s vast filmography – Squatters (1970), an attack on the Greater London Council regarding their lack of investment in housing . The film provided important – if controversial – information about the use of bailiffs in illegal eviction. And So That You Can Live (1981) which is widely recognised as one of Cinema Action’s finest works. The film follows the story of inspiring union convenor Shirley and the impact global economic changes have on her and her family’s life in rural South Wales. The landscape of the area, with all its complex history, is cross-cut with images of London, and original music from Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti further reinforces the deeply searching, reflective tone. It was also broadcast on Channel 4’s opening night in November 1982.
Here is a history of Cinema Action via the BFI’s Screenonline
Cinema Action was among several left-wing film collectives formed in the late sixties. The group started in 1968 by exhibiting in factories a film about the French student riots of that year. These screenings attracted people interested in making film a part of political activism. With a handful of core members – Ann Guedes, Gustav (Schlacke) Lamche and Eduardo Guedes – the group pursued its collective methods of production and exhibition for nearly twenty-five years.
Cinema Action‘s work stands out from its contemporaries’ in its makers’ desire to co-operate closely with their working-class subjects. The early films campaigned in support of various protests close to Cinema Action‘s London base. Not a Penny on the Rent (1969), attacking proposed council rent increases, is an example of the group’s early style.
By the beginning of the seventies, Cinema Action began to receive grants from trades unions and the British Film Institute. This allowed it to produce, in particular, two longer films analysing key political and union actions of the time. People of Ireland! (1971) portrayed the establishment of Free Derry in Northern Ireland as a step towards a workers’ republic. UCS1 (1971) records the work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyard; it is a unique document, as all other press and television were excluded.
Both these films typify Cinema Action‘s approach of letting those directly involved express themselves without commentary. They were designed to provide an analysis of struggles, which could encourage future action by other unions or political groups.
The establishment of Channel Four provided an important source of funding and a new outlet for Cinema Action. Films such as So That You Can Live (1981) and Rocking the Boat (1983) were consciously made for a wider national audience. In 1986, Cinema Action made its first fiction feature, Rocinante, starring John Hurt.
Marc Karlin joined Cinema Action in 1969. He had just returned to London after being caught up in the events of May ’68 in Paris while filming a US deserter. It was there where Karlin met Chris Marker, who was editing Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard at the time. Marker had just formed his film group SLON and had since released Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective cinematic protest with offerings from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, inspired by the film-making practices of the Soviet film-maker, Alexander Medvedkin. The idea of taking this model of collective filmmaking back to the UK appealed greatly to Karlin, and was shared by many of his contemporaries. He details this enthusiasm in an interview with Sheila Rowbotham from 1998…
…when Marker started SLON, ideas about agitprop films were going around. Cinema Action had already started in England by 1969 when I joined. There was a relationship to the Russians: Vertov, the man with a movie camera, Medvedkin and his Russian agitprop train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution in film, and communicating that. Medvedkin had done that by train. SLON and Cinema Action both did it by car. Getting a projector, putting films in the boot, and off you went and showed films – which is what we did…
…when I joined there was no question of making documentaries for television. We showed our films at left meetings, where we would set up a screen, do leaflets and so on. It is often hilarious. I remember showing a film on housing in a big hall in the Bull Ring area of Birmingham. It started with machine gun noises, and Horace Cutler, the hated Tory head of the Greater London Council, being mowed down. The whole place just stopped and looked, but, of course, as soon as you got talking heads, people arguing or living their ordinary lives, doing their washing or whatever, we lost the audience. I learnt something through seeing that.
Evidently, Karlin was frustrated about the political and aesthetic approach of Cinema Action. In fact, salvaged in the archive is two thirds of a letter written by Karlin to Humphry Trevelyan that goes into some detail over the reasons for why Karlin intended to leave Cinema Action. For now, here is Karlin giving a somewhat exaggerated reason for leaving in the interview with Rowbotham…
…Schlacke (Cinema Action co-founder) had a thing about the materialist dialectic of film. Somehow or other – and I can’t tell you how are why – this meant in every eight frames that you had to have a cut. Schlaker justified this was some theoretical construct, but it made his films totally invisible. After a time I just got fed up. James Scott, Humphry Trevelyan and I started The Berwick Street Film Collective and later went on to join Lusia Films.
The Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975)
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
In an interview with Sheila Rowbotham, published in her book Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain written with Huw Beynon, Marc Karlin recalls his early films of the late 1960s before he entered into collective film-making with Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Collective . Sadly, no prints or negatives have been found in the Karlin’s film and video archive. This tantalising interview is the only lead so far.
Marc spent most of his childhood in Paris, Le Perreux. After being schooled in England, he later returned and became embroiled in the events of May 1968. A few years earlier, Marc filmed a conversation with an American deserter from the Vietnam War, Philip Wagner, who had landed in London on behalf of the Stop It Committee. By 1968, Wagner was in Paris. Marc, having been dissatisfied with the first film, decided to film Wagner again, this time with a French deserter from the Algeria War.
The film was called American Choice ’68. When he began to edit the film May 68 exploded. There was a strike of editors, who promptly sent Marc to a railway depot to ‘shoot reels for the revolution’. He struck up a friendship with a train driver and began filming him. The film was called Dead Man’s Wheel and focuses on the driver’s incredibly repetitive work routine. The film ends with the driver explaining this to students at the Sorbonne.
Karlin describes the scene, ‘He started explaining his work to the students, miming what he did in the train. Every fifteen seconds he had to clasp and unclasp the wheel, otherwise the train would stop. It was to stop him falling asleep and was called ‘dead man’s wheel’: he explained how ill the drivers were, because of this every fifteen seconds. It just tortured them. As he explains this, you can see the camera going round the students: they are completely bog-eyed about the worker, May 1968, the possibilities, the world that he came from. It was a hell of an introduction for me, that moment. A moment that you try to expand for years and years – but obviously you can’t‘.
In Marc’s obituary John Wyver writes the film ‘combines a deep respect for one human being with an analysis of one political, social and cultural moment’. Marc states he was very proud of the film and reveals it was shown at the NFT and remained popular in France. The hunt continues.
Sources – Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
In the recent Q&A on Marc Karlin’s Between Times (1993), the film’s editor and voice of ‘A’, Steve Sprung, declared Marc was both ‘A’ and ‘Z’. That is to say, Marc occupied the two opposing left wing positions simultaneously in the film, thereby allowing us to gain an intriguing insight into Marc’s paradoxical political outlook at the time.
Here is a fascinating transcript from the archive, that runs contrary to this claim. It is a conversation between Marc and Marxist writer, John Mepham that forms the foundations of the dialectic in Between Times. Marc and Mepham discuss the parallels between the fall of the British Left and the rise of Thatcherism since May 1968. Both seem to form the idea that all the questions and intentions at the heart of Thatcherism were made by the New Left after May 68. The New Left simply never organised their response into a coherent political project and as a consequence stagnated.
It is a very candid and engaging conversation that not only mirrors our search for fresh alternatives but also reveals our tendency to create our own political demons to disguise our complicity when things run adrift.