I am very happy to report that Peter Watkins’s “La Commune” is now available in DVD/Video. This six-hour film, which originally appeared on French television, joins Sergei Eisenstein’s “10 Days that Shook the World,” Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Battle of Algiers” and Herbert Biberman’s “Salt of the Earth” as a classic study of working people trying to win their freedom.
Perhaps its greatest achievement is the way it makes this 135 year old struggle relevant to more recent ones, which was clearly the intention of its director Peter Watkins. As I sat watching it at the edge of my seat, practically breaking out in a cold sweat, I could not stop thinking about my visits to Nicaragua in the late 1980s when the country was like somebody hanging on to the edge of a cliff by their fingers. “La Commune” demonstrates that this is both the blessing and the curse of all revolutions. They are simultaneously great strides forward toward freedom and huge risks almost tantamount to Russian roulette.
Several years after the Sandinistas were ousted, Carlos Vilas, an Argentine sociologist and supporter of the revolution, spoke at a meeting in New York. I will never forget how he characterized it. It was like doctors in a delivery room with no electricity during an earthquake. When working people try to take power, they are not only faced with their own inexperience as masters of society, they are faced with the immediate hostility and open sabotage of the old ruling classes. I have never seen a film that conveys this dilemma as well as “La Commune.”
Watkins’s best known film is the 1965 “The War Game,” which is a faux news report on a nuclear war. “La Commune” uses the same technique. Imagining television as having been invented by 1871, it presents two reporters from a people’s TV station interviewing National Guardsmen (the volunteers who defended the Commune), workers, women, students on one side and their bourgeois adversaries on the other. One of the film’s major themes is how the media is used to frame reality on a class basis. Although this film was made in 1999, it anticipates the great divide that would take place in Venezuela 3 years later when private television and newspapers were used as a battering ram against Hugo Chavez’s progressive government. As counterpoint to the two sympathetic reporters, “La Commune” features reports from a mainstream television reporter who has all the unctuously obnoxious qualities of a Jim Lehrer or a Brian Williams. Thinly disguised as “objective” journalism, the reports are dripping with the kind of class hatred found in media coverage of Hugo Chavez’s “Bush/Devil” speech to the United Nations.
Back in 1871, the Paris Commune was greeted with the same kind of outrage that Daniel Ortega encountered in the 1980s (and still does today, despite his political retreat) and Hugo Chavez meets today. Here is what the New York Times said on May 25, 1871:
Its friends claim that “the bloody vengeance of the Monarchists” will not blot out the Commune from the memory of the future. This is perfectly true. It has gained during the last two days an ignominy so colossal that future generations will be compelled to ransack the records of Mohammedan fanaticism for its parallel. Its sins against civilization are manifest, its sins against liberty will shortly be made equally apparent. The cause of municipal freedom has received for the present generation the stamp of insane license.
The cast of “La Commune” consists entirely of 200 non-professionals drawn from Paris and its suburbs, including a number of undocumented workers from North Africa. Before filming started, they read background material on the Paris Commune and thought about its relevance to their lives and to contemporary society. A number of them are interviewed in the excellent documentary on the film, including an Algerian who lives in the suburbs that exploded in anger last year over joblessness and neglect. “La Commune” is filled with truly revelatory historical details, including the way in which the reactionary Versailles government dispatched the same army against a revolt in Algeria immediately after it had vanquished the Commune. Although the jailed Communards (those who did not face the firing squad) received amnesty in 1880, the Berbers remained imprisoned on New Caledonia.
“La Commune” has a distinct look and feel that is much different from what you might be accustomed to. All of the action takes place indoors in an abandoned factory leased for the occasion. Although the sets give a reasonable approximation of the 11th arrondissement, a working class bastion, they serve more as they would in a theater than in a film. Most of the verisimilitude stems from the remarkable ability of the nonprofessional actors to appear like the Communards through remarkable wardrobe choices. With their ordinary-looking if not rough-hewn faces filmed in black-and-white by hand-held cameras, they have the same vividness as 19th century photographs.
In contrast to more the recent period when the left has tried to reconcile itself to religion, usually through the medium of “liberation theology”, “La Commune” gives no quarter to the Catholic Church, which is depicted as a source of blind reaction, just as it was in the Spanish Civil War and other landmark struggles. Women, who play a decisive role and in the historical Commune, give the nuns and priests frequent tongue-lashings.
Since the Paris Commune was the first government in history to give women the vote, it was inevitable that women volunteered to fight on the barricades to protect this freedom and others. The film portrays the activities of the Woman’s Union, which pressed for women’s rights within the general emancipatory framework in a fashion reminiscent of “Salt of the Earth.”
The “La Commune” DVD package includes a 78 minute documentary on the making of the film by Geoff Bowie titled “The Universal Clock: the Resistance of Peter Watkins” that makes clear how much the making of the film was in the spirit of resistance that it depicted. Watkins made this film in the same way that the Communards made barricades, as a conscious act in defense of an alternative society. In a world grown increasingly commercial and culturally dominated by Hollywood, he made a film that championed history’s working class martyrs and the act of pure artistic creation itself.
The universal clock is a reference to the standard 47 minute documentary that is marketed to television stations around the world to fill an hour of commercial programming (and increasingly nonprofit stations as well.) Bowie films some particularly odious figures at a television production conference peddling their wares. After representative from the Discovery Network brags that their shows can be slotted in anywhere in the world, we cannot help but think of what drove French farmer Jose Bove to burn down a McDonald’s the same year that “La Commune” was being made.
After initial frustration in getting funding for “La Commune,” Watkins eventually hooked up with La Sept ARTE, a French television company willing to take risks–but unfortunately only up to a point. When the series was finally aired, the climax of the film was scheduled for 3:30 in the morning.
On Peter Watkins’s website, he conveys the thinking of “universal clock” purveyors:
Some people can make the universal clock sing at 47 minutes … others can’t. It’s perfectly possible to do the 100 Years War in 5, 10, 20 or 47 minutes … the depth of information value is not about duration, it’s about the anticipated expectation of the audience.
Some filmmakers say this is my work and I want it to stay that way. That is their right and we respect that right. Those are the films we don’t buy and those are the films we don’t transmit.
What is so disgusting – on top of everything else – is the use by TV executives of the word ‘respect’! These people have absolutely zero respect – for filmmakers or for the public. ‘Respect’ for work they marginalize, and for the public on whose behalf they make their decisions, is contempt and ridicule of the highest order.
This is absolute fascism at work, and anyone who still doubts the direct links between the contemporary MAVM [mass audiovisual media] and globalization in all its worst aspects, should carefully reflect on what is happening.
The MAVM dogma on length and form is not only GLOBALIST because of its application, but also because it directly contributes to loss of history, to the increase of hierarchical forces sweeping through society, and to a growing passive acceptance of the global economy. Without time or space to reflect, formulate questions, integrate memory and feelings into the daily experience of receiving the mass media we are lost, and history becomes dead. Time and sustained process are crucial for counteracting the frenetically fragmented and abbreviated language form of the MAVM.
“La Commune” is now available from Netflix and your better video stores. Although I urge everybody to rent it and to advise their friends to rent it as well, I particularly recommend it to the activist left. This film could serve as the anchor for a weekly series of classes on socialism. It not only dramatizes the first working class revolution in history but points in the direction of our future success in the face of obvious difficulties. If we cannot begin to unite on a class basis starting now, then the class enemy will always have the upper hand. Our survival as working people and the survival of the planet depends on it.
Peter Watkins website: http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins