The best of times, the worst of times? No, the most intense of times, is a better way of describing the year 1968. This is the subject of the intensely facinating new film by João Moreira Salles.
Starting from the amateur films his mother shot at the dramatic outset of the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China in the year 1966, Salles compares and questions the historical record on events in Paris, Prague und Rio de Janiero in those rebellious times. His hypnotic narration also questions his own reading of these historical images: there is always more than one interpretation possible. Much of the material is derived from amatuer/alternative sources, which helps avoid the filters applied by much of the mainstream media. This could be considered “the people’s history of 1968”. But even in those “innocent/objective” amateur sources Salles sees things the filmakers him/herself were not aware of: we think we are filming one thing, when in fact there is something else to discover, that was not intended or overlooked. This is a premise which Harun Farocki often applied in his practice regarding the politics of imagery, and yes, in comments after the premiere at the Berlinale Salles noted Farocki as being one of his main influences in filmmaking.
On her tour of China, Salles’ mother was accompanied by the Red Guard, who offered her tour group red armbands to assure their treatment as first-class tourists in an otherwise classless society. They also received Mao’s famous Red Book. She films children singing/dancing to revolutionary songs, not knowing the text as Salles points out. He – somewhat ironically- translates the slogans plastered on the walls post-factum. His mother is just charmed and impressed at the children’s enthusiasm and grace, fascinated by the strange dignity of an exotic society on a new path. The China footage is all silent, it would have been interesting to actually have heard some acoustic records of those times, but Salles’ focuses on the material as it is, silent and coarse-grained: a minimalistic approach which intensifies concentration on image and text.
João Salles lived with his family in Paris in the sixties. His mother did not film any events there, or at least none that seemed of importance to Salles, who remembers Paris only as dark and narrow streets and courtyards. The Paris sequences are fixated on a relatively short time-frame: the spring of 1968, when his family left to return to Brasil shortly afterwards, sure that revolution and violence were about to break out in France. Strikes by over 5 million workers had paralyzed much of everyday life, although in the end the results were not at all revolutionary. They were important nonetheless, as both Union leaders in Nantes or Daniel Cohn-Bendit conclude: to show that there is another possibility, a life of dignity and not just as a mere consumer. A large part of the film deals with the contradictions and confusion of the youth of France and the workers, suddenly surprised at their own power/importance, and uncertain of how to go forwards. Here, Salles has found moments that are both incredibly humourous as well as profoundly tragic.
When one compares the Chinese revolutionary slogans that Salles translates to the ones that were carefully formulated by the P.R. Parisian activists, the claim to who is the more professional revolutionary seems clear. “The heroic Vietnamese People will defeat the American dogs” or “The Soviet Union will faint with envy at China’s success” all turned out to be true. In contrast, the French rallying cry, “Power to the workers and Students” or the more lyrical “Under the paving stones is the beach” are phrases simply in love with themselves. The disappointment which turned to despair for many of these European youth was also a further symptom of intensity that was ego-based: “the beach” sounds sexier than a “classless society”. Salles humourously elaborates on this paradox with material from Goupil’s “To Die at Thirty” (“Mourir à 30 ans”), that shows French students at age 26 already writing their memoirs.
Salles’ observations are never mocking: he seems to have enormous respect for people immersed in the moment, without fear of the unexpected. The possibily of how things could be completely different. That is why the material showing how both De Gaulle and the Soviet-Czech puppets triumphed over their respective uprisings is so depressingly predictable. These bourgeosie/conservative masses want nothing to change, they are satisfied with the status-quo. Their memoirs interest nobody, whether written at age 26 or 66. They were immune to the experience of the INTENSE NOW. Salles describes his mother’s own experiences in revolutionary China as something she always returned to, as a precious memory, a nostalgic reflection of how different the world could be, or perhaps how different one’s self in the world could be. The China sequences repeat dreamlike: how is it this woman from a bourgeois background was so charmed by revolutionary Chinese society, yet so untouched by the radical events of Paris 1968, in the city where she lived? When is a memory simple nostalgia, and when is a memory something that changes everything that follows?
A beautiful film on many levels, although one could argue against the Fado music at the film’s end, which has a sentimental effect on an otherwise profound piece of work. But then, this film lives for the moment of the unexpected, even offering a view of the other Mao, writing poetry about the river and flow of time. Perhaps he would have enjoyed sharing a Pastis with Salles’ mother on the banks of the Seine.
12.02.2017 Jan Ralske / immediately after the film’s world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival