Commune. Paris 1871 is
described as an "UFO in the audiovisual landscape", a film that "falls out
of the frame". The subject matter: the workers'
revolution of 1871 in Paris ending with a bloodbath –
30,000 Communards dead.
The title of my essay quotes the director Peter Watkins.
He describes La
Commune as a process moving outside the boundaries
of the framework – in film language: the frame. How
does La Commune
show the actions of a crowd, how does the film give this
crowd of workers a form, and how is taking action (reflection
and action) possible beyond this representation? Watkins'
question and mine as well is: Can the principles of
collectivity and self-organization, but also the
contradictoriness of the Commune be suitably represented?
A film grew out of this question about suitable
representation, which leaves behind the traditional
framework of production and reception at three levels:
at the level of form, at the level of the production
process, and at the level of distribution and
Commune was supported by
Arte and the Paris Musee d'Orsay. Although it was originally
planned to produce a 35 mm version from the 16 mm negative
for the cinema, there was not enough money to do so,
because Arte did not uphold the agreement to release
and distribute a video edition, and the film, being
345 minutes long, found neither producer nor distributor.
The film was shot in an empty factory building in June
1999 over 13 days, following the chronological sequence
of events. Neon lights were mounted on the ceiling of
the building providing even lighting. This made lamps
on the floor superfluous, camera and sound technicians
could move freely through the crowd. The set, a series
of interconnecting spaces, represents the 11th Arrondissement
of Paris, a center of revolutionary activity during
the Commune as a workers' district. On the one hand,
it is very faithful to detail and "realistically"
designed, but the boundaries of the illusion remain
visible at the same time. Exterior spaces are declared
interior spaces, the set switches constantly between
"the illusion" of the film and "the reality"
of the protagonists.
Over 220 people from
in and around Paris took part, 60% of them without acting
experience, including unemployed people, Sans-Papiers
from Algeria and Morocco, most of them from various
leftist connection, but also people from the right-wing
To begin with, the participants spent a year researching
the history and their own roles – with support from
the film's research team.
After this, there were further discussions in groups
about the backgrounds and motives of the roles and about
parallels between the political situation then and now.
Debates were continued during the thirteen days of shooting:
among the participants, with Watkins and the team, about
what one would say, how one could feel, how to react
to historical and current political events. The results
of these exchanges were finally improvised in front
of the camera.
a documentary about the making of La
Commune, shows Watkins instructing the right-wing
historian Foucart: "You don't have to search for
a position, I want you to be yourself." But who
is he "himself"? I wonder how differently
Watkins assesses so-called "learning from history"
for left and right-wing participants
(was it the case that the former found and changed their
positions in long discussions, while the latter were
simply supposed to "be themselves"?), but
I also wonder about what the exchange between left and
right-wing groups was like during the production process.
Universal Clock also shows Watkins giving a participant explicit instructions
to look into the camera: "... it's not natural
otherwise." The question arises again as to his
– and also our – ideas of "authentic" behavior
in front of a camera. Which form may improvisation by
amateurs have? Which images do we regard as "natural"
and "improvised"? Which images do we see in
There is no "heroic
figure". The heroine is a crowd of people with
their strengths and contradictions. Long camera pans
from group to group shot with a wide-angle lens, always
with more than three people in the picture, fish out
single discussions from the crowd and the constant noise
level and tumult – latently and permanently representing
the crowd. This form conveys a social dynamic, because
contrary to close-ups representing the individuality
of heroes and heroines, we see the hope of a crowd,
their fears, anger, debates, differences, conflicts
– and movements between all these states. La
Commune shows less action than emotional states
and reflection against the background of political struggles.
strategy of integrating two television teams in the
plot that plays over fifty years before the invention
of television raises the question of a changed, emancipatory
role of media. There is the state, one-dimensional Versailles
TV with interviews with experts and ideological commentaries,
and there is the Commune TV, where mainly Communards
speak, but also bourgeois and clergy. The two TV teams
play a central role in structuring the film around its
"collective protagonist" (the crowd), because
it is the television reports that join the single scenes
together, rather than a linear, ordered plot. Events
are often interrupted by journalists conducting interviews
with participants. In part, it is historical figures
that have a chance to speak, but mostly it is the anonymous
crowd of workers; the perspective is that of "history"
The film shows the
crowd, often associated with "disorder" in
the negative sense, as a desiring, diversely constituted
power. A general in the government army says in La
Commune: "This is total disorder. The Commune
spreads disorder, it's that simple. We restore order.
The French understand that. No people in the world wants
to live in disorder. We guarantee order." The film
thus represents an image of dis-order that eludes this
order, a space of self-determined agency and negotiation.
"We disagree, that is bad. No, it's good, that
is said in Bertolt Brecht's play The
Days of the Commune. Watkins' film gives this movement
a fitting form – an appropriate process of creation,
which is in turn closely interwoven with issues of form.
In Brecht's epic
theater, alienation effects produce "suspensions"
intended to provide space for reflection for the audience
and the performers.
And the reflection is expressed (in the best case),
according to Brecht, as "debates", "responsible
decisions", "attempts at well-founded positions".
represents the search for an opinion and the search
for a suitable language for it. It does so not at the
level of form, but rather at the level
of the activities of the protagonists. Three mutually
overlapping phases can be distinguished in the entire
production process: before the filming, during it and
afterward. The most important aspect of the before phase
was asking the protagonists to take part in researching
a key event from their own history. In other words,
it is a matter of writing history, of language, and
of the ability to take action. The protagonists largely
developed their "parole"
themselves. The entire film revolves around a collective
search for a language that is able to convey their own
wishes and demands. Clothed in historical garb, the
protagonists speak about their own situation and develop
common strategies for action.
The film offers them a platform for developing new feelings
and attitudes, thinking new thoughts, and trying out
language/thinking and taking action as one
action. Towards the end of the film, a protagonist formulates
what distinguishes participation in La
Commune from participation in a conventional film
in her view: "In the film you are on .... the barricades
and you are mixed up in a battle, in a ... physical
battle. As soon as the camera comes and you have to
speak, it is difficult, because thinking has to correspond
to doing. There is a possibility for change in this
kind of work. (...) The transformation depends mostly
on whether we succeed in harmonizing our thinking and
actions and fighting for our ideals. And that does not
necessarily have to be with physical violence."
Patrick Murphy, Watkins' biographer, stated rather emotionally:
"Watkins' cast do not act in the normal sense of the word – they become."
Towards the end of
the film, the actions of the protagonists become increasingly
free, not only in the interviews with journalists, but
also in long discussions among themselves. They discuss
social and economic inequalities today and the question
of help. Is it not better to investigate the structures
of violence and change them, than to think about help
"I have used my own work," writes Watkins,
"to demonstrate the possibilities for working with
the public to develop alternative media processes, in
order to change the existing system."
In the film, a protagonist says, "She remains a
bourgeoise, who wants to help the poor. That is no way
to make a revolution." The point is obviously the
need for changing social structures, not a need for
help. On this, Brecht wrote: "If violence no longer
dominates, there is no more need for help. Therefore,
you should not demand help, but get rid of violence.
Help and violence form a whole. And the whole must be
even within the ranks of those leading protest against
globalization," says Watkins, criticizing the positions
of video activists that are often uncritical of media
in his opinion, "many people apparently cannot
identify the media as being a crucial part of the problem!
More precisely, they appear reluctant to debate media
form and process, or interactive communication with
the public; they continue, instead, to produce monoform
videos and films about their protest work, and the problems of globalization."
For him, the key is found in activating the crowd in
the context of image production as well: "Individuals
and community groups can and should play a direct role
in deciding and creating what they see via the audiovisual
The almost six-hour
action of the film repeatedly involves creating a space
of one's own, a voice of one's own, images of one's
own: a space for the "Union des Femmes" in
the city hall, a separate newspaper for women, the Communards'
own television. "We will no longer be silent,"
it is said. "We want to be able to criticize."
The Commune television broadcast is accordingly entitled:
"Commune Television. Everyone is talking about
the Commune". With the rise of representative politics
within the Commune, however, the familiar problems of
filmic representation also occur. For instance, journalists
in the film have to discuss whether they should mention
the Commune's idea of setting up a welfare committee
in their broadcast (and thus shifting the Commune into
a negative light) or not.
In 1871 the Commune
successively excluded single positions and established
hierarchies: first it was decided to hold meetings behind
closed doors, then in the course of impending defeat,
there was spying on "suspicious" persons,
finally newspapers critical of the Commune were forbidden,
and newspapers sympathizing with the Commune spread
false information. "We want no authority that has
all the power," says a woman in the film to the
two reporters from Commune TV. "You are the only
medium that reaches illiterate people, you are indispensable,
people believe everything you say. We don't want that
any longer! This permanent opposition must stop: Hierarchy
is assailed with power and vice versa; and the fighting
will go on and on until one is at the very top to set
up the next dictatorship. Everything remains as it was."
For several years now, hundreds of people are regularly
seen at anti-globalization demos with video cameras,
documenting the events, filming police assaults and
uploading the images to the Internet, where they are
accessible to everyone. At one level, a democratization
of the medium is taking place here. At the level of
the definition of images, though, everything still remains
the same: the fight for images that are supposed to
tell "the truth", "the story".
repeatedly raises the question of the extent to which
filming can be a revolutionary action. How important
is the representation of the revolution? Can "watching"
be more than voyeurism? "I'm sick of you standing
around here and filming all the time and you don't even
give a damn! Whether it's film or reality, you just
stare! I want to fight against that!" screams a
woman on the barricades. The resistance ultimately turns
against Watkins himself. The whole film is shot with
a single camera, which – unlike the interviewing journalists
– never comes into the picture. The camera/the director
is the blind spot of the film: There is much to debate, but what was not debated
was the hierarchy between director and protagonists.
They objected to, among other things, Watkins' method
of sequence shots: the camera moves for ten minutes
from one group to another, and as soon as the camera
is there, it needs articulation at all costs. Some found
themselves frustrated by the practice of having a microphone
held in front of their mouths and taken away again faster
than they wanted. In this context, the "Union des
Femmes" demanded a half-hour discussion for themselves
without cuts and with all the protagonists in the picture,
and Watkins agreed to this: the form of the film developed
from its production process, which enabled the protagonists
to formulate their situation and tackle self-determined
changes. This also affected the length of the film (six
hours instead of two). However, Watkins did not agree
to the more expansive request of some of the protagonists
of merging their ideas of "direct public involvement"
into a collective film process and finishing shooting
the film together. "I remain anchored in traditionally
hierarchical practices. (...) I believe," said
Watkins about the problematic issue of hierarchy, "that
gives examples of both, egocentric and open, pluralistic
forms. It is the role of La Commune to pose these issues for open discussion on a community,
workplace, classroom level."
Aside from form and
production process, it is primarily the alternative
idea of distribution and presentation that goes well
beyond the "rectangular frame".
"... the street
belongs to us. This street belongs to us," screams
a protagonist in La Commune. The communication of the participants among themselves
led to the association Le
Rebond pour la Commune. As Le
Rebond defines its objectives on the website: "Seeing
the difficulties which a film of such scope encounters,
the insidious censoring by Arte on TV and their refusal
to distribute the film on video, the refusal of French
film distributors to release the film asks questions
of our capacity to prolong and develop the process of
resistance and participation. This is why our association
sets itself the objective to initiate collective projects
and debates around the questions which La
Commune raises for us: To create free speech, with
or without the institutions."
The protagonists still remained in contact after the
shooting was finished; through their website they distribute
videos and DVDs, press material, books, texts on the
film, a teaching guide in English and French for possible
screenings at schools, and an exhibition on the film
with ten panels. In conjunction with extensive presentation
tours all the way to Africa and South America, but also
throughout Europe, Le Rebond organizes discussions and
workshops (with historians from the research team, participants,
production assistants, and others). The focus of the
group's activities is thus not only on the distribution
of the film: it is most of all a matter of publicizing
and expanding the process beyond the product.
and distribution process generate for both participants
and recipients spaces of reflection, language and action,
which reflect on and potentially change the traditional
hierarchical structures of filmic production and political
organization. As Watkins says on his website: "Le
Rebond is undoubtedly the most important ongoing development
in the process of any film I have made – and shows that
it is entirely possible to create processes within the
audiovisual media which can move beyond the limitations
of the rectangular frame."