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May ‘68 in French cinema, Its History And Relevance

By Julien Camy

May '68 is not only a date; it’s also an historical fact. May '68 is a period in which the society began moving to a new way of life and of thought. In cinema, it’s difficult to point to a precise period of the start and finish. It would be too easy to decide that May '68 in cinema would be movies shot during May '68 and with May 68’s subjects. We must see these events in the societal analysis to understand the May ‘68 phenomena in cinema. Why did it happen and what happens after? Cinema is often the simple reflect of an unconscious yet a development that is not already concretely expressed.

This unconscious period was on air before May '68 and hid some diamonds sometimes more interesting than the simple expression of May '68 during the precise period. This “flash-forward expression” is more complicated to analyse and directors-artists have to be smart to break the rigid codes and taboos of society without interdiction.

Before May ‘68.
Art, and cinema particularly, have this premonitory capacity. However, May ‘68 events were a concrete manifestation of the contemporary reject of a social system in France. But in art, at the end of the fifties and in the early sixties, there were expressions of these revolutionary sentiments. In France, at the end of the fifties in the cinema industry, new artist were coming to the stage. They were not learning the art from school but in cinema theatre; it was the so-called “Nouvelle Vague”, a New Wave of cinema. The famous directors are François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol... They brought a new way of shooting (in the street with very light cameras), a new style of writing (more close of the common life), and new heroes (people like everybody). It was one of the first expressions of a revolt against the society and against the cinema’s representation of it. They wanted to show in their films people from the middle class. The movies (Les 400 coups, Les Cousin) expressed the grief of youth and their frustrations. In the Jean-Luc Godard’s movie (A Bout de souffle, Pierrot le fou), it was a deliberate desire of freedom from the social behaviour and from the cinematographic language.

But this movement was common all around the world with other filmography. In England, the “Young Angry men” lead by Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson tried to put on screen low and middle class of the English society. They wanted to break the “daddy’s cinema” with some films like Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner or This Sporting Life. In Japan also, there was a New Wave with directors like Nagisa Oshima or Kiju Yoshida and the themes were quite similar in all this movies despite they don’t know about their works each other.

During May 68.
During the May ’68 in France, there were a lot of experimental movies, a lot of workers and student interviews. Most of the films are documentary, which expressed the political and social point of view of a social and working class. It was the first time that workers have a window of expression through film. Political words grabbed the screen like street voices that find a concrete and final artistic expression. This social and artistic victory was very important.

But more precisely, May ‘68 expresses itself in different way in French Cinema during this period. It can also be seen in a few examples:

First, documentary about the movement with discussion walks and fights against the policemen. It could be seen in Grands soirs et petits matins; a documentary shot by the very famous artist William Klein; it’s one of the most interesting testimony on the May ‘68 events and atmosphere. It’s one hour and a half in the heart of the movement in Paris in May ‘68. William Klein shows the fight in the streets but also the discussion between people. Because May 68 in France was very important time to get the people to connect to with each other in the streets and speak together. It was a period of a frankly speaking. Everyone talked to everyone else with respect.

There was also Jean-Pierre Thorn who brought camera into the factory and gave the workers the possibility to express their thoughts, their feelings and their reflections. In this way, the Medvekin group was very active. From 1967 to 1974, these groups will produce, shoot and distribute films with very leftist political content. They were created under the production of Chris Marker. These films were an expression of insurrection against the old order and dreams about an accomplished meeting between intellectuals and workers. There was a belief to change the world through the power of cinema. To continue the demonstration that cinema sometimes (often) are in advance, the projection of the first Medvekin group was April ‘68! One month before the events. If the first movie, À bientôt, j’espère, is still a militant movie on the working conditions, the second one Classe de lutte, is already a working militant movie. This creative experimentation was a free association where directors were simple workers in collaboration with those that they were filming.

Chris Marker, after 1974, was not finished with May ‘68. He directedLe fond de l’air est rouge in 1977. This documentary talks about all the movement of revolution around the whole world between 1967 to 1977. The form of the film plays on a very personal point of view and a classical doc’ which explains very well with that dream and the disillusion. The goal of Marker is to show the beauty of the revolt in Vietnam, with Che Guevara, in Paris during May ‘68, in Czechoslovakia, in China abd with Allende in Chile…

During this period all the world was connected. In France, Che Guevara was becoming a myth.

After that, there was a May ‘68 generation and the French director Romain Goupil was one of them. He shot a lot of movies about the disillusionment of May ‘68 and all his ideals disappearing little by little. His famous one is called Mourir à trente ans (Die at thirty) and use stock-shots of the William Klein documentary Grands soirs et petits matins. He won the Camera d’or in Cannes in 1984

After May ‘68, the French society moved to not only a social but also sexual liberation. This two characteristic are very well expressed in Claude Faraldo movies. Bof antomie d’un livreur released in 1971, which is one of his most representative. The story was about a simple worker brought into very high society consideration of sexual freedom and property. And it doesn’t work very well. In the pornography movie, there were also evolutions. Women began to take power from men. It was so important that there was a French pornography-filmography called the “golden age” which is very interesting for social-analyse.

So, as we can see, May ‘68 will never finished. We are still writing about it and where this exciting period could go. It was a period of an open society. In cinema, it was a period where everything was possible and where all the social-classes have tried to create together. Since, I think, it will never happen again since it was such a beautiful fusion, full of utopia.

Julien Camy