Films as Lips and Teeth to Bite With: Godard at Cannes, at the ZAD, and Online
The 1968 International Film Festival of Cannes fell right in the middle of one of the most turbulent periods in French 20th-century history. Fifty years later, whilst claiming to celebrate the “national” spirit of May ’68, President Emmanuel Macron threatens to destroy its residual legacy through neoliberal policies, labor reforms, and harsh new immigration laws. The Cannes of 2018 also emerges in the context of months of public sector strikes and popular demonstrations, as well as a cultural fight: Who will get to tell the story of May ’68? Who will write history? And what does a real or fake film by Jean-Luc Godard have to do with it?
On May 17th, 2018, Le Monde published an open letter calling for people in the film industry to defend the ZAD. (Short for “Zone to Defend,” the ZAD is 3,700 acres of fields, woodland, and rare wildlife near the village of Notre-Dames-des-Landes, in the west of France which has been protested against by agricultural workers since 1974 and occupied by them and others since 2009.) The letter’s publication coincided with a second round of violent evictions in the zone, and was signed by over 250 filmmakers, producers, actors, and critics, including Pedro Costa, Philippe Garrel, and Aki Kaurismäki. A month before, on the 9th of April 2018 at 3am, the first round of two weeks of extremely violent clearances started. Against the zone’s several hundred occupants was the brute force of 2,500 gendarmes, over 3,000 grenades and 8,000 tear gas bombs, police tanks, a helicopter with an infrared camera, and a drone. During the eviction, Maxime Peugeot, a twenty-one year old student had his hand blown off by a police stun grenade, the same kind which killed another activist, Remi Fraisse, in 2014. Writer and Professor Emeritus at NYU Kristin Ross, interviewed on French cable television on 16 April 2018, expressed her shock: “This is war equipment, going in to a tiny little area with a few hundred people.”1
The open letter responds to the short film Vent d’ouest (or Wind from the West), purportedly by the celebrated Swiss-French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, which was first released in the French online weekly journal lundi.am a week earlier. “Sensitive to both the current political situation and to the reminder of the commitments of his youth,” the journal claimed, “[Godard] has undertaken the task, for the opening of Cannes, of making a five-minute short film on the ZAD and the state of the world.”
Vent d’ouest is characteristic—or a very good pastiche of—Godard’s work, enigmatic in the way it plays on both the history of moving images and the urgent contemporary situation of the evictions. The film-essay splices together footage appropriated from the aforementioned helicopter/drone complex, extracts from Soviet and ’68 workers’ films, paintings (In Bed, The Kiss by Toulouse-Lautrec and Saturn Devouring his Son by Goya), photographs (of guerrillas from the Assyrian independence struggle), and sound mined from individuals’ videos of the evictions. Throughout these montaged images and films are Godard’s signature title cards which trace the film’s basic dialectical inversion in a play on the 1968 slogan, Sous les Pavés la Plage: “Under the Image Technique” and “Under Technique the Image.”
Throughout the film an almost oracular, older voice elaborates a slightly mystical history of technique, manual labour, and cinema. Over helicopter footage from the 9th of April that shows wooden structures and cabins on the ZAD being destroyed by a police tank, the voiceover begins: “In another time, there were only filmmakers. We didn’t speak of technicians. Méliès, Thalberg, Grémillon. The hands of Soviet women film-editors, like those of the workers of Rhodia, made the exception where the rule was established.” While the filmmakers mentioned are also decidedly innovators in the technique of early cinema, our attention is drawn to the collective and manual aspects of filmmaking in the form of the hands that cut film—or, in the case of the Rhodiacéta workers, the hands that made films of their own strike. Here, we learn, the intransigent hands that affirm the technical work of filmmaking as cinema are no longer an exception. As the helicopter’s pixelated shot of the police tank collapsing the wooden structure like a house of cards continues to play in slow motion, the voiceover rambles, wearily: “Today it’s the reign of technicians. Technicians of the . . . audiovisual, of the gendarmerie.” In a dialectical movement typical of Godard—is he talking about cinema? is he talking about politics?—this reflection on the history of the cinema rebounds upon forms of state control: now that there are no more filmmakers, it is drones and the gendarmerie that make images.
Technicians have appropriated not only “Technique,” but images as well. The footage of collapsing structures on the ZAD, of course, come from the helicopter and drone cameras hovering above the zone. They may be considered stolen images in the sense suggested by the weary voiceover, over an image of In Bed, The Kiss a few minutes later: “Industry and its machines have always generated their own music. The images and sounds emitted by life, stolen, retransmitted by agony and destined for death, in the structures of death.” Industry (“Technique”) transforms stolen images and sounds into death. These stolen images are thus stolen twice: first, as simple images, “détourned” (or indeed produced) as surveillance; second, by the film itself, re-transformed to illuminate the forces at work in the production of the image and after it. The image as used here works against itself. This kind of image reversal seems to be what is demanded at the film’s end when the voiceover asks its general viewer to “Reverse the trajectory, come back to life from death, do away with agony.”
Considering its strategic release the week of the Cannes Film Festival, one could suggest the film responds to another open letter, this one by a collective of production assistants who wrote to Godard when his film, Le Livre d’Image, was selected at the festival this year. The letter reminds Godard of his involvement in the disruption of Cannes in ’68 and asks him to “Zbeulifier”(argot for “turn upside down,” deriving from the arabic word zbèl) the festival. Playing on the movement’s trademark slogan, “ZAD PARTOUT,” the letter asks Godard to create a ZAD at Cannes, and to block the famous red-carpeted Palais. Given that even the neologism Zone à Défendre (Zone to defend) is a kind of occupation—a détournement of the government planning permission term “zone d’aménagement différé” (zone to develop)—this would not seem inappropriate.
At the May ’68 Cannes, Godard, to an audience that included Miloš Forman, François Truffaut, and Louis Malle, famously declared, “I speak to you of solidarity with students and workers, and you talk to me about tracking shots and close ups! You’re all idiots!” In a major moment in the politicization of French cinema, Godard insists on the violent invasion of the Palais by the streets outside. Here, again, he plays on the relation between the cinematic image and the political situation at large: his reference to the close up reveals the institutions’ lack of a wider perspective that would look outside of itself, or of a tracking shot that would actually keep up to date with contemporary (social) movements.
Given Godard’s legendary performance—one of several in his long history of appearances at the festival—the French press received Godard’s “new film,” Vent d’ouest, with great enthusiasm, bewilderment, and curiosity. Among the biggest believers were Cahiers du Cinéma, Le Monde, and Les Inrockuptibles. Libération, for example, wrote excitedly about the film as a “good old cinétract with Papa,” and a “magnificent five minutes” of “untimely interference” in the stagnant Cannes 2018, declaring that the “funereal lyricism” of the text and its assembly of images revealed the “stamp” of Godard.
Within days however, Godard’s producer, cinematographer, sound engineer and editor, Fabrice Aragno, reported in a tweet that the film was a fake. Mediapart, the French paper famous for its tenacious investigative methods, and monopoly on leaks, published an article with the “real names” of the filmmakers. This was swiftly retracted and replaced with the mysterious claim that the film was made “by a collective.” Total confusion in the cinema world: was it a canular, a fake? Embarrassed, Cahiers du Cinéma quickly deleted its Facebook post about the film, but others continued to believe: after all, in 2014 and 2015, the inscrutable filmmaker discreetly released two films on YouTube.2
The next day, following this intriguing debacle and having refused to appear at Cannes, Godard appeared at his press conference via FaceTime.3 In a striking mise-en-abyme, the television network Canal+ filmed international journalists with iPhones who, in turn, filmed the screen of another iPhone displaying Godard’s image as he spoke of … images. About five minutes in, a journalist presses him: “How do you feel, coming back to Cannes, fifty years on from 1968?” He speaks off topic. She insists: “And May ’68?” Godard, as if in a trance, in a quavering voice, the frame of his iPhone also trembling, enunciates:
About May ’68? It’s something pleasant, you know. I think, once, my films had 100,000 viewers. And then, all at once, a lot fewer. And so I think perhaps in the whole world in 50 or 100 years, they’ll have 100,000 again. And this 100,000 came to be the number of young people who were at the death, the death of Pierre Overney. And there you go, what I remember of ’68. And of Gilles Tautin as well. And today the Zadists. There you go. Thank you.
With this string of elliptically collected reflections, Godard collapses the declining viewing public for his films—which began around the end of his “new wave” period in ’67 with the films La Chinoise and Weekend, and the beginning of his “militant period” in ’68—with a public connected to the death of Pierre Overney, a young activist and Maoist who, while on strike outside the Renault factory in Paris that he had been fired from, was shot dead by a security guard in 1972. Gilles Tautin, similarly, was a high school student from outside of Paris, who, at a demonstration in 1968 with and in support of the strikers of a Renault factory, was chased into the Seine by police where he drowned. Is the 100,000-strong public that mourned these deaths the same one that fled the cinema in the wake of ’68? Or is it that, before ’68, to be young was going to New Wave movies, and afterwards it was going to funerals for people killed on picket lines? Apart from Tautin, the events and movements that Godard conjures through his own FaceTime close-up are all events surrounding May ’68: they indicate changes in experience that happened through May ’68 rather than celebrating or isolating the month itself. Godard’s next phrase, “And today the Zadists,” follows this anachronism. Are the Zadists what Godard remembers of ’68? Is ’68 what Godard remembers of the Zadists? It’s hard to draw definite conclusions from his sequential and wavering memories here, but certainly a lineage is drawn. In any case what he remembers of ’68 is not what the journalist wanted to know. It has nothing to do with Cannes.
As Godard suggests here, May ’68 is also now a question of cultural memory. In their open letter, the Cinéastes avec la Zad draw on this idea and pull it in two directions. On the one hand, they write, to defend the ZAD is to defend the memory of ’68 against its “petrification” in museum cases, and on the other, it is to defend the contemporary struggles for the civil rights of migrants, against austerity measures, and against police violence in contemporary France today. This concerns Macron and French cultural institutions in as much as it rejects the attempt to recuperate and absorb the memory of ’68 through official state conferences, countless exhibitions, talks, and parties. And it concerns Macron because it is against his neoliberal policies and authoritarianism that people are protesting. And why does Macron want to evict the ZAD anyway? As Kristin Ross states: “I think it’s a kind of show of force on the part of Macron. The strong state. It strikes me as highly authoritarian: there was no necessity for this.”
The writers of the open letter play with the idea of the false/true film, saying from the get-go that whether or not the film was Godard’s work matters “very little” to them. Embracing his (Brechtian) text, “What is to be done?,” first published in translation in English in 1970, they begin their argument with a citation:
- We must make political films.
- We must make films politically.
The authors write that the truth of the (possibly fake) film they have heard lies in the call to support the ZAD. They go on to defend the ZAD for its “imaginary” and “experimental” character, linking the zone more firmly to the specific prerogatives and imperatives of cinema. Ross comments that, through the process of fighting against the airport, the Zadists found out what they were for: experimental and collective ways of farming and living: “The state was forced to back down because of the tenacious opposition of a very eclectic group of people… The state has no plans for this land. They aren’t going to build the airport, and instead they are trying to take it from the people that managed to protect it for all these years.”
Following Ross’s idea of experimentation, the open letter cites a final, surreal, and unusual phrase of Godard’s: “36. To carry out 2 is to use images and sounds as lips and teeth to bite with.” Thus, the writers “zbeuilifient” the order of bodies and senses: “[Let’s] position ourselves with our eyes, look with our feet. . . . We, filmmakers, call on ourselves to bite, to film, and to defend this territory.”