La Commune (Paris, 1871) (M+ Screenings: Beneath the Pavement)
Movie Name: La Commune (Paris, 1871)
Language: French(English subtitle)
Director: Peter Watkins
With a twenty-five-minute intermission
Story: The result of over sixteen months of intense research and preparation, and with the participation of over two hundred non-professional actors, Peter Watkins’s extraordinary La Commune (Paris, 1871) intentionally defies conventional definition. This almost six-hour film, shot chronologically over the course of two weeks, presents the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871, in which a radical, revolutionary government made up of socialist collectives briefly held power for sixty-three days in Paris following France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. Although the Paris Commune ended in May 1871, when over fifteen thousand people were killed by the French army in what came to be known as la semaine sanglante (‘the Bloody Week’), it has since had a profound influence on leftist revolutions around the world.
Watkins’s film follows the rise and fall of the Commune in a theatricalised space, where events unfold and interviews and general coverage are conducted by television crews from opposing camps: Télévision Versaillaise, representing the French government; and Télévision Communale, representing the Paris Commune. In long, unedited sequences, the camera moves fluidly within the revolutionary space, as people tell their stories directly to the camera; the television crews provide reportage in the style of the evening news; and intertitles and period photographs are spread throughout to explain intervening events. While they give context and cause for the events unfolding on- and off-screen, these elements can also be considered as a critique of the formal strictures of mass media. They offer possible avenues in which the act of telling stories on-screen can be expanded in a way that welcomes, and even urges, active viewer interpretation.
Rather than merely representing history, La Commune transcends conventional cinematic practice in order to uncover and activate its participatory potential. During extensive discussions before the shoot, Watkins worked with participants—who came from different socio-economic, professional, and regional backgrounds, and held different political views—to elicit their reflections on the 1871 events. This freely informed the dialogue the participants would then prepare for their own roles, regardless of whether they played a Versaillais or a Communard. Integrating multiple voices, humanising opposing views, and expanding media practices are all crucial aspects of La Commune and, as with the other works in this M+ Screenings programme, they reimagine moving image as a crucial, engaged, and radicalising thrust of history.
Peter Watkins (British, born 1935) is a pioneer of the docudrama form. His films wrestle with topics that spur intense social debate and often reveal a critical perspective on the hegemony of mass audiovisual media practices. He is known for works such as The War Game (1966), a film banned from television for over twenty years that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature; Edvard Munch (1973), a film which Ingmar Bergman called a work by ‘a genius’; and the fourteen-and-a-half hour film The Journey (1987), a survey of life around the world in the nuclear age.