La Commune (1871)

film stillThis is a long film and I don’t want to make it longer with an introduction. There are a few very quick points that may provide useful context.

First, about Peter Watkins:  Watkins career has been shaped not only by a commitment to make films that matter but by the reaction to his work from sponsors and the film and media establishment. His negotiations with the BBC over The War Game, a 1966 film which the network commissioned but refused to air because it graphically showed the outcome of a nuclear attack on Britain, made Watkins an exile and turned him into a provocative critic of MAVM (mass audio-visual media). His work includes films on Edvard Munch and August Strindberg;  a fantasy (Punishment Park) about Nixon-era repression of dissent in the U.S.; The Journey, a 14 1/2 hour internationally funded and made film on issues of peace; and in 2000,  La Commune.

Second, about Watkins’ intent in this film: While the French Revolution of 1789 — the overthrow of the monarchy by the bourgeoisie — is celebrated with a national holiday, the struggle of the working class in 1871 to replace a republic dominated by the bourgeoisie with a people’s republic has been suppressed. Although (or because) it is a key event in the history of European class struggle, the story of the commune is left out of French school curricula and ignored by art and mass media alike.

Watkins believes that we desperately need to remember the commune: “In a world where ethics, morality, human collectivity, and commitment (except to opportunism) are considered ‘old fashioned,’ where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm — to be taught even to children — in such a world as this what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world…”

Third,  about Watkins’ unique film making process:

  • the cast (mostly non-professional actors) were asked to do their own research on the commune
  • meanwhile a research team including scholars spent over a year studying historical details
  • later the actors formed groups to research and discuss the background of the people they
    were portraying (the National Guard, the Women’s Union, the Commune, the bourgeoisie opposed to the Commune, etc.)
  • discussion continued over the 13 days of filming. (Note for aficionados: the filming took
    place in an abandoned factory built on the very site where Melies pioneered the motion picture)
  • Watkins shot the scenes in the chronological sequence of the actual historical events — a method intended to give the actors the opportunity to experience and reflect on the events and to develop their characters as their roles unfolded
  • After the film was completed some of the cast formed a collective to promote diffusion and discussion of the film

Finally, about the title:  La Commune (1871).  It is true that 1871 specifies the date of the events covered in the film. However, I think it signifies more than this. In the first place, it distinguishes the Paris Commune of 1871 from the Paris Commune of 1789-92, which played a radical role in the French Revolution. But I think Watkins also intends it to distinguish between those Communes and the next Commune, whenever that comes to pass. Vive la Commune!

This introduction was presented by Jon Garlock at a screening of La Commune on 1 February 2004.

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.