Narboni’s route towards filmmaking would be more circuitous than that of his colleague. Whereas Comolli had progressively turned towards filmmaking since the late 1960s, Narboni’s efforts were focused on teaching. From 1970 on, he maintained a regular appointment at the “experimental” campus located in the Bois de Vincennes (Paris-VIII), established as part of the re-structuring of the French higher education system following the student revolt of 1968. Narboni was involved in the founding of the film studies department at the university—a radical step in French academia at the time—and it was through his teaching activities here that the critic became acquainted with the individuals who would come to make L’Olivier: Ali Akika, Guy Chapouillié, Danièle Dubroux, Serge Le Peron and Dominique Villain. [open endnotes in new window]
The origins of the project came from Akika, an Algerian militant who had travelled to Jordan in 1969 and taken photographic slides for use at activist meetings in France; perceiving the limitations of this method, however, he met Le Peron at Vincennes to discuss the possibility of making a film on the subject (“L’Olivier,” 12). Soon a group of six collaborators had coalesced during the Avignon conference in August 1973—at the same time that Cahiers itself became mired in internecine recriminations. In a trip to Turkey, the collective travelled by car to Lebanon, making contact with Palestinian filmmakers and fedayeen fighters. Two years would pass between this moment and the completion of L’Olivier. The phases of the filmmaking process were coordinated with the demands of the academic calendar. The filmmakers dedicated the 1973-74 school year to archival research and initial contacts with European anti-Zionist activists. July and August of 1974 saw further trips to the Middle East, where the bulk of filming took place. Finally, they used the 1974-75 school year for gathering additional footage in Paris and transforming the eight hours of rushes into the final 85-minute edit.
The impetus to make the film came from two primary considerations. Firstly, of course, there was the political situation in Palestine itself and its resonances for the European far left. The group took up the project in the aftermath not only of the Black September massacres in Jordan in 1970, which decimated the Palestinian resistance movement, but also the hostage-taking at the 1972 Munich Olympics, which unleashed a wave of anti-Arab sentiment in Europe. This context is provided in L’Olivier, but mostly in a discrete prologue that uses television news footage to summarize the prevailing media discourse around the Munich massacres, shown as a counterpoint to the position that the filmmakers aim to relay in the rest of the film.
Additionally, the cinematic context at the time the film influenced the makers. Notably, 1973 saw the release of Claude Lanzmann’s Pourquoi Isräel, a propaganda film justifying the existence of a Zionist state in historical Palestine. While critiquing the film for “completely excluding the Palestinians,” the Vincennes filmmakers were careful to avoid conceiving of their film as a unilateral retort: “We had no wish to remake the Lanzmann in the opposite direction, that is to say, by excluding the Israelis” (“L’Olivier,” 14). Instead, Lanzmann’s work was subject to a cinematic critique, as Narboni explains:
“During the screening of Pourquoi Israel I was haunted the whole time by the insistence of a question absent from the film. [...] This question is quite simply: where am I? [...] What is this place from which I have obtained this frame, and at what price? What power pre-existing my own has permitted it? What new power effects does the place that I occupy authorize, and on whom? This is a question which [...] in all good conscience, Lanzmann does not even glimpse” (15).
The most striking example he gives of this problem in Lanzmann’s film is a long-shot of the Wailing Wall:
“What technical tour de force made it possible? Lanzmann’s genius, the skill of his cameraman? No, or not only. Rather, that of the Israeli administration which, since 1967, cleansed the surrounding Arab neighborhoods, and without which the filmmaker would never have been able to afford himself such a depth of field” (idem.).
The film stands in opposition to the Zionist viewpoint on the Palestine-Israel conflict—summed up, in Dubroux’s view, by then Israeli president Golda Meir’s statement that “the Palestinians do not exist” (“L’Olivier,” 12). Another key aim in making L’Olivier is to provide an alternative to many of the received norms of early 1970s militant filmmaking. This cinema had already been a target for criticism by Narboni and his fellow Cahiers writers during the journal’s Marxist-Leninist period, but the reproofs would change in nature with the journal’s re-alignment after 1973. Whereas the earlier Cahiers called for a “critical de-construction of the system of representation” (Comolli/Narboni, 256) governing both commercial and militant filmmaking, their later interrogation of political cinema would focus on more humbly concrete aspects of cinematic form.
When pressed on the matter by Serge Daney, Narboni admitted that “a certain type of political cinema made since 1968 was no longer possible” specifying that it was the “disdainful insouciance towards formal questions, considered as ‘bourgeois,’ [...] the catechistic tone, the artificial optimism and the denunciative droning of the voiceovers” that rankled in these films (“L’Olivier,” 18).
He noted in particular that a work such as Revolution Until Victory (1973) by the Newsreel group (a New York-based collective founded in 1967 that made militant documentaries and agitational films), despite being a “penetrating, admirably assembled” work, was nonetheless “suffocating, so rapidly did the information, dates, citations pass by” and felt that such an approach only led to “stunted, sterilized” discussions after screenings of the film (24). In contrast, L’Olivier is largely free of a voiceover—which, when it does come, is succinct and softly spoken—and relies mostly on interviews with activists and Palestinians. Care was taken to ground these voices in the context of their day-to-day existence. We thus see lengthy sequences where entire families are interviewed together, and other passages show Palestinians returning to their bombed villages or reminiscing about the olive groves of their childhood.
A key influence on this revamped critique of militant cinema came from a familiar source: Jean-Luc Godard, whose Groupe Dziga Vertov films made between 1969 and 1972 had been held up as exemplary by Cahiers. By 1976, however, he had released Numéro deux (1975) and Ici et ailleurs (1976), and both films had an enormous impact on both the Cahiers group and the Vincennes collective. Ici et ailleurs in particular, taking the Palestine resistance movement for its subject matter, was of obvious resonance for the makers of L’Olivier: Godard had travelled to the Middle East in 1970 with the aim of making a film confidently asserting the imminence of a revolutionary victory for the PLO, only to witness the Black September rout.
|Ici et ailleurs was of immense importance for the L’Olivier filmmakers, in particular the film’s recurrent metaphor of the “sound being too loud” (that is to say, the voiceover dominating the content of the images). The metaphor is here depicted with an image of the volume dial on a stereo system.||Godard’s trauma at having heard fedayeen speak of their impending death, while their voices are overshadowed by the sententious revolutionary rhetoric of their official translator, palpably resonated with the Vincennes group’s own project.|
Five years later, the finished film would instead interrogate many of his earlier presuppositions, not only with regards to the dangers of unmeasured revolutionary optimism but also concerning his own cinematic methods, in particular the deadening effects of a peremptory voiceover determining the manner in which the film’s images should be interpreted by the viewer. The presiding metaphor of Ici et ailleurs that “the sound is too loud” was chillingly exemplified in its concluding passage, in which Palestinian guerrillas criticize their command for leading them to certain death. The images had been captured on film, but Godard only belatedly realized their import during the editing of the film, because the filmmaking team’s official translator had rendered their anxious concerns as blithe revolutionary slogans.
A similar—albeit less historically dramatic—transformation in the conception of L’Olivier occurred during the film’s production process. Le Peron notes that the schematic nature of their initial project, which inscribed the Palestinian struggle into a broader global movement against imperialism (equating the Middle East with events in Chile, Vietnam and other post-colonial countries), came to be rejected. Instead, the filmmakers adopted a framework emphasizing the “specific difficulty of the Palestinian problem” and focusing as much on the daily life of Palestinian families as it does on more directly political matters (“L’Olivier,” 16). Far from veering into a “suspect descriptivism, an ethnological approach,” Narboni viewed this method as the “struggle between a dynamic, ample conception of politics and a fossilized, bureaucratic point of view on the question” (32).
Notably, too, the filmmakers refuse to reduce the issue to that of a national conflict, and much of the first half of the film comprises interviews with Jewish anti-Zionist activists in both Europe and Israel, ranging from young Maoist militants to elderly Jewish Auschwitz survivors. In this sense, one of the totemic images of the film shows two members of the far left group Red Front—one Jewish, the other Arab—led from a prison van into a courthouse by the Israeli police, their legs manacled together. Regardless of nationality, this pregnant image suggests, the Zionist state is ruthless in its repression of those who resist it.
Another, more ambiguous, expression of Arab-Jewish unity was addressed by Narboni. During the shoot, the group interviewed a young Algerian migrant in Gennevilliers who justifies his belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Palestinians and Israelis by inaccurately claiming that Jews were originally descended from the Arab people. Noting the potential “catastrophe” that arises when an interviewee “‘gets it wrong,’ utters false ideas with respect to the line taken by the mini-apparatus constituted by the filmmaking team,” Narboni argues that there are two dominant approaches taken by filmmakers in this situation.
|A totemic image for the political standpoint of the L’Olivier filmmakers: Jewish and Arab members of the Red Front group, shackled together at the legs, are led to an Israeli courthouse for sentencing.||Israeli left-wing anti-Zionists were also given a prominent voice in the film.|
Either they can take a “sociological, objectivist or neutralist approach” and retain the entire sequence out of respect for the “complexity of the real,” or they can adopt a “militant, vigilant” stance that would “censure, redress and rectify” the passage in question either by cutting it entirely or smothering it with the “correct” authority of a voiceover. Against both of these positions, Narboni advocates a strategy that would highlight the “accent of truth” of such a moment (in this case, its prevailing sentiment of international solidarity) by “inscribing this scene in the economy of the film in such a way that this accent is rendered” (“L’Olivier,” 27).
Although the Vincennes group were wary of the premature triumphalism of much militant filmmaking, a cautious optimism is nonetheless discernible in the film, one which comes less from a resolute belief in the inevitability of a victorious revolution and more through a portrayal of the ways in which everyday life has already been transformed by the mass mobilization of the Palestinian people. In particular, the role played by Palestinian woman within the resistance movement was a major concern for the filmmakers. While the film includes a segment showing PLO leader Yasser Arafat addressing a congress of the Union of Palestinian Women, it is the footage depicting the activities of Palestinian women themselves that is of greater interest.
|...a march in Paris to commemorate the death of Mahmoud Hamchari (PLO envoy to France) at the hands of Mossad agents...||...and interviews with French militant farmers, who describe their solidarity with the Palestinian cause through a common sense of belonging to the land, even after being expelled from it by state authorities and the forces of capitalism.|
Often these are the wives or mothers of male fedayeen, but one sequence in particular shows a group of young Palestinian women from a Lebanese camp, probably in their mid-teens, sitting in a circle wearing battle fatigues and holding Kalashnikov rifles. A standard liberal viewpoint could very well decry such a scene as a deplorable example of the use of child soldiers by an unscrupulous armed movement, but the makers of L’Olivier chose to highlight the “accent of truth” in the scene, which comes through both in what the young women say—they speak of their visions of a future, liberated Palestine in paradisiacal terms, despite having never set foot in their homeland—but also in how they say it. Their words are free of the deadening jargon of many militant groups, and, at first hesitant, they soon gain the confidence to give free reign to their reveries. It is almost as if the process of political awakening is taking place before the spectator’s eyes.
Perhaps the most emblematic image of the film, however, is reserved for its conclusion. Here, a guerrilla fighter being treated after suffering injuries from an Israeli attack is lying on a hospital bed, his eyes covered in bandages, a bloodied cloth in his hand, and an intravenous drip attached to his forearm. With perfect lucidity, however, he asserts:
“We thank the progressive forces and peoples throughout the world for their precious support. Zionism disposes of powerful means of propaganda. We need this solidarity to defeat them, for our cause is just.”
The contrast with the forced stridency of the perorations preponderant in militant cinema is stark: here we are presented with an image of a bloodied man speaking with immense physical difficulty, but unbowed in his political determination. He represents, as Chapouillié notes, “the image of a Palestinian people that is wounded but fighting” (“L’Olivier,” 35).
|Yasser Arafat addresses a congress of the Palestinian Union of Women, praising the role of women in the revolutionary struggle.||The wife of a PLO guerrilla describes his torture at the hands of the Israeli authorities.|
|These teenaged fedayeen from a refugee camp in Lebanon speak of their dreams of a future life in a free Palestine.||Later they talk of the rise in political consciousness among Palestinian women as a result of the struggle against Israeli occupation.|
|This boy repeats their sentiment, stating “The land of my country is gold.”||These “lion cubs” (young resistance fighters), in contrast, seem to have delegated their voice to a single boy, who speaks of the liberation movement in rote-like jargon.|
The reception of L’Olivier upon its theatrical release, however, was divided. Following on from the bomb threats made to cinemas screening Ici et ailleurs, there were fears of similar attacks, especially given the fact that the film was being shown in a heavily Jewish neighborhood of Paris. These never happened, but the cultural left in France—the film’s natural audience—was far from unanimous in their appraisal of the film. Cahiers naturally devoted ample coverage to a film made by one of its former editors, and the Maoist French film critic Guy Hennebelle, despite having frequently engaged in rancorous polemics with Cahiers, praised it as “one of the most successful feature-length films in contemporary French militant cinema” (122). Others on the far left, however, criticized the film for being equivocal on the question of Palestine’s claim to the occupied territories, and even attacked it for offering a “folkloric” and insufficiently political view of the Palestinian struggle.
Furthermore, the value of L’Olivier for Narboni’s later work is less straightforward than La Cecilia’s importance to Comolli. Whereas Comolli’s film was a foundational experience that inaugurated a forty-year spell of practicing and theorizing the cinema, Narboni would refrain from using his film as a launch pad for a directorial career, and for a long time L’Olivier was the only entry in his filmography. Instead, he continued to teach at Vincennes, and would later also return to the fold at Cahiers, re-joining the journal as an editor in the late 1970s, and establishing its prosperous publishing arm. Moreover, whereas Comolli has remained steadfast in his vocal attachment to radical politics, Narboni has generally shied away from overtly political matters in his more recent writings on the cinema.
Finally, there is the question of Narboni’s views on the Palestine-Israel conflict itself. As a Jewish pied-noir raised in Algeria, the issue has an obvious personal resonance for Narboni, but whereas during the time of L’Olivier he was unabashedly anti-Zionist and in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, more recent texts such as his adumbration of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in Pourquoi les coiffeurs... and his discussion of anti-semitism and the Holocaust with Godard in the film Morceaux de conversations avec Jean-Luc Godard (Alain Fleischer, 2010) evince a greater degree of sympathy with the Israeli perspective. When asked about this matter, however, Narboni did not agree that his views had substantially changed since the 1970s. He continues to believe in a right of self-determination for Palestine—while lamenting the “tragic,” seemingly unresolvable nature of the conflict—and he still looks upon his experience making L’Olivier in a broadly favorable light.
|Care was taken to show the diverse activities of the resistance movement, such as this literacy class for guerrilla fighters.||Images of the Palestinian land and its people were interspersed throughout the film: including shots of the Jordan river passing alongside the West Bank...|
|...footage of the street life of Palestinian cities such as East Jerusalem...||...and more celebratory moments, such as this wedding dance in Galilee. Narboni rejected accusations, however, that this represented a “folkloric” and insufficiently political approach to the Palestinian issue.|
It may well be true that neither La Cecilia or L’Olivier would, on a first viewing, be immediately recognizable as the work of film critics who had held up the work of Godard, Straub/Huillet and the Soviet avant-gardes as the acme of politically radical cinema. Both films, however, can indeed be inscribed within the evolution of their respective authors. Despite taking divergent forms—a historical fiction in the case of the former, and a militant documentary in the case of the latter—the two films are also marked by significant commonalities. While they were made in the aftermath of a moment of defeat and disorientation for the Cahiers editors (as well as the far left more generally) and bear significant traces of the reconsideration of radical cinema that this downturn provoked, the two films persist in positing a latent political optimism.
Neither Comolli nor Narboni joined the large numbers of ex-militants and intellectuals who made ostentatious “conversions” to the political right during this period, and their films are testament to their continued identification with the political causes of the left. Both films, moreover, do not refrain from calling into question and interrogating the legacy of militant cinema, and they are both suffused with a collective approach to filmmaking that is of a piece with the overturning of social hierarchies inspired by the May ‘68 protests.
Most significantly, perhaps, both films evince a profound theoretical understanding of the cinematic image and the uses to which it can be put by filmmakers, resulting from more than a decade’s experience of criticism on the part of both figures. Indeed, the lengthy discussions surrounding the two films, printed on the pages of Cahiers du cinéma in three successive issues over the course of early 1976, offer a fertile intertwining of film theory and its application to practical questions of filmmaking that has few parallels in the history of the cinema. Engaging with these discussions immeasurably enriches the experience of viewing both La Cecilia and L’Olivier, and it is this imbrication of theory and practice that constitutes the principal value of these films for the field of film studies today.