JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

As disgruntled upper-class and bourgeois characters look on, we see exuberant scenes among the majority working-class population of Paris’ 11th arrondissement upon the Commune’s proclamation, a trans-historical excitement that appears quite genuine when it comes to the experience of rendering such history on film.

Even as the fight is surely hopeless, Communards at the barricades continue to boost themselves up with anger at the government’s assault combined with determination and pride in defending the Commune and their roles within it.

The now free former-Commune TV reporter undertakes a series of interviews with people near the barricades, asking actors if they would have fought in 1871 and if they would do so for similar ideals today, resulting in a diverse and often confused range of responses following an old man’s unquestioning, trans-historical affirmation.

A woman who played one of the more outspoken workers from the dressmaker and wash-house shop scenes appears rather less sure of herself in response to the question of whether she would defend the Commune.

Speaking with a present tense of 1999, one of the women at the barricades emphasizes the need for resistance to inequality and oppression by using the same tools employed by conservative forces, such as the mainstream media and the Internet, stressing the need for haste in bringing this more fully about.

After being told by a screen text that the next planned meeting of the Women’s Union ‘will never take place’, we next see some of the same women and others from previous scenes relaxing and now speaking exclusively circa 1999 about their experience of the film and what it could mean.

While there is a diversity of image types across the film, the predominant one in relation to framing of human bodies and proximity to the camera is a kind of medium shot, which can be seen in both relatively sparse arrangements of bodies and (more commonly) very cluttered ones. Seen right across the film – as evidenced by nearly every one of the above images – via various formations, in this example Leó Frankel and other Commune leaders stand together in a group, with National Guardsmen behind them, to address a crowd while a man in the foreground mutters his discontent.

An Algerian-born sans-papier resident of a Paris banlieu with a small part in La Commune, Kamel Ikachamene reads from a poem by Quebec writer Gaston Miron, ‘The Agonized Life’.

Ramifications of multi-temporal space

The time travelling brought about by La Commune between 1871, 1999, and whenever the viewer subsequently watches it, opens up a multi-temporal space. In his use of cinematic time, including but not limited to the preference for lengthy takes plus the film’s overall duration, and a focus on historical themes, Watkins remains a modernist in the familiar sense as outlined in Part I above.

        Critic Chris Fujiwara writes that the particular temporality of La Commune, as enforcing critical engagement, thereby becomes spatial:

“Time, then, becomes the most critical boundary. In La Commune, when a character onscreen suddenly starts talking about the Commune in the past tense and from the perspective of today, the slippage reveals time to be not a fiction, but a variable space for a kind of structured free play in which the consciousness that it is play (that this is 1999, that we are actors playing the people of 1871) is not suppressed but allowed open expression. … This passage across what would, in ‘real life,’ be an insurmountable time barrier, constitutes a radical step towards the decolonization of interior space.”[88] [open notes in new window]

Here lies the effectiveness of the virtual space opened up by the film for the viewer, which Fujiwara suggests is forged by its particular temporal processes in the form of “structured free play.” This can be strongly sensed throughout the film as a record of its own production, one that was clearly quite transformative for many participants, as well as a customized process ignited in partnership with each subsequent viewer. Time in La Commune, Fujiwara continues,

“is like the time that Water Benjamin, in the fourteenth of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ qualified as ‘not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now.”’[89]

This “now” serves to invoke the past and future concurrently. But through stressing a paradoxical palimpsestic version of contemporaneity, it insists on the present-day subject (be they on- or off-screen) taking responsibility for her role in history, as history gains material form or vertiginous “ground” via a highly theatricalized space and multiplicitous filmic and human performance.

        What makes the intra- and inter-scene debates across La Commune’s long duration interesting and informative is that the political positions we see and hear expressed, be they relatively clear or confused, are also connected to the 220 on-screen participants’ diverse backgrounds. Even where many of them had no real prior knowledge or views about the Commune itself, the broader issues raised by the event (and in part fought over) are familiar enough to seem ongoing, hence a cause of genuine present-day debate is sustained.[90] The cast’s active involvement in researching this history prior to filming resulted in a communal auto-didactic process, the freshness and creativity of which is palpable on screen through appropriately messy, fragmentary articulation of unresolvable arguments and challenges escalating in substance through the film. Upon the Commune’s initial proclamation, the people onscreen are seen experiencing a truly euphoric moment, exhibiting palpable and seemingly genuine excitement as they dance, sing La Marseillais, and shout their mutual joy to comrades, Commune TV reporters, and La Commune’s camera. Over four hours of screen time later, the anger and determination seen in the barricades sequence, even as the fight now appears hopeless, comes across with visceral intensity. While viewers are never fooled into believing we are watching a would-be transparent represention of events in 1871, neither do the figures on screen appear as if they are simply “acting” after being told to express a particular enthusiasm or emotion. Rather, what we witness on screen is an extended record of very real and diverse energy generated by a social but also very personal kind of autodidact history-learning, fused with creative collaboration and political radicalism.

        Looking out over present-day Paris from her apartment as seen in The Universal Clock, Sara Louis reflects on how participation in La Commune has affected her view of the city, commenting on the three churches dominating the skyline at the center of which is Sacré Cœur. Perched high at Montmartre in the distance, looming over the metropolis, she now sees the massive basilica beloved of tourists as a literal icon of the Catholic Church’s triumphant reclaiming of power in the capital. At the same time, for more recent visitors with no knowledge of the Commune, it effectively both celebrates victory over and literally covers up vanquished revolutionary history. We might also recall from La Commune at this point the appropriation by “red clubs” of churches to hold nighttime political meetings, resulting in the cessation of evening mass. This is explained in one scene as due to the churches being the only spaces large enough to hold such increasingly popular gatherings after majority work hours, enabling maximum participation. But it also effectively illustrates the degree to which radical politics was literally taking over the previously “sacred” space of organized religion in the Commune’s fundamental remaking of daily life in the city. The Commune may not have eradicated the churches per se, as Lefebvre evokes in the quote at the beginning of this article, but these very particular spaces were partially—if far from entirely—re-made when it comes to at least temporary purpose. It is also important to note that a great many scenes, nearly all of them featuring women, show how the Commune unleashed long-repressed frustrations at and critiques of the Catholic Church and its priests by everyday people tired of being judged for their life circumstances, appearing exhilarated to see its power diminished.

Looking out over present-day Paris from her apartment in The Universal Clock, Geoff Bowie’s Canadian documentary about Peter Watkins and La Commune, actor-participant in the latter, Sara Louis, comments on the three churches dominating the skyline culminating with Sacré Cœur, perched high at Montmartre in the distance, built to ‘expiate the Commune of its sins.’ Women standing outside a church offer sharp critiques of how the Catholic Church and its priests treat women and how it effectively keeps the working class enslaved, while others inside describe their frustration at being judged for their lifestyles despite still attending mass.

        Louis continues to describe her overall experience of La Commune:

“This is an amazing way to learn history. In the sense where history serves as a memory to understand what's going on now... I feel the experience of this film makes us take a position on, what is the role of the individual inside a collective?”[91]

On the level of verbal discussion alone, Watkins and his collaborators’ film offers a kind of abstracted-yet-real space in the process of being produced or brought into being through the articulation and debating of serious questions about how the city, nation, and world are run and the ongoing effects of this. The results on screen, comprising the film itself, offer a democratic version of living history as textual heteroglossia, performed and framed as an ongoing and decidedly unfinished process rather than end product. This would also apply, Watkins hoped, to the film’s reception, which is why La Commune at times comes across as a very high-quality pedagogical experiment in discursive provocation. In a genuine sense, that is exactly what it is.[92] All this is nowhere clearer than in the film’s presentation of the Commune’s final days.

        The scenes mainly comprising interviews with figures at or near the barricades feature a present tense slipping constantly between May 1871 and 1999, with occasional—and sometimes humorous—references to the Commune’s final days as “now,” prompted by the former Commune TV reporter so as to “remind” interviewees-actors of their life-threatening situation. Each on-screen figure has a different response when asked if they would have gone to the barricades in 1871, or do so for the same principles today, ranging from absolute confidence through to confusion, qualification, and outright rejection. Often the answer provided depends on the level of trans-historical continuity asserted by the interviewee. Some suggest that no matter the period, one must always “go to the barricades” to fight for a better world, citing subsequent struggles and wars, including WW2, in which there was no choice but to “choose sides,” as seen in the first interview with an old man who says he was “at the barricades in 1944” and is “ready to go again for my children’s freedom.” Others say they would perhaps have supported the Commune at the time but today do not believe any such action is possible, or that the struggle must play out on a different, less material plane. Meanwhile, a third category says they would never put their lives on the line for such principles, then or now. We also hear from those who seem to honestly not know, confessing their fear, such as one of the more outspoken women from the dressmaker and wash-house business scenes, who now says in response to the question of whether she would defend the Commune: “I don’t know! I’m afraid of the barricades.” Another woman immediately shouts back at her, seemingly speaking in 1871: “We’ve got nothing to lose!” Meanwhile, the film also details the killing by Communards of hostages and prisoners during semaine sanglante. However, the actor playing Marguerite Lachaise, a rare female National Guard officer, notes: “Though the Commune murdered 100, the other side massacre nearly 30,000.” Over archival photographs showing rows of slain bodies, she asks: “Where does violence come from?”

        In a nice metaphor for the Commune itself, the film’s last section also features a series of connected scenes showing attempts by teachers (two women we saw hours earlier speaking to the camera before the Commune’s proclamation, advocating what would become one of its signature policies, free state-run secular education) to teach their new Commune-run schoolroom class during the government troops’ military assault on Paris, discussing what is happening outside. Against the sound of war, in discussions about the Commune and its values and how the new education system they are all involved in reflects them, some of the girls argue they need go and help fight the Versailles forces to defence such principles. Meanwhile, in keeping with the film’s stress on diversity of response and opinion, other students bow their heads in horror and in one case resort to prayer (a move mocked by a neighbouring girl). Ten minutes later we see some of the same children at the barricades, nervously but determinedly preparing guns alongside adult Communards. La Commune’s barricades sequence finishes on this imagery, with one of the film’s very occasional freeze-frames showing a girl familiar from the schoolroom scenes as she looks right into the camera. After a few seconds, this image cuts to our first smoke-filled sight of government troops arriving after their military victory, shouting for the last “stinking reds” to come out of their “holes.” (See the seventh image of the visual essay at the start of this article.)

A series of scenes inside a classroom – featuring teachers we met near the start of the film advocating for the kind of state-run, free, secular education system they now work within – show discussions about the Commune and its values, how this mode of education reflects it, and finally what is happening outside, with the students increasingly arguing they should go to the barricades. Ten minutes after the last schoolroom scene we see some of the same girls at the barricades helping adult Communards load guns, before the barricades sequences concludes with a rare freeze-frame on a girl we also saw in the previous image.

        After the final school sequence and one last interior scene at the upper-class apartment devoid of human presence (described above), the film shows us “what is happening outside” as we travel alongside the former Commune TV reporter, whose interview technique appears unchanged. Tension between this media presence and “reality” is immediate. One woman holding a rifle at the barricades shouts into the microphone: “Stop asking questions! We need help.” Another woman even more bluntly complains: “The biggest pain in the ass is that you’re still here recording, watching everything but not giving a fuck. Whether it’s a film or reality, you just stand there.” She adds with anger: “And I’d like to kill that.” Seconds later, a man standing beside her appears to speak as much if not more to the viewers of these images we are watching as to the reporter interviewing him: “You hide behind your TV and watch us die off. TV is slavery.” He proceeds to cite the concentration of media in France today, adding: “Isn’t that censorship?” Another woman then says to the reporter: “You have to join us! Drop your microphone. Fight with us for utopias. There are still some left to defend.” At this precise moment, the woman with the rifle above pretends to “act out” her threat to “kill that,” pointing her weapon right at the camera—Commune TV’s and La Commune’s—with the gun’s barrel framed in the middle of the image. (See the sixth image of the visual essay at the start of this article.)

A woman holding a gun at the barricades shouts one of many critical comments to the former Commune TV reporter, highlighting his bystander status despite purporting to be an advocate of the Commune. At the conclusion of a short interview with a Communard encouraging the reporter to put down his microphone and join the fight, a woman acts out her threat to ‘kill that’ – referring to media purporting to speak for the Commune, as represented by Commune TV or perhaps La Commune – by pointing a rifle right at the camera, its barrel almost exactly at the centre of the image.

        The incredible power of any single media representation in support of the revolution is repeatedly remarked upon in different ways during the barricades sequence. One group of women proclaim defiantly to the reporter and camera: “The revolution is ours.” Once more, considering the relative obscurity of films directly seeking to “re-tell” the Paris Commune events, they might well be leveling the comment at La Commune’s own disproportionate role as perhaps the most prominent film focusing on this event, its qualities and sympathies notwithstanding. Raising some pertinent points and questions, a young woman tells the former Commune TV representative:

“We shouldn't talk to you. Your manipulation methods are those of National [Versailles] TV. We don't need to prove our ideas to you. Your role is a bit strange! Do you really broadcast what we say, what you're filming? Will people see this film?”

While essential, and very much characteristic of Watkins’ cinema and writing, such media critique—including potential commentary on the film’s own status—doesn’t, however, entirely dominate the late scenes. More precisely, rather than myopic, it works within the context of a keenly felt political urgency represented by these events and their still challenging trans-historical relevance.

        As the reporter moves on through the crowd, other figures shout a series of laments into the microphone. One man cries: “Oppression for poor nations; and for the poor in rich ones. We’re human beings, shit!” Taking for granted that resistance is crucial, rather than stressing the image of the barricades (seen behind her), a woman says of our current predicament that there is no choice but to use the weapons of the media against their usual purpose: “We can no longer build barricades like this. We have to fight the media. We have to use the same weapons: computers, Internet, TV.” By saying this, she effectively sides with La Commune itself as a gesture of revolutionary action on the virtual level of media as “reappropriated” from its more usual function. Also voicing a level of frustration and impatience reminiscent of Watkins’ own frequently expressed position, she adds: “It’s about fucking time!” Finally, after the government troops have completely taken control, as the camera whirls through corridors seeking to follow the fast-moving action while Communards are rounded up, the captured women in particular express their palpable anger. When asked her identity and former role in the Commune by an army commander at his ad-hoc desk, one of the schoolteachers—like other women—defiantly shouts her answer with furious pride. Of the broader question of semaine sanglante and its historical heritage, a man quietly lined up with others along a wall, presumably waiting to learn his fate, mutters somewhat optimistically: “They can’t always hide what they did! They can’t always lie.” Considering that the perpetrator was one of the then most powerful Western states and that its victims would become largely erased from mainstream historical portraits of France and Europe, despite the efforts of various books, articles, and films, such a hopeful cry has yet to be fully answered.

Following the Commune’s overthrowing, there is palpable anger amongst the captured women in particular – such as one of the schoolteachers, seen here – who are abused by soldiers and defiantly shout their pride in the Commune and their roles within it when asked by the army commander at an ad-hoc desk. Standing in a row of Communards against a wall, presumably awaiting news of their eventual execution, one man rather optimistically hopes that this massacre by government troops upon largely unarmed civilians will not be hidden from history forever.

        Taking in spatial and temporal factors while effectively describing the film’s palimpsestic form, reaching its clearest enunciation in the barricades scenes but really operating throughout, Fujiwara writes that Watkins and his collaborators invoke a world way beyond any completed “text.” What we see, rather, is

“penetrated and saturated by voices alien to the image, coming from other ‘scenes,’ making it impossible to identify and bracket the scene as a separate unity within the flow of displaced images and sounds. Everything is mixed, combined, juxtaposed; there is no unanimity… [H]ardly a position is ever affirmed without eliciting a counterargument, a protest, or a catcall (indeed, ‘it’s difficult to be a democrat,’ as a woman says in the film).”[93]

Not only do we always sense the theatricality and present-day staging of the Commune—or more precisely its articulation and consideration—by intimately engaged on-screen subjects, the performative and textual layers continue to bleed into one another more fundamentally. Present-day references increasingly feature in on-screen discussions, with people talking about the Commune in the past tense. And the film itself is increasingly reflected upon near its end—both events “past” yet very much “present.” The scenes’ temporality is forever unstable and not just because of slippage between character and actor.

        Even near La Commune’s end it is unclear whether people are speaking “in” the film or somehow after its completion. Sometimes this plays out like footage from a “making-of” documentary, with the actors still in costume, which has slipped into the “main feature,” such as when the group of women familiar from the dressmaker’s, Women’s Union, and other street scenes talk to the camera in a relaxed fashion about the Commune and their experience of the film, with no Commune TV microphones in sight. Such conversations come across very much like relaxing “after work” and reflecting on it. In other scenes, 1871 and the threat of Thiers’ invading forces somehow remain very much alive despite references to the film’s own era. The spaces on-screen participants occupy throughout such discussions remain both “diegetic” and always highly theatrical and unconvincing—usually just comprised of some old boxes, recycled furniture, and room dividers. The large yet subdivided and cramped environment—all of it technically interior while most often made to suggest exteriors—looks concurrently real yet highly artificial and “virtual.” For a film that may seem monotonous when it comes to setting and mise en scène, this temporally effected space is from the start treated as multiple.

        In addition to the palimpsestic space that constantly slips between time periods, never resting properly in one, staging of actors and shot composition tend to further enforce perceptual and temporal instability yet a sense of performative presentness. When it comes to the framing of human bodies, La Commune has a compositional style quite familiar from Watkins’ other work. Although most of his films have relied mostly on television funding, they tend to eschew the usual tight close-ups of faces strongly associated with the medium in both its state-funded and commercial forms. But neither do the films feature distant “establishing” shots taking in the whole scene, as we get with many cinematic traditions from Hollywood and beyond. Instead, throughout the film recurs a characteristic kind of shot in terms of focal length and camera proximity to the action. Here the important human figures are positioned in a kind of middle-ground so that the viewer is able to see them clearly while also retaining a strong sense of their immediate spatial and social surroundings.[94] Especially during quiet moments in the film, we are aware of the warehouse set as a prominent presence, while at other moments the intimately social and political nature of this film-reality is intensely cluttered and claustrophobic such that human bodies make up virtually the entire mise en scène. The more people in the frame, the more internal discord within the Commune is registered. This goes for the film’s majority, often rather chaotic scenes throughout. The middle-ground composition also applies when military commanders are addressing their forces or politicians try to speak to a restless crowd. One example of the latter instance is when Leó Frankel—one of the Commune’s key social reform architects and the main historical leader portrayed in occasional brief scenes by the film—and other prominent figures stand grouped together (with National Guardsmen behind them). While Frankel tells a crowd of people why wages have seriously eroded, a man in the left foreground seen partially from the back mutters his disapproval: “So, the rats are leaving the ship!”

        That long shots, so familiar to cinema and today even sometimes occasionally television viewers, would be unlikely or impossible in this film’s warehouse set shouldn’t distract us from the fact that both such images and the more usual TV-style close-ups serve no real purpose in Watkins’ cinema. We are left instead with a kind of “in-between” medium shot-defined style featuring frames crowded with multiple bodies, a style made rather self-conscious in its ubiquity across La Commune, but also for the fact that various people dominate the image at a given moment as they frequently talk directly into the camera or at least momentarily glance at it. This aesthetic principle serves as an important nexus point whereby Watkins’ formal and political ideals are given mutual expression. With such shots the viewer can briefly ascertain individual figures—not simply characters, or actors. Again, here we have a sense of the body reclaimed, both for itself and for the communal effort in which it plays a key part. These men and women on screen are always seen in their inherently social everyday context: a world they are both a product of and very much affected by. It is also a reality that together they can potentially impact and change, depending on the behavior of those around them and others outside the frame, both immediate and far away.

        The mutability of this social positioning of bodies is emphasized throughout the film. We see different people clearly affected by others in the near vicinity, developing their own arguments and responses in relation to the discussions they listen to and take part in. And the changing events of the Commune—and even the world beyond— are suggested by the colonial context crucially traced in La Commune. In addition to the multi-vocal performance of its extensive dialogue track, this bodily performance and the camera’s in-between framing of frequently crowded people as always situated within a social space, ensures a multilayered presentation of history defined as collective, collaborative process.

Stressing memory, reclaiming subjectivity

Within, across, and beyond its temporal layers, La Commune’s mounting of a democratic performance in living history as textual heteroglossia, expressed, performed and framed as multiple processes, calls all its participants inside and outside the frame to a subjective responsibility. In this sense, as opposed to a more official historical accounting, the film’s temporality invites the viewer to participate in a customized procedure that, I suggest, resonates with an idea explored by Sandy Flitterman-Lewis in her analysis of Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard/Night and Fog (1955).

        Addressing the audiovisual technique and ethico-philosophical address of Resnais’ canonical short film about the Nazi death camps, Flitterman-Lewis stresses “memory” over “remembering.” She defines the latter as “tied to a specific event,” an “objective” monument that exists outside of individual involvement. Memory, on the other hand, is positioned as relying on subjective engagement and the contemporary playing out of history, only sustained through creative, individually reliant acts of dialogue and representation.[95] The result, Flitterman-Lewis suggests, is that

“presence, responsibility, and active engagement make both viewer and filmmaker witnesses to history (and to historical representation), projecting the film’s implications beyond the theatre and into the future, binding them in the social processes and moral obligations of human culture.”[96]

With its layered reflexivity and blockage to any kind of “suspension of disbelief,” using the events and tragic conclusion of the Paris Commune as a launching pad, La Commune asks us to bring our memory to bear upon history in its most alive sense, invoking past, present and future. While we may be impressed or even overwhelmed by the information, activity, and arguments filling the frame over its many hours, La Commune remains decidedly incomplete or even unconvincing if judged as an act of historical recreation or memorialising that asks us simply to “remember.”

        Flitterman-Lewis writes of the real ongoing importance of Night and Fog as a film as much about the present and the future as the past event it essays, filtered through the viewer’s hopefully active engagement: “Recognizing that the 'truth' of an event always exceeds the documentary fact.”[97] With Watkins’ unique pseudo- and speculative-documentary form, we are asked to engage with the reality of ideas, debates, problems and historical narratives, while also acknowledging they cannot be transparently rendered to us. There must always be a messy process of constructed textuality and articulation that is inherently “subjective” both in its representational address (the filmmaker and his colleagues’ views on the material) and reception. We are presented with a very possible real: an historical event that “did happen.” Yet it is a highly theatricalized and multiply reflexive recreation of this past, “liberated” from the notion of history’s memorializing narratives that inevitably ascribe clear winners and losers. While often a tragic history in the real world—here a “failed” revolution murderously quelled, later inspiring (along with the Russian Revolution) a key modernist opera by Marxist Italian composer Luigi Nono, Al gran sole carico d'amore (In the Bright Sunshine Heavy with Love, 1975), and much other committed leftist art—the virtual rendering of key moments thereby gives them enormous virtual power beyond the familiar revolutionary lament for lost opportunities and idealism.

        With memory thus conceived, the often contested concept of subjectivity becomes crucial as voiced both by the filmmaker in his refusal of the illusion (and ideological "trick") of an objective documentary address, but also beyond any singular authorial expression or that of the 220 actor-participants, and ultimately of the film itself, as a called-upon quality in urgent need of re-engagement. The unrepentantly subjectivist voice/s or “noise” characterizing the film renders historical reality in the form of a provocation. Rather than being forced to accept Watkins’ or the film’s understanding of what we see on screen, this cinema calls us into subjective accounting and responsibility in bringing to bear the lived history of film as an actively engaged event on both sides of the screen. “What do you think?” viewers are repeatedly asked.

        Linda Williams writes of Errol Morris’ celebrated documentary work featuring extensive, TV-style “recreation” sequences:

“Some form of truth is the always receding goal of documentary film. But the truth figured by documentary cannot be a simple unmasking or reflection. It is a careful construction, an intervention in the politics and semiotics of representation.”[98]

Peter Watkins’ cinema is driven by the determination to express, explore and extol a sense of often bitter yet ultimately inspiring historical truth. He does this by presenting, generating, and engaging living history as textual process rather than mimetic representation. Critic Jared Rapfogel describes the director’s style as akin to a complex enactment of the “newsreel” approach, which becomes “a way of making history come alive again.” This aesthetic “both creates distance and collapses it.”[99] We are given a possible real yet a sightly exaggerated reality either set just in the future or, as with La Commune, a highly theatricalized and variously reflexive recreation of an important past event. Such inherently “virtual” reality is brought to life by being liberated both from ultimately regressive regimes of “objective” or transparent textuality and the (frequently connected) ideologically closed, linear historical narratives of winners and losers. While the film often charts a loss in real-world history, the virtual rendering of key moments thereby gives it enormous power beyond the familiar leftist elegy for lost opportunities that effectively affirm history as a tragically closed book.  

        La Commune’s unrepentantly subjectivist but importantly multiple voice mounts a resolutely contemporary provocation. This is not a cinema of revolutionary prompting through faithfully charting the historical and spatial reality of a sacred and mourned event, seeking to “remember” it, as so much “serious” narrative and documentary cinema and television continues to promote. Instead, the film achieves a multilayered, intensely active reflection on and engagement with history by bringing its challenge into the present through self-consciously artificial means—those of audiovisual form. Rather than the “dead” mise en scène of the period film, or expensive popular recreation-adorned documentary form, here a shoestring set and majority non-professional cast make for a cinematic and historical space perennially alive in its process of production. La Commune’s multi-vocal engagement and diverse articulation offer an uncommon but strikingly effective way to make serious films about history. It suggests that a lingering, tantalizing potential for reappropriation and production of revolutionary space remains, a space rendered as concurrently theatricalized and virtual. This is the inherent reflexivity, fragmentation and violence of space constructed and re-imagined through the moving image across time—both La Commune’s sheer duration and, more crucially, for its complicated time travelling between 1871, 1999-2000, and since. Here cinema calls us into creative and subjective accounting and responsibility, bringing to bear the lived history of film as a fully activated event on both sides of the screen, with multiple unresolved implications for contemporary life.

Conclusion: everyday life meets virtual space,
a conjurer’s journey

“The diversion and reappropriation of space are of great significance,” writes Lefebvre in The Production of Space. But, he adds:

“Diversion is in itself merely appropriation, not creation—a reappropriation which can call but a temporary halt to domination.”[100]

The Paris Commune was indeed a relatively brief and intensely localized, yet variously creative and enormously significant, “halt to domination” brought about by the attempted reappropriation of space but forcibly stopped short of its more complete revolutionary “production.” La Commune portrays this event almost entirely “from below” at the level of everyday life, with extensive detailed and big-picture narration and analysis offered by both copious text screens and extensive human discussion throughout the film, no matter whether the text or human figures appear to be speaking in 1871 or 1999-2000.

        This film is about, offers, creates, and produces, revolutionary history. Here is a palimpsestic history taking in its setting, period of production (including extensive preparation, brief shoot, and subsequent editing into a “finished” film), and beyond. It is articulated by everyday people (both the characters and largely non-professional actors on screen, most of whom knew little or nothing about the Commune but possessed distinct political opinions) who seek to transform everyday life and who support a revolution purporting to enable just this. While far from consistent or devoid of internal contradictions and significant ongoing problems—many of which have continued to challenge the thinking of radical activists, would-be revolutionaries, and diverse fellow travellers ever since—the Commune itself as an overall project was based on the general principle of enabling people to experience and create life anew at the most basic grassroots level in the form of a different social order than the one that had been long enforced by powerful class, state, gender, and religious elites and was violently re-established following the Commune’s murderous cessation in late May of 1871. This historical event’s radical experiment in democracy is taken up by a film primarily concerned with illustrating such an everyday process through its highly reflexive “reimagining” within a suburban warehouse for just three weeks in 1999—less than a quarter of the Commune’s own short duration.

        Such a unique, generative film-history is addressed, co-authored, and displayed throughout La Commune by on-screen participants and Watkins’ multiply reflexive filmmaking choices with striking trans-historical force via multiple discussions, comparisons, and analyses interconnected through a forever unstable present tense, yet always based in a sense of the everyday. Following Nietzsche, Lefebvre argued that radical change can only conceivably occur at this quotidian level, unless we are to accept an always “top-down,” inevitably repressive version of historical development. Daily life, Lefebvre writes in Critique of Everyday Life, Volume III,

“is the ‘base’ from which the mode of production endeavours to constitute itself as a system, by programming this base. Thus, we are not dealing with the self-regulation of a closed society. The programming of daily life has powerful means at its disposal: it contains an element of luck, but it also holds the initiative, has the impetus, at the ‘base’ that makes the edifice totter. Whatever happens, alternations in daily life will remain the criterion of change.”[101]

The fact of the Commune even having occurred, this microcosm of a would-be or not-quite revolution entirely played out within urban space, is ever more important to acknowledge and spotlight in light of our own recent history. It has much to teach us about the potential within this very prosaic sphere of daily life, wherein lies the “criterion of change”—the volatile “base” capable of making “the edifice totter.” The space and time evoked by La Commune works to produce a very singular cinematic rendering of revolutionary history, with a crucial stress on present-day, everyday experience and use.

        Kamel Ikachamene, an Algerian sans-papier resident of a Paris banlieu with a small part in La Commune, is interviewed in The Universal Clock. Offering not a single word to explain such a connection, the everyday yet magical spatio-temporal terrain traversed by those on both sides of the screen throughout Watkins’ film is nonetheless evoked at once when Ikachamene picks up a nearly disintegrating book to quote from one of his favourite poems, “The Agonized Life,” by Quebec writer Gaston Miron. He recites the lines:

“Far from myself, I took a conjurer's journey.
I hadn't seen myself for a long time.
I'm inside myself, like a man in a house built in his absence.
I greet you, Silence.
I didn't come to come back.
I come to begin again.”[102]

On the one hand, for all those involved—both in 1999 and for subsequent viewers—La Commune amounts to a “conjurer’s journey” indeed, an experience well and truly outside familiar everyday life. Yet, the Miron passage also suggests, at the same time there is a sense of a return, looking at the reflection of a self long unseen or unacknowledged.

        The poem (which predates Watkins’ film and to my knowledge has no other connection to it) also invokes the spatial, resonating with the fact that this film-revolution, staged within a massive subdivided interior space, appears as a kind of proper (if intensely theatricalized) “house” that has already been constructed in our absence. It feels like a home, but appears as if built elsewhere and by others, so seemingly alien is the on-screen occupants’ dogged utopian commitment to it. And as to the quote’s invocation of sound (or lack thereof), which I briefly addressed above, while the film is for much of its running time overflowing with “noise,” it also offers regular, crucial passages of meditative silence often emphasized and accompanied by black or text screens. The whole film can be seen as allowing us to “greet” a figurative “Silence” that enables genuine reflection. It functions as a kind of distended mirror session with palimpsestic, hurtful yet forever inspirational history shorn of its usual centralizing, linear, and winner-defined stories. Miron’s last two sentences, meanwhile, uncannily approach the very nub of what my discussion has chiefly been concerned with: the singular ability of the Paris Commune to time travel via this special filmic treatment. We don’t come to return, to memorialize, or remember. But rather to apply ourselves, to face our intimate relationship with and responsibility to history—our very own, and that which we learn through engagement with La Commune—so as to think and “begin again.”

        La Commune (Paris, 1871) produces revolutionary history on film by intimately and appropriately conflating everyday life and a virtual space that is thereby no longer temporary (unlike the production experience and process of the film itself). This virtuality remains intrinsically connected to the notion of “real” space and history as experienced by ordinary people and echoing across diverse periods. And the film’s digital-era essaying goes beyond being a record of an apparently transformative but finite collaborative filmmaking experience. The result is not exactly the same as the production of space Lefebvre envisaged, one that largely predates the transformations and unprecedented network-defined nature of our increasingly online-oriented world (even as his later work starts to address the ramifications of the information revolution[103]). La Commune’s creative enactment, its rendering of revolution as an act of radical reappropriation—here itself of the theatricalized and virtualized space that usually constitutes the formally and ideologically conservative mediascape of film and television—now offers multiple renewed points of very real entry into and everyday resonance within our increasingly interconnected cities, concurrently real and virtual, right across the world.

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