The Right to Utopia – Weekend – Kommersant



72 days of the Paris Commune is one of the most hushed up events in cinema: in the entire history of cinema, only five feature films about it have been created. Peter Watkins is one of the most inconvenient and censored directors of the 20th century, effectively blacklisted by American and European television networks for his alarmism, frightening materialism, and radical political partisanship. Their meeting was inevitable, and Watkins' experimental documentary about the events of 1871 in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, filmed in 2000, looks like a media bomb planted by the Jacobins of the past under the society of the spectacle of the present.

Text: Vasily Koretsky

Peter Watkins is a filmmaker with a modern skepticism. There are many reasons for that. The first refers to the distant 1965: then, commissioned by the BBC, Watkins made a film about the atomic threat, The War Game. His accusatory pathos was not directed towards the Soviets, but at the British government - and was reduced not to an abstract struggle for everything good, but to a scrupulous list of economic issues.

The method that Watkins used during the filming of his first film Culloden (fiction) is truly documentary. Watkins and his team worked through documents, rummaging through the archives for facts and evidence, and the director's view of historical processes was - and remains - extremely materialistic. In Culloden (1964) he told the story of the battle of 1746, in which the army of the rebellious Scottish clans was defeated by the British and Scotland finally lost its independence. The reasons for this fiasco in the film are indicated as socio-economic: dressed in tattered kilts, extras gave interviews on behalf of their characters, retelling in detail information about the social structure and economy of Scottish society. The conclusion was obvious - and revealed not only in the smoke of battle and the groans of the wounded, but also in sober calculation: Scottish society was more backward, inefficient, reached a political and economic dead end. It lost before the battle began.

The anti-war message of The War Game - a film about a possible future - was also reinforced by the power of references and statistics. After auditing bomb shelters, hospitals, supply systems and civil defense, talking with military doctors and physicists, Watkins argued with numbers and visual reenactment (a blinding flash of an explosion forever, mountains of corpses, the consequences of radiation sickness, ashes, ruins, feral children hunting rats) argued - civilization will not last long. Yes, judging by the replicas of the heroes, from priests to the military (they are spoken by actors, but the words themselves are quotes from interviews with speakers), it has already collapsed: the entire establishment welcomes the war.

The War Game was recognized as the best documentary of the year in Britain and received an Oscar - but was taken off the air, formally for explicit images. After that, Watkins radicalizes and begins to shoot openly combatant, violently anti-systemic dock and docufiction - about the totalitarianism of pop culture (Privilege, 1967, destroyed by American criticism), about the fear of bourgeois-democratic states in front of the youth and turning them into bloody dictatorships under the guise of democracy ( "Punishment Park", 1971), about the work of the mass media ("Media Project", 1991).

It is the mass media that Watkins begins to consider the main enemies of civilization - pushing around the world, receiving several refusals to broadcast filmed films, a bunch of indignant reviews and the label of a paranoid. In 1998, he ends up in France, where he again begins to rummage through the archives, having received an offer from the Marseille company 13 Productions to make a joint film about the Commune. Watkins is trying to sell the future film to television, but he is refused by everyone except ARTE (looking ahead - the director's six-hour cut of the film will not be accepted by the customer; now "Commune" is available in a format, approximately three-hour editing assembly). And the Musee d'Orsay, which is preparing a large-scale exhibition of photographs and paintings dedicated to the Commune, allocates money for production. Filming-reenactment begins in 1996 in an abandoned factory in Montreuil, Paris, on the site of which, ironically, Méliès' studios once stood. The project employs about 200 people, almost all of them are non-professional actors, including provincials, speakers of regional dialects (many peasants and workers from the provinces who came to Paris to work took part in the uprising). Conservatives were taken to the role of bourgeois - they were found by ads in newspapers of a corresponding political orientation (for example, Le Figaro). Watkins won't make any more films.

The reason for his so close attention to the events of more than a hundred years ago, of course - and as always in such cases - was in the present. But Commune does not try to explain the conflicts of the present by precedents and analogies, it does not look for consoling recipes and lessons in the past. In reenacting historical tragedy, Watkins is obsessed with two things: medialogy and utopia. For him, they are connected - modern radio and TV (in the program article "Mediacrisis" Watkins calls them SMAV - audiovisual mass media) do everything to ensure that the idea of ​​utopia never again arises in the minds of new generations.

It is the work of television and radio that, according to the director's firm conviction, serves the goals of obscurantism, zombification, dogmatism, and the rejection of analytical and critical thinking. Accordingly, the most radical dramatic decision of The Commune is not the acquaintance of the group and actors with the archives, not the shooting of a historical costume canvas in a barn depicting the 11th district, but the arming of barefoot Communards with a new weapon - television. In the reconstruction, where the actors play real residents of Paris, whose fates and thoughts are restored from letters, statements, archival documents and court cases, a couple of fictitious TV reporters are introduced, broadcasting daily revolutionary TV broadcasts. Similarly, in Versailles, the government of Thiers also has its own channel, where a respectable gentleman with a fake mustache reads from a piece of paper official communiqués about the rebels and foreigners who rioted in Paris.

In interviews with the Communards, the question of education constantly comes up - this is the second most important issue after armament (the Communards have cannons bought with the money of the townspeople even before the siege of Paris by the Prussian army, but there are not enough modern rifles to deliver a preemptive strike on Versailles) - and Here the Commune draws clear parallels between church education, the only one available at that time to the French poor, and the modern educational system. Teachers and students unanimously complain about the uselessness of the skills taught in the school, its disciplinary function, contrary to the goals of the Enlightenment, and insist on the need for new, revolutionary schools - indoctrinating children in a new way ("We need to make sure that our children are with us!" - shouts a heated Communard into a microphone). The danger of the revolution degenerating into a new dictatorship and terror is emphasized in a microplot about the organization of the Committee of Public Safety (KOS), which replaced the executive committee of the Commune on May 1 (the entire film is made up of such ten-minute inclusions, separated by explanatory captions). This is a very dangerous moment - in France the memory of exactly the same committee, organized during the revolution, is still alive - it was he who usurped power and became the conductor of uncontrolled terror. Here Watkins turns the conversation to the present - in the April issue, revolutionary television refuses to "spoil people's holiday" and report on the prospects for organizing KOS, which causes a heated discussion between the presenters and a journalist from the revolutionary newspaper Papa Duchen.

Historical films often make a substitution: by drawing spectacular analogies between the past and the present, they obscure the homologies - that is, the causal relationships between on-screen events and the life circumstances in which the viewer finds himself. Watkins' "horizontal" method opposes this trend, albeit at the scale of the film crew: the performers do not simply stage events within the framework of the roles assigned to them, but show the camera their real attitude towards them. Before filming, all the actors participated in group discussions, discussing the events of the Commune and their lives in connection with the historical premises set by the defeat of this utopian project. Collectivism is sewn into the very poetics of the film: we almost never see one person in the frame, almost all interviews are group interviews (even if it is a duet of heroes), charged with the dynamics of personal relationships. But the people in this crowd are not atoms that form a collective body, but subjects that form a people. And literally, in reality, through the experience of the joint practice of political performance in the building of a Parisian factory. They seem to expropriate history, including the history of cinema: as you know, the first film by the Lumières was a document of bourgeois exploitation, a staged exit of workers from the photo factory owned by the brothers after a shift. Here the workers and employees, on the contrary, occupy the factory in order to play out the tragedy of a revolutionary utopia in it—and their game grows into reality. Long shots show that at the moment when the Communard reporters move away from the speakers they just asked a question, the discussion started in front of the camera continues and expands spontaneously, involving more and more extras, who in the usual historical film remain silent mummers . The past with its hopes and mistakes spills over into the present, ceases to be a set of dead dates from the chronicle, frees itself from the fetters of manipulative interpretations and tendentious interpretations and becomes a living, direct experience. And strife and confusion, the inherent vices of the Commune, are the polyphony of opinions and views, from which a harmonious choir could form, demanding not a piece of bread, but the whole loaf.


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