In this age of multimedia saturation, the history of revolutionary cinema still has many secrets left to be unearthed. Among them are the series of films made by Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Pierre Gorin under the collective name Dziga-Vertov Group.
Greatly influenced by Maoist politics in the immediate aftermath of the May 1968 uprisings, Godard, Gorin and company sought not just to make “political films” but to make films politically.
And this collection of radical cinema spectacles still makes for startling and confrontational viewing half a century on.
A Film Like Any Other is a non-narrative assemblage of filmed discussions between Renault workers and student activists intercut with action footage filmed in the streets of France during the pivotal weeks of May 1968. As their conversations about what took place occur, they contrast with the actions they took part in, literally fighting the state with ideas, organisation and the cobblestones of Paris. It is a vital cinematic document of the events of May 1968.
British Sounds (See You at Mao) is just as extraordinary: another non-linear, non-documentary broken into six sections that take in everything from the alienation of labour (quotes from The Communist Manifesto accompany car workers building sports cars) to the emerging women’s liberation movement (involving Sheila Rowbotham in one of its most powerful sequences).
The film places the ideas and actions of workers at its core. A section where striking car workers from Dagenham speak of class conflict and anti-capitalism is as resonant today as it was 50 years ago.
Conceived by the student radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit, Wind from The East is a “leftist Western” that wishes to “combat the bourgeois notion of representation”. It is challenging viewing. Its problematic “auto-critique” structure, with cast and crew arguing on camera and engaging in symbolic acts and gestures, makes for an infuriating experience. But if you ever wanted to see the Italian actor Gian Maria Volonte on a horse bellowing “I am General Motors!” at the top of his lungs, then this is the film for you.
Struggle in Italy is the most rigidly structured of the group’s works. Indebted to texts by Mao and the French marxist thinker Louis Althusser, a young female revolutionary’s struggle to integrate theory and practice becomes an auto-critique tract on overdrive.
Its narrow, internalised focus on “situating my discourse” and “concrete analysis” is sure to raise the hackles of those engaged in struggle today.
Their final work, Vladimir and Rosa, is a comedic, fictionalised reconstruction of the Chicago 8 trial. The eight were anti Vietnam War activists who were charged following protests at the 1968 Democratic Party convention. The criminalisation of dissent and trial by media are dealt with in a brash, knockabout style that presages Godard’s later pioneering work on video.
This lavish box set by Arrow Academy is a fulsome tribute to a film-making collective that dared to expand the boundaries of what cinema could be.