The Ciné-tract, from May ’68 to Nuit Debout. The Construction of a Counter-Power Dispositive

Achilleas Papakonstantis Université de Lausanne

Part and parcel of the inventiveness that typified French militant cinema of the sixties and the seventies, the Ciné-tracts’ project that was conceived and developed during the workers and students’ insurrection of May 1968, reflects a specific moment in the history of France’s political Left, marked by a generalized will to break down barriers and give voice to the “excluded” and the “unprivileged”. In addition to this tumultuous political climate, the introduction and the commercialization of lightweight portable cameras of a significantly lower cost contributed to the creation of a particular context out of which emerged new possibilities – technically and conceptually speaking – for a politically engaged cinema. Beyond the invention of a new film genre, the Ciné-tracts’ project – led by such prominent figures of French political cinema as Chris Marker, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and William Klein – aspired to the creation of a new means of visual expression, a free-access platform facilitating the exchange of images, texts, knowledge, roles, hence encouraging a personalized form of direct political action.

Dominant historiography identifies the expression “ciné-tract” with this May ‘68 project that, nevertheless, proved to be short-lived. The production of these militant films seemed to cease abruptly during the summer of 1968; therefore, the ciné-tract is nowadays regularly dismissed as a failed experiment or, at best, regarded as a curious object of a long-forgotten past. However, this postulate fails to acknowledge the fact that from 1968 to today, a non-negligible amount of short, politically-engaged films adopted this denomination and embraced the heritage that it entails. Moreover, during the 1970s, as militant filmmakers turned to video technology, the expression “vidéo-tract” started to circulate, qualifying short movies made by militant and mostly feminist groups. Since the dawn of the 21st century and the so-called digital turn, the form of the ciné-tract has resurfaced powerfully, endorsed by well-known professional filmmakers (see for example Jean-Marie Straub’s and Danièle Huillet’s Europe 2005-27 octobre, Cinétract), political parties or labor unions (the latest example being the Vidéo-tract pour la grève générale du 17 mai 2016 made by the anarchist union CNT – Confédération Nationale du Travail), militant student groups (like the one formed at the Paris 8 University in 2016), or even “anonymous” amateurs aspiring to produce a personalized political discourse.

These few examples (the list is far from exhaustive) stand as proof that the ciné-tract did not really disappear back in 1968; it continues to exist today as a particular form of visual expression and political action. Therefore, my doctoral thesis’ objective is twofold. First, it aims to provide, for the first time in academic literature, a history of the ciné-tract, conceived as a denomination, a discursive construction encompassing a variety of objects and practices throughout the decades. Second, by studying the ciné-tract as a visual dispositive producing counter-power effects, it seeks to construct a new theoretical model capable of highlighting neglected aspects of militant cinema and of other alternative, politically engaged media practices.

Assembling a complete corpus of all of the ciné-tracts and vidéo-tracts made from the 1960s to the present has proved to be an impossible task, given the ephemeral nature of these films that are meant to be of an immediate service to a specific social struggle or a particular political movement. Therefore, I plan to study a number of relevant case examples from specific moments in the history of France, that are linked to political events that triggered the production of militant films (May 68, the Woman’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s, Nuit Debout, and others). Furthermore, because it covers a period of almost fifty years, my research is inevitably intertwined with questions of technology. By providing assessments of past and current technological developments, I aim to examine the impact of changing media forms (film, video, digital technologies, Internet) on both the form and content of the resulting political interventions.

While appraising the plurality of the ciné-tract’s different forms and embodiments, my analysis of these films, as well as of their production and distribution tactics, provided convincing evidence that a general scheme remains constant through the years: an operating model actualizing itself as a relational disposition of technical and representational elements that determines, in accordance with a particular strategic end, a specific type of relation to the spectator. Crucial to studying all of the aspects of this disposition together is the adoption of a dynamic methodology and a theoretical framework that would allow us to distance ourselves from traditional approaches to film history and film analysis (such as the analysis of the ciné-tract as a distinct film “genre”). Inspired by the methodology developed by François Albera and Maria Tortajada in the early 2000s, my thesis attempts, through a detailed film analysis as well as a meticulous recounting of all the practices involved in the films’ production and distribution (by means of oral history and discourse analysis), to reconstruct the ciné-tract as a visual dispositive, that is a “network of relations between a spectator, the representation, and the ‘machinery’ that allows the spectator to have access to the representation”[1]. This type of approach reveals the de-subjugation of the spectator as the ultimate goal of all ciné-tracts; the viewer is urged to engage immediately with a concrete form of political action, that is, the creation of his or her own ciné-tract(s), offering alternative and subjective accounts of political reality and thus challenging the myths of authority and objectivity as compelling social narratives.

Studying the original Ciné-tracts’ project from an epistemological point of view

The ciné-tracts made during the spring and summer of 1968 were anonymous short silent movies shot in 16mm, composed of one reel of a maximum length of thirty meters which, projected in the standardized rate of twenty-four frames per second, resulted in films of two to five minutes each. In most cases, they were black and white films consisting exclusively of still images (photographs, magazine covers, publicity posters, film stills, etc.) and handwritten intertitles. Most significantly, they were edited “in-camera”; montage in its canonical form as a post-production process was “prohibited”. Each film was supposed to be ready to be screened upon its departure from the laboratory.

An undefined number of ciné-tracts were actually produced in Paris from May to July 1968. The main ambition of this now forgotten film project was the creation of a new communication tool aspiring to materialize the idea of making a direct political intervention accessible to the masses. The formal characteristics of the ciné-tracts – no sound, no editing, the use of “ready-made” still images – were meant to simplify the filmmaking process, thus inviting amateurs to participate in their making. Moreover, a team of volunteers, recruited mostly from Marker’s and Godard’s friends and acquaintances, took on organizing the logistics of the production and the distribution of these films; they started by distributing leaflets both in the streets of Paris during demonstrations, as well as in occupied factories and universities, inviting everybody to make ciné-tracts (“Ciné-tractez!”), explaining in detail the process of their fabrication, and explicitly stating that they would provide all the necessary equipment (the 16mm camera, the studio, even a fair amount of photographs and documents) to anyone interested in trying his or her hand at this entirely new form of filmmaking. More importantly, this informal collective[2] assured the development and the printing of 16mm copies for free, thanks to workers in several Parisian laboratories who shared the political values of the May 68 revolt.

In reality, however, the Ciné-tracts’ project did not achieve the goals of restructuring the media reality from below and questioning existing hierarchies in the construction of visual discourses and representations. In the end, the vast majority of these films were made by well-known and well-established directors whose reputation monopolized the symbolic capital of the ciné-tract as a distinct media practice. Today, when consulting the private archives of SLON, one finds that – from the autumn of 1968 onwards – individuals, unions, and other institutions interested in buying or renting some of those ciné-tracts would explicitly ask for a Godard or a Resnais film (even though the ciné-tracts themselves were unsigned and, therefore, technically anonymous).

Nonetheless, the ciné-tracts project of May 1968 gave birth to a variety of models of political action and media practice. The task of reconstructing and shedding new light on models that have been previously ignored or explicitly marginalized by official historiographical discourse is incumbent upon researchers who are looking to challenge teleological conceptions of media history. Driven by this particular concern, in my thesis I plan to examine the ciné-tract not as a type of film or a “genre”, nor as a medium, but as a dispositive: a network of relations (between a spectator, the representation and the ‘machinery’) flexible and amendable to adaptation according to the political, socio-cultural, and technological context of any given era. This methodology allows me to circumvent the requirement to define the ciné-tract in a fixed and universal way, and thus to avoid the essentialist trap in my analytical approach. In this respect, my theoretical construction will knowingly raise epistemological questions regarding the ways that our societies capture and transmit images, discourses, and ideologies in a given historical moment. For instance, understanding the ciné-tract as a dispositive invites us to study and analyze the original project (i.e. as it was conceived and, for a brief moment, developed in May and June 1968), as the founding of a free image-sharing platform – a sort of a database for creating political discourses, while at the same time not falling back on a teleological reading of History that would attribute to this project a prophetic force or a precursory role with regards to the evolution of new media practices in the 2000s; instead, we can interpret it by relating it to an epistemic schema which continues, from 1968 to the present, to organize the way that we conceive and use visual media. In this way, the May ‘68 ciné-tracts emerge as a case study for a “pre-history” of current social networks in terms of participation, sharing, platforms, and the reconceptualization of both the “author” and the “spectator” as “users” of a dispositive.

The Paris 8 ciné-tracts: new media, digital culture and the archive

For the Seminar, I would like to introduce a specific case study: the Ciné-tracts’ project initiated by a group of insurgent students from the Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis University that left its mark during the Nuit Debout movement in the spring of 2016. The way this particular project was conceived and developed is a testament to the fact that, far from being a failure, the original May ‘68 project is of relevance today, a half a century later, as a model of political action. Similar to the professional filmmakers in the 1960s who conceived of the idea of this new type of film and provided amateurs with access to filmmaking by accompanying them throughout all steps of the creative process, a Professor at Paris 8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis University, Hélène Fleckinger, who is a specialist in French militant video production of the 1970s, was the person who initially set the new ciné-tracts’ project in motion. In early March 2016, with the help of some of her students, she distributed in the buildings of their campus – at the time occupied by the students in reaction to the El Khomri bill (or “loi travail”) and in support to the Nuit Debout movement – the same two-paged leaflet that had formerly circulated in the streets of Paris in May 1968 (“Ciné-tractez!” – found in the archives of Iskra, a production company that grew out of the Slon cooperative). A few days later, she organized screenings of the original 1968 ciné-tracts and workshops, which took place in the classrooms of the occupied buildings, with the goal of inspiring students to begin producing their own ciné-tracts. During the next two months, the Paris 8 students produced fourteen ciné-tracts that were screened inside of the campus and during the Nuit Debout assemblies before being uploaded on YouTube and other web-based platforms. Some of these films aimed to promote a manifestation or other political actions, inviting the public to join the protestors; others offered a brief explanation of the students’ objections to the El Khomri bill, whereas a few of them performed what is known as détournement, a practice advocated by the Lettrists and the Situationists and also used by the original May ‘68 ciné-tracts that could be defined as the setting up of subversive political pranks by giving new meaning to recognizable archival images through montage.

However, History repeated itself. The students’ initial response to Fleckinger’s invitation was enthusiastic, but two months later their participation waned; before the end of May 2016, the production of ciné-tracts ceased completely. Furthermore, judging from the total number of views that they generated on their YouTube page from March 2016 to July 2018, these films were in the end rarely seen. Obviously, one could attribute this disenchantment to the evolution of the sociopolitical context from which the idea for a new series of ciné-tracts had emerged in the first place. Much like the May ’68 revolt, the Nuit Debout movement did not last more than a few months; the revolutionary euphoria seemed to vanish once the El Khomri bill was adopted into law on 8 August 2016.

Nevertheless, I believe that the project’s apparent failure to establish a new alternative media practice is also the result of a complex array of sociocultural and ideological developments that are specific to our age of digital technology. At first sight, this hypothesis might seem rather paradoxical, given the evolution of our mediascape and its technological foundations during the last fifty years. Back in 1968, producing and distributing 16mm films was a demanding task –technically and financially speaking, and this despite the ciné-tract’s simplified form and creative process. Indeed, it proved to be impossible for a small, informal collective of volunteers to assure a constant production and distribution of ciné-tracts made by active, engaged citizens and thus to impose a new cultural practice that would challenge established media hierarchies. It would seem however that in our days, when anyone with access to a digital camera, a smartphone, or a computer can produce their own film and upload it to an instant audience, conditions are more favorable for such a project. After all, over the last decade, popular discourse has been hailing the advent of a long-awaited democratization of media thanks to the Internet with its free-sharing platforms and the so-called social networks. But a new question seems to arise out of this digital context: why do some videos (and some practices) have an extraordinary impact while others end up being completely overlooked? And more importantly, how could a militant media practice such as the ciné-tracts’ project reach a wider audience while still remaining faithful to the radical political ambitions that gave rise to it?

The emergence of these new, pressing questions requires the mobilization or even the invention of novel interpretative frameworks allowing us to examine the conditions of possibility for the foundation of a long-term context of meaning in which such militant media practices could carry weight and become effective in terms of their goals. These methodologies should specifically allow us to study altogether the technological, social, ideological, but also legal factors that coordinate in order to encourage (or, in our case study, discourage) the production, the circulation and, finally, the visibility of militant movies today. Thus, they should firstly draw the attention to algorithms (such as PageRank) and other video classification or content regulatory systems at work on web-based platforms. After all, the much-acclaimed accessibility of digital technology truly concerns only a “moment of the dispositive”[3], specific stages in the “life” of audiovisual discourses (for example the actual creation and online sharing of videos), while others (like those guaranteeing the visibility of those videos) stay relatively obscure for the wider public, mystified, and controlled by established financial, political, and media elites. Then, these new methodologies should reveal a series of micro-strategies (like reflexivity or media convergence) that could be of use to militant filmmakers today wishing to reach the largest possible audience. In this regard, the concept of the archive as well as its evolution within digital cultures needs to be addressed; the case of the ciné-tracts offers an example of cultural and political texts that should never be considered as passive objects locked away in repositories, but should be considered as active agents that could still play a role in society and that should therefore be reinvigorated within new contexts of presentation. As Nick Couldry puts it, “in a time of mass self-broadcasting, when everyone in principle has the capacity to express something in what is formally a public domain (through being online), the questions of how every voice can be ‘heard in the context of life’ becomes an institutional question of great complexity”[4].

[1] François Albera and Maria Tortajada, « Introduction to an Epistemology of Viewing and Listening Dispositives », in: Cinema Beyond Film. Media Epistemology in the Modern Era, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2010, p. 11. However, “[i]t is important to stress firstly that ‘machinery’ does not simply boil down to the machine, secondly that the problematics of the theory of representation are included in ‘representation’, and thirdly that ‘spectator’ includes the various psychological, sociological and cognitive approaches to the notions. Moreover, the three levels have to be redefined each time.”, François Albera and Maria Tortajada, “The 1900 Episteme” in: Cinema Beyond Film. Media Epistemology in the Modern Era, op. cit., p. 35.

[2] During the events of May and June 1968, this team of volunteers did not adopt a legal form. However, a number of those who were actively involved in the Ciné-tracts’ project (including Marker himself) would eventually form, on November 1968, the cooperative SLON that eventually took in charge the distribution of those ciné-tracts in the following years.

[3] Benoît Turquety, Inventer le cinéma. Épistémologie, problèmes, machines, Lausanne, L’Âge d’homme, 2014.

[4] Nick Couldry, « Alternative media and voice », in Chris Atton (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Alternative and Community Media », New York ; London, Routledge, 2015, p. 48.

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