In 1968 Jean-Pierre Thorn, a young activist filmmaker, created the seminal Oser lutter, oser vaincre, an opening salvo of a certain tendency of cinéma militant during the events of May 1968. The documentary of a strike at the Renault-Flins factory just outside of Paris was as concerned with documenting the workers' actions and denouncing the betrayal of the PCF as it was with the formal preoccupations of a cineaste under the influence of Soviet cinema.

Oser lutter was conceived when Thorn began frequenting the meetings of the Union des jeunesses communistes marxistes–léninistes (UJCml) at rue d’Ulm in Paris, where the students in charge of Servir le peuple (UJCml’s journal) suggested that they make a film about class struggle in Brittany. The UJCml was a particularly dogmatic and highly theoretical group of far-left students who had split with the Union des étudiants communistes (UEC) over issues of revisionism within the PCF.

As the idea for this film project coincided with the May events, the influence of the UJCml on Thorn’s political ideas concerning the events translated into an “economism” that culminated in a rejection of the student uprisings in the Latin Quarter. Both Thorn and the UJCML, while pro-Chinese from the outset, were now consistently drawing on the thought of Mao Tse-Tung and considered the “revolting” students to be part of the bourgeois elite, and their actions at the barricades no more than a class party. Instead, these young Marxist–Leninists turned their attention to the working-class strikes and demonstrations taking place in the factories of France.

Inspired by the occupation at the Renault-Billancourt factory and a march he participated in leading to that factory, Thorn went to the Flins Renault factory to shoot a film about revolutionary workers. This film would ultimately become Oser lutter, oser vaincre.

In looking for a new film form, Thorn was also under the influence of the direct cinema tradition, despite its naturalist tendencies. Yet his distaste for the naturalist tendencies of direct cinema pushed Thorn, although not entirely, in the direction of cinéma vérité, which revealed its artifice in the manner of a film like Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961). While Thorn was suspicious of voiceover, suggesting that it was a formal tactic that denied montage and the image their rightful place in the dialectically materialist process, Oser lutter did have recourse to a modest use of voiceover. But the principal strategies, both extradiegetic and formal, Thorn most frequently employed to articulate the contradictions of the reality being filmed were the use of title cards and montage.

Oser lutter was created (particularly in the post-production phase) under the sign of Sergei Eisenstein’s October (1928) and Brechtian epic theatre. For Thorn, the title card was a method of interrogating the image, the audience and the subject(s) of the film – a technique faithful to Brecht’s objectivity or distance. In Oser lutter (as well as in his Margoline [1973], and certainly his later Le dos au mur [1981]), the Maoist principle of the enquête, or investigation, was the basis for a cinema that could point out the contradictions of the reality filmed. It stood against naturalism and sought to refute the idea that filming a revolutionary event was enough to make a revolutionary film. Even in his later films, Thorn remained preoccupied with the ways in which he could continue to keep the spectator in a state of activity, often repeating that “ambient naturalism is a game society plays in order to make us accept reality”.[1] He supported this position by citing Brecht’s “Consider nothing natural so that everything may be considered subject to change”.[2]

Further, this preoccupation led Thorn to become an établi. In 1966 at the 19th congress of the UEC a group of Althusserians announced its pro-Chinese affiliation. Headed by Robert Linhart, Althusser’s prize student, this faction was ejected from the UEC and went on to establish the UJCml. The following summer of 1967 the UJCml created “le mouvement des grands enquets” in which members of the group went to Perrier in the Cevennes to get a sense of the political climate of the working class there. At the same time a delegation from the UJCml was invited to China. When the delegation returned, full of enthusiasm for what they had seen abroad, they found out that the group in the Cevennes were welcomed into the factories and that even CGT militants were very open to them. Based on these experiences the UJCml formulated “La ligne d’établissement” and during a meeting in Novemeber 1967 the first of three primary waves of établissement began; young students, lycéens, diplomés and other intellectuals abandoned their studies, their careers and their lives to get hired clandestinely and work with and try to radicalize the workers in factories throughout France. These were the établis.[3]

Thus, Thorn's life was created out of montage as much as his films were. He pieced together the contradictions that he located in the historical period in which he evolved as a militant and a filmmaker. Though he remained far from the theoretical concerns of the post-68 Lacanian and Althusserian doxa that gripped much of the intellectual left, Thorn nevertheless located his theoretical position in his lived experience, one shaped by Russian history and aesthetics: from the Journey to the People of 1874 to the formalism of Soviet Cinema.

 

Paul Grant: During the May events a number of collective film projects were undertaken, often in a wildcat manner (in some sense in the spirit of the events themselves), but it is sometimes difficult to trace the provenance of many of the films, the collective spirit saw so much overlap amongst filmmakers, collectives and film projects.  Between Les États Généraux du cinéma (EG), IDHEC, ARC and your films it's hard to unwrap whose films are whose. Oser Lutter is your film?

Jean Pierre Thorn: Yes, well also Ligne Rouge’s. The group was formed after May. The problem with Oser lutter is that in 68 we were about a hundred technicians that shot film during the events. We had an immense coordination, which means the technicians were on “active strike,” which is something rather exceptional. At EG, for the whole profession, we were 600 on strike, and there were the general assemblies, with the committees that were sort of charged with reflecting on the future of cinema with Marin Karmitz and the people that established the SRF afterwards. And then we had a vote at the general assembly under the pressure of ARC we made a motion in that the strike should be tactical, we would use our means of production to help the workers and students. 

PG: You were at IDHEC

JP: No, I had made a couple of shorts and I was in conflict about it. My producer was Pierre Braunberger, he produced a film of mine that was edited by someone else. I made a short called Emmanuelle and this allowed me to meet Joris Ivens, it was about a generation, lost and unsure how to act politically in the face of Vietnam, very influenced by Godard. I wanted to use sounds from the war, not sound effects but actual recordings of sounds from the war in Vietnam. At that time Le ciel, la terre (1965) was being projected in Universities and after a screening I introduced myself to Ivens, and he was very nice, and he said come see me and tell me about your film, so I did and he gave me some sounds for the project on the condition that I show him the film when it was done. I did and since then we were friends.  When I shot Oser lutter I was very influenced by the UJCml, for me the real class struggle wasn’t in the Latin Quarter you had to go to the factory. So in some sense, because we were so dogmatic, you had to make the proletarian revolution, know the workers, and I looked for a factory where I could shoot, I went to meet with the direction of the CGT, a beuraucrat met with me and said he liked the project but never got in touch with me, and the folks from the UJCml said “go to flins, there’s a comrade there, interesting things going on.” While there was one établi there was also a handful of 50 young revolutionary workers like those we see in the Groupe medvedkine films, like who we find a little bit everywhere, and they wanted to revolt.

I shot with cameraman Bruno Muel on Oser Lutter, and what’s interesting is that at the time we were just beginning to understand that the PC was betraying us, at the end of the movement, really at the beginning we had alliances within the PC at EG. Those who directed the EG the Production Commission were people from the PC. There was a whole team of technicians, we had editing tables at our disposition, all the material we needed, its an extraordinary page in the history of French cinema: I was this young kid, and they were asking me if I needed a team for synchronized shooting, we worked on the sound at IDHEC, which was on strike, during the evenings, so ultimately is was this whole network of solidarity. Regarding the film, we initially thought it would be an EG film, grouping together the whole worker-student-peasant movement, but that film never came to be.

When we began the editing we saw that at the EG meetings ideological conflicts were brewing with the PC, and there was the whole critical movement of the UJC. I realized that I had made a political error and that my film was a kind of diffused gauchisme, so I undertook re-editing the film with a group, a number of whom went on to be établis at Sochaux. Someone named Pol (possibly Pol Cèbe of the Groupes Medvedkine Sochaux) helped a lot. So the film became a film that said "we need to build a new revolutionary party, the PC is completely revisioniste, etc." The Dogmatic side of the film (there are around 250 intertitles) comes from our youth, we believed that Marxist-Leninist theory didn’t come from the economic struggle, but that we also needed to educate the masses make films of popular education. So it was during the editing that I began to understand the nature of the PC, and as a result I moved closer to groups like ARC that were mostly Trotsky. So we all kind of grouped together within the EG because at the time it was directed by a guy named Charvin. Charvin was an anarchist and under his influence the EG developed the idea that we should film all the manifestations, the result being that we accumulated a lot of debt at the labs, the negatives were in the labs. We were worried seeing the debts, and we didn’t want the copies to be seized, so we set up a reflection group to say that we need projects with specific political orientations and that we can’t afford to just make popular counter-television. At that time I wrote the text Vive le cinéma, arme de propagande communiste au service de la révolution!. The debt was a problem for almost ten years; it wasn’t until much later that we were able to pay it back, when we were forced to sell the archives to Gudie Lawaetz. And that hurt hurt, because here’s this film one of the few about 68, and its made with our footage, and our films themselves hadn’t been seen.

During 68 the EG wanted to establish a cooperative called La Cooperative Nouvelle Printemps, we went to Bruxelles and made a deal with the Belgian Cinématheque, we thought we were being really slick, and now we know: we made a deal that for every image they developed they would pay the cinémathèque and they could keep a copy, but without the sound, which means that all the images should in theory be at the cinémathèque but without sound. Afterwards we had networks that smuggled the reels around, my film was entirely developed in Belgium. One Christmas I smuggled them back (the negatives) under a Christmas tree on the roof of my car.

PG: Where exactly did Ligne Rouge position itself?

Ligne Rouge started right at the end of the events of May, so summer 68, it was primarily a scission with the UJCml. There many currents in the UJ, there was the group around Benny Levy eventually giving rise to La Cause du peuple, there were the Toulousains, who felt they had failed and that there needed to be a rectification of some sort. It's hard to remember, I was so young. You know we were filming these incredibly important events, and we wanted to understand why the unions were acting like they were, where was all this was going, and at night I would get in a car and read the Little Red Book. I was so unpolitical. I was an anti-war protester, and then there was May.

PG: What about this Cinema Ligne Rouge?

JPTh: We were a cell of Ligne rouge, which counted about a hundred militants. It was me Jean-Denis Bonan, Mireille Abramovici and Marceline Loridan,who actually became part of the split that went with La Cause du people (who by the way did not like Oser lutter and who wrote a kind of scathing critique.)

PG: And then there was also Drapeau Rouge…

JP: No, I wasn’t part of that. After Ligne Rouge, there was a point when I was tired of these ideological debates, and we created a critical movement at the interior of Ligne Rouge, which said we need to go into the social reality and to stop. That’s when I became an établi. 69. Given that I was a student I had to find a way to get social security, which was difficult because I had to work a bunch of crummy jobs in the textile industry to erase my past. And it was in 71 that I finally became an établi at Alsthom. Before that I wasn’t really an établi, but I was trying to get forgotten in a bunch of little jobs. You can’t present yourself to a factory job without the right papers otherwise they think something is fishy. I stayed at Alsthom until 79.

PG: At any point when you were an établi did you think you were a worker more than an établi. My idea was to be a passeur to help the ouvriers help themselves. I never resolved the problem of speaking for them. I was a life project for me, it nourishes my films up to today.

JPTh : Monde Ouvrier was before the Action Catholique Ouvrier before the retaking of it by the institution, and they had a journal and its a part of the social history of France that entirely unknown. From the Liberation, from 48 into the 50s to the beginning of the Algerian War, one branch became PSU. On my établissement I did an interview with Dressen for his book, but also with Virginie Linhart, but I have a hard time with her analysis, and her current attitude towards it. It’s the search for her father, my reproach is the fact that the analysis turns almost entirely around the GP. I was opposed to them, and I can be critiqued for my dogmatic approach as well as that of my group, ligne rouge, but I was never in agreement with their ideas about a Nouvelle resistance populaire, calling on people to take violent action. They even took my film and re-edited. Obviously they have a right to their different conception, but they didn’t have the right to intervene in that manner. It was certain directors of La cause du people, we were liquidators so we had to be beaten.

PG: Was Linhart already someone for you?

JPTh: Prior to that, when he was at the UJCml, but I was younger and I was never a member, just a sympathizer, I was part of the youth movement Servir le people. At Flins we burn the bulletin, and the union doesn’t really take a position, that night we were called to rue d’ulm, there was the whole bureau politique of the ujc who were trying to get at the quintessence of the movement. That’s where I really met the UJC. As for Dubost I think he was there after, but I did know Jean-Michel Lenormand, he was the one that got me into Flins to film. He was part of the UJ, he was part of the first wave of the établis and he founded Syndicalistes proletariennes de le CGT. For the 30th anniversary of 68 I got a call at midnight, it was him he drove a Taxi in San Francisco. He invited me to present Je t’ai dans la peau at Berkeley, with left wing militants and they sang the international and got mad at me for no longer being a Maoist. So he was part of the first wave of établis, and he wasn’t at Flins very ling, and afterwards he couldn’t take the critique at the heart of the UJC meaning between the Toulousain and those who founded La Cause du people. He participated in the Long March in Bretagne, but then he left for latin America with is wife (with whom he later split) and the guy had a lot of problems, he was a junky he ended up in prison and then eventually San Francisco. He tried to get well he lived with a new woman, and he invited me with a group of Trotskyites in SF, that animated a television channel. (Thorn goes on to discuss the admiration he has for members of Cinélutte: Bonan, Mireille, Copans and Nahum. And the problem that GP Saindericin brings up of the établi who doesn’t announce himself as such). This is always the problem with the établis, we see for instance jean-Michel in Oser Lutter, he’s the one who says we need to do self-defense of the factories. It’s a strange status that the établi has, even myself when I was at Alsthom, I didn’t tell anyone my history, the fact that I had had another life as a filmmaker, we live a kind of dichotomy of our personality. This is the problem that I talk about in je t’ai dans la peau. A film that was very difficult to make, I had a lot of problems with the woman who played the lead, Solveig Dommartin.

PG: So at some point during your time at Alsthom you stopped to make Margoline, does that mean you were maintaining your links to Ligne Rouge?

JP: That was a parenthesis. It followed my interest in the immigration struggles, I believed that the new workers struggle had to be based on the development of the OS, the most exploited; the immigrants. Next to us a factory went on strike, and they were almost all sans papiers. I went to see Jean-Denis from Cinélutte, and they all came to help me. Occasionally during that period I would go to a meeting of Cinélutte, but I was in the factory. During that period Cinélutte distributed Oser Lutter Oser Vaincre. You know, I was still militant, I distributed Chinese tracts and supported Palestinian films , we showed Salt of the Earths. From Oser lutter I made a little book, like a comic book with stills from the films. But above all I was a syndicalist.

PG: With the CGT?

JP: I found the CFDT at Alsthom, given that the CGT was very opposed to us. I found the wing with an Italian friend and an Algerian. The idea was to organize the OS (ouvrier specialize, roughly translates as a semi-skilled worker), because at the time the immigrants didn’t have a voice, all the union delegates were white, all qualified workers. After I realized that it was a bit more complicated. The CGT was different in each workshop. But when I arrived they were very violent, they denounced me in tracts because I went to the meetings and demanded a unilateral wage increase, not percentage, we asked 300 francs for everyone. We thought that a raise based on percentages worked to divide the workers even further. We struggled for the freedom of expression of the OS, and we went to the strikes of others like the strike at Penarroya composed almost entirely of immigrant workers who were striking against Saturnism, an illness related to lead, and we saw how they organized the workers. First we thought that we would create a Maoist line with the comités de base, but I quickly realized that we needed to use the laws of the union rights: be allowed to move around the shop floor, unite the workers; legally, once your elected as a delegate, the bosses cant stop you from moving around. So after a year trying to do the comités de base I decided to organize the CFDT and that began quickly: in 75 we were 50 CGT 50 CFDT, so with Chili, or the death of Spanish militants, we organized the Spanish workers who were almost all refugees and we made a Spanish flag and demonstrated in the factory. The CGT wasn’t happy. Afterwards in 73, there were a lot of racist attacks in France, a lot of assassinations and there was a movement called Mouvement des Travailleurs Arabes, which was Maoist, and they called for a strike in France against racism. And we organized all the immigrants from each shop floor, and we called for the strike and the CGT refused, we got 600 to strike. There were 2000 at Alsthom. For me I was very negotiationist. Its true that any time something was broken I would organize a strike or a struggle to replace it or get I fixed. The Moroccans, who all worked outside, didn’t have jackets and they were all completely sick, so we created a movement to get the jackets. In 77 we started a strike that wasn’t about occupation. I thought we should find other tactics, taken form the Maoists or guerrilla warfare. What we did was that each hour a different workshop went on strike. That screwed up production and wasn’t so hard on our payment. Then we started wearing masks to be anonymous, I used my son's planet of the apes mask, so it had this ludic 68 character. And the strikes needed that. We created certain musical methods, it was fun, we would tap on the steel in a rhythm different than that of production. Finally we went to the office of the boss noting all our demands. There were other établis from Lutte ouvrière at the CGT and some from Humanité rouge in the CFDT. Ultimately the boss won and we avoided the firings, but that strike drew a lot of attention. There were about 6 or 7 groups from the far left and when you arrived in the morning there were ten tracts waiting for you. After 77 I was criticized harshly for not undertaking an occupation and there was a kind of putsch in the CFDT to take away the power, and that’s when I stopped with the CFDT. I was also having my doubts about China after the death of Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. I didn’t understanding anything.

PG: And Glucksman and all the nouveaux philosophes?

JPT: No, the thing I always reproached those higher ups in the Maoist movement for was that they never stuck a foot inside a factory in their lives, they were bourgeois. We were different, we wanted to apply our ideas, and I don’t regret it at all, it formed who I am and my way of thinking; except that in the 1980s I started questioning my place, China was no longer viable, in France I was very critical of both the PC and the far left, and that’s when I thought that perhaps my place was really to be a filmmaker, so in 1979 after a year of not being a delegate, I left.

I spent a month in the hospital with meningitis, and I was dying from the guilt of having left my friends at Alsthom. 6 months later they were on strike, with occupation, and they told me and I went to film them. And that was a kind of reconciliation because I had never told them who I was, they didn’t know I was a filmmaker, and they asked me why I hadn’t told them earlier, and they understood finally what all my baggage was about. And there I was filming the people who were my friends, and me as who I really was, not hiding.

 

Interview with Jean-Pierre Thorn

By Paul Douglas Grant

 



[1] See G. Hennebelle, Cinémaction, 76. Le Cinéma “direct”. Paris:Cinémaction-Corlet, 1995, p. 120. The quote is from my interview with Thorn, April 2010, Paris.

[2]Ibid.

[3] The name établi came from a French translation of a speech by Mao: Puisque les intellectuels sont appelés à servir les masses ouvrières et paysannes, ils doivent tout d'abord les comprendre et bien connaître leur vie, leur travail et leur mentalité. Nous recommandons aux intellectuels d'aller parmi les masses, dans les usines, dans les campagnes. Il serait fort mauvais qu'ils ne se trouvent jamais, de toute leur vie, avec des ouvriers et des paysans. Nos travailleurs de l'Etat, nos écrivains, nos artistes, nos enseignants et nos travailleurs de la recherche scientifique doivent saisir toutes les occasions possibles pour entrer en contact avec les ouvriers et les paysans. Certains peuvent aller dans les usines ou à la campagne juste pour jeter un coup d'oeil et faire un tour ; cela s'appelle "regarder les fleurs du haut de son cheval", ce qui vaut toujours mieux que de rester chez soi et ne rien voir. D'autres peuvent y séjourner plusieurs mois pour mener des enquêtes et se faire des amis ; cela s'appelle "descendre de cheval pour regarder les fleurs". D'autres encore peuvent y rester et y vivre longtemps, par exemple, deux ou trois ans, ou même plus ; cela s'appelle "s'établir".