Jean-Luc Godard speaks on behalf of his comrades from the collective: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Gérard Martin, Nathalie Billard and Armand Marco.
How and when was the Dziga Vertov Group created?
DVG/JLG: After May I met this guy Jean-Pierre Gorin who was a militant with the JCML ([UJCml] Union des jeunesses communistes marxistes-léninistes). It was a meeting of two people, one coming from normal cinema and the other a militant who decided that making films was one of his political tasks in order to theorize May and at the same time to get back to practice. I was hoping to link up with someone who was not from the world of cinema. Ultimately, with one wanting to make films and the other hoping to quit making them, it was an attempt to construct a new unity created out of two opposites, according to the Marxist concept, and therefore to try to create a new political group which wouldn't make political films, but which would try to make political films politically, something that was quite different from what the other militant filmmakers were doing.
We followed the États Généraux after the fall of May, and then we left. We took the name Dziga Vertov, not because we wanted to apply his program, but rather in relation to Eisenstein who was a revisionist filmmaker, compared to Vertov, who, at the beginning of Bolshevik cinema had a whole other set of theories, simply consisting of opening people's eyes and showing them the world in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At that time the term Kino-Pravda had nothing to do with reportage or the "candid" camera that is abusively associated with Dziga Vertov today under the moniker cinéma vérité (meaning political cinema). For us the most important thing was to connect with the tasks of production prior to those of distribution and reception; that it is the revolution who dictates the economy if you will, and therefore in terms of cinema, it is only once we know how to make films in the specific conditions of a capitalist country, under the blows of imperialism, that we will know how to distribute them.
At the same time the union of production-distribution is a struggle of two opposites and it is an unbreakable union: but rather than think of distribution as the principal contradiction, which is what most militant filmmakers do—and it is there that they regularly stumble—we have considered the primary contradiction as residing in production: to produce a film in a just manner, politically, should in turn give us the just manner with which to distribute the film, politically. But we are definitely not there yet. Our entire evolution has been created over the course of two years. We are facing some big contradictions in relation to our film on Palestine: regarding this very real problem, we felt the need to stop theorizing behind closed doors and to work in cooperation with the masses. But when you work in the industry—even benefiting from my name—playing with contradiction, half of you gets devoured by this very contradiction. For example, to pay for the Palestinian images, we have to make a commercial and therefore we create something according to the logic of bourgeois advertizing ideology: if we do that in the morning, it is very difficult to create something proletarian that afternoon; we can't just stop at noon and take off our bourgeois jacket and then just slip on a proletarian one, it's just not that easy.
AN IDEOLOGICAL RIFLE
So today, producing a film in a capitalist country is such a huge contradiction that we have a hard time pulling it off. We also realized that militants can do their political work justly, but once they pick up a camera they don't realize that their ideological rifle, which is the cinema, is not a rifle (it's barely a fork), and that cinema, when it is at its very best, is able to make bourgeois revolution, while commercial cinema is still at the stage of feudalism. What made me reflect profoundly, is that on the one hand in China they stopped making cinema as the same time that they closed the universities, and on the other hand was the assembly of filmmakers during May called the États Généraux du Cinéma: at that moment cinema got a glimpse of its bourgeois revolutionary possibility. Today the SRF (Société des Réalisateurs de Films) tries to create a bourgeois revolution, meaning about 200 years late to the events, and that is the current situation of almost all world cinemas. Another thing: in May the only activity that didn't stop was the screening of films; production stopped, Cannes stopped, but the screening of films continued. Truffaut couldn't see the contradiction between stopping Cannes and continuing to show the film that he produced or bought.
We have to reflect on all of these problems, knowing that we are in France and that the problems aren't the same in Novosibirsk or Buenos Aires. That's the real question for militant filmmakers and some of them decide to stop making films. For us, we've decided that filmmaking is a secondary task in the revolution but that this secondary task is currently very important and therefore it is just for us to make it our principal activity.
Do you consider your films since May '68 to be research projects rather than films to be consumed?
We knew that the first ones would be hardly seen. The fact was that I had been rejected from the normal cinema in which I was unable to undertake my revolt, where I was considered a black shirt or and anarchist, even if I was a earning a good living. During May I understood where my spontaneous revolt, which had put me little by little outside of the system, had to take me. It was an individual revolt and I understood then, much too late, that I had to link up more with the big social movements. Cinema is a completely closed world that cuts you off from reality in an incredible manner. We knew, from reflecting on the means of production, that we would probably find some push back against us, that we wouldn't be able to distribute our films, that only two or three friends would see them, that it was a pretty untenable situation but that we would have to tolerate it for a year or two, the least amount of time possible, but it was unavoidable. So we tried to benefit from another contradiction, with my name, even though I had been rejected form normal cinema, certain elements of television were opening their arms to me. But that didn't last very long either, since we had done a film for the BBC who refused the project after having ordered it, then another for RAI who also refused the final product. Currently German TV has offered me a contract for two or three films, but that's because of the situation in Germany, the contradictions of liberalism allow us to go much further there than in France, England or Italy, and also because the subjects don't really affect Germany. Even the film on Czechoslovakia, which is not at all good, but that's another question, was pulled from programming because it was too political at the moment of the German elections: even an ultra-liberal television had backed off.
You don't believe in parallel distribution? It's pretty important.
No, not much, because we think that films that are poorly made—and this is the case of the films distributed in this manner—speak only to the converted. Distribution needs to be linked to political work: I will believe in a distribution of the masses when there is a party of the masses. This is the case in China, but the Chinese have only just begun to pose the problems of cinema, they had no need to pose them earlier. Cinema is a party instrument and we find ourselves in the countries where the revolutionary party is far from existing and where revolutionary work consists of creating it, and that is a process that could take a long time.
CINEMA AND REVOLUTION
So the distribution of thousands of copies of a militant film won't advance the revolution a single second. The only films that the proletariat really accepts today are still Battleship Potemkin and the Salt of the Earth: these are the films that profoundly touch them, one film by a bourgeois who got carried away by the revolution and another by an American liberal. These films were carried by a mass movement, and the proletariat recognizes itself in them: but at the same time its an old rifle that we are giving them because if they see the strike in the Salt of the Earth at the time that they are undertaking a strike at Berliet, it lifts their morale but that doesn't give them any indication of the political forces at work where they find themselves struggling.
Do you think that the 'spectacular' element can provide the general public access to a political film?
In order to have a real effect it would have to be a spectacle that doesn't suffocate the dialectic. We see this in the case of Brecht: because of the conditions in which he lived his work was never produced very well, it was only in China that he was able to perfect his work while at the same time having an influence, because he was creating dialectical theater. But the people who produced it always drowned the dialectic in the spectacle. And so the people could never reflect. Brecht wrote for the proletariat and the proletariat can understand if it is well made, that is to say if it is made by the proletariat. But the bourgeoisie produces it and the bourgeoisie sees in it a spectacle that irritates them. These are the contradictions in which we find ourselves and we imagine it will take a few years to get past them; it's worth it if economically we can hold on, which is effectively more and more difficult. So we think that on the one hand we have to theorize, and theorize in such a way that it is more in touch with reality in order to begin to disseminate and gather the ideas of the masses to return them to them through films. This is the case with the Palestinian film, which poses a problem that we can find some of the elements here, among the immigrant workers, and can on its own bring them something that can help them in their own struggle. So, we are not entirely opposed to spectacle in principal. Against our own hopes we think it should exist for the time being.
As a militant filmmaker, shouldn't you aim for immediate effectiveness and sacrifice your research into new forms?
But we're not looking for new forms; we are looking for new relationships. This consists of first, destroying the old relationships, not only in terms of form, then realizing that if we destroy them on the formal plane its that this form came from certain social conditions of existence and work in common that implicate the struggle of opposites; it is a political work. That links up with the difficulties of revolutionary groups in France that are unable to create a unity, even out of simple things. But none of this is simple.
Where are you with your work?
The Palestinian film is in postproduction. We had to put it on hold for a period of time in order to make a film called Vladimir et Rosa for German TV, which is a purely financial job and one that we accepted as such by deciding that we would give ourselves less problems. That project showed us the difficulty of making a materialist film that is a fiction film with actors. It's a question that the Chinese are beginning to ask: the disadvantage for us compared to them is that we had neither the revolution nor the Cultural Revolution. We need to work in this direction following new, less-theorized forms.
How do you undertake work as a group?
We don't, we'll never succeed! Two people working politically on a film is very difficult, it can't work. There has to be a moment when the collective work is taken over by just one person, the one more qualified than the other to execute it. You can't let yourself get swept away by the utopia of absolute egalitarianism, particularly in the economic domain where equal salaries don't solve anything since we don't all live in the same conditions: we need to discuss all the conditions of life and act politically at all levels.
What do think of the didactic element in political films?
There are two types of militant films: those that we call chalkboard films and international films, the latter are the equivalent of singing the International at a demonstration, the former allow people to apply what they see in the films to reality, or to go and rewrite what they learn on another chalkboard so that others can apply it as well.
A LESSON AND A SONG
These are the two contradictory aspects of the same unity—but it is very difficult carry through with this unity—that Battleship Potemkin is at once a lesson in revolutionary action and a song that raises morale. But actually we are constantly torn between the two. Big political films like Z cannot be just summarily rejected: we have to see what moment of the contradiction it represents in the current situation. A film like Z, which in France makes revolutionary consciousness regress through its well polished surface and good conscience that it transmits to a hardly politicized audience, could, in another time or another country, be an element of mobilization. But actually I'm no longer thinking of Z at all, but certain Brazilian or Cuban films, or the Bolivian film Yawar Mallku.
Among recent political films are there any that are close to what you want to do?
But actually we're still not sure exactly what we want to do, we don't even know if we will do it, if we will continue. I think we need to exploit the contradictions in order to slip in there and explode them: but the territory is well guarded! It will be possible in a few years with the development of video cameras, which will give militants an audio-visual tool that will enable them to undertake a more effective political work. We'll no longer need normal cinema but I suspect this sector will also be well guarded by the bourgeoisie: will individuals have the right to own production equipment? We'll have to use the contradictions that come from rivalries between big capitalist corporations, to get from Sony what Gaumont might, for example, refuse to give us.
Would you refuse to make a commercial film now?
Absolutely not! But no one is offering that to me and I don't have the means. Even in the past, after the success of Breathless, I never received propositions: I had to convince producers, and very few at that, who ended up being friends and then after May stopped being friends. But, it's impossible to make a political film within the system: as soon as your budget goes beyond 50 million, they tell you what to do with your script. They give you 50 million if you make Easy Rider or More.
And Karmitz's Camarades isn't a good exception for you?
I don't think Karmitz can do the same thing twice in a row and that his film is not like Z but rather Yawar Mallku: I think it is here that he is ineffective. He doesn't help anyone fight, he just analyzes: A film like La Belle Equipe, made during the time of the Front Populaire, had perhaps a meaning that it can no longer have today because we are no longer in 1936. It's not Karmitz's sincerity that is being questioned, it the effectiveness of his film: Salt of the Earth is better for the proletariat.
One has the impression that for the past two years you seem committed to a certain impossibility, momentarily perhaps, of being able to express yourself…
No, we express ourselves much better and more often, but in a different manner, dialectically. But it's true that it is difficult to express oneself in France today, that an oppressed Black American or Palestinian can express himself better than me. Me, I express myself, poorly perhaps, but I certainly didn't lose the will to express myself, to transform my way of expressing myself to continue to improve the ways in which I express myself…
Translated by Paul Douglas Grant