A Postcard from the Barricade
Pocztówka z barykady

Natalia Sielewicz
in conversation with the participants of La Commune (de Paris,1871) by Peter Watkins
(This text was previously published on the website www.laznia.pl)

Can an attempt to de- and re-construct the events of the 1871 Paris Commune, the history of the defeat of the “last romantic revolution”, the mother of all revolutions as Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri characterized it, around which so many myths have accumulated, bring anything new to contemporary discourse? Karl Marx himself had a hand in the creation of one such myth, by expressing an overblown act of worship to “ heroic, noble, and devoted, like the women of antiquity”1 women of Paris, which gave the important feminist aspect of the Commune a tint of exalted blush. No matter how this short-lived uprising of the working class and the eruption of direct democracy is perceived, in French historiography the Commune has been marginalized and caricatured, to a one-dimensional revolt, the “biggest festival of the nineteenth century”2 (Guy Debord) or an unfulfilled dream of anarchists. Yet even if the corny outworn slogan that the “Commune lives on” brings on a sneer just as “Punk’s not dead” would, we ought to study the Commune, since, as Žižek reminds us , an attempt at analysis of our defeats confronts us with the problem of loyalty: the question arises, how are we able to salvage the emancipatory potential of those failures, whilst avoiding the trap of nostalgic attachment to the past or an overtly lazy, easy adaptation to the new circumstances3.

The challenge has been taken by Peter Watkins in his La Commune (1999) – a five-hour-long reconstruction of the events of 1871. Filmed without a script and mostly with an amateur cast, the film was an exercise in democracy on set, of artistic collaboration, but also an interesting formal measure, aimed at showing the proletarian revolution from the perspective of contemporary media, and an attempt at defalsifying a historical grand narrative. This year, the present-day communards, the participants of Watkins’ film, came to Berlin as members of the organization Le Rebond Pour La Commune invited there by the curators of Berlin Biennale 5. I decided to use this opportunity to ask them, if the Commune was indeed still alive, or perhaps was it a dead end. Below are fragments of the two-hour-long conversation at Brecht Square. The interviewees were: Patrick Watkins (production manager and casting director), Maylis Bouffartigue (Madame Théron), Sarah Louis (young rebel), Jean-Pierre Lenestour (member of the Communal Council) Caroline Lensing Hebben (German bourgeoisie representative in Paris).

La Commune (de Paris,1871), reż. Peter Watkins, foto. Corinna Paltrinieri,
by courtesy of Peter Watkins.

It would be hard not to notice whilst flicking through the Berlin Biennale guide that you have been branded as “survivors”, those who managed to live through the making of La Commune. I wanted to ask you about the challenges involved in the process of making it and the chief turning point. What made you stay until the last frame was shot, what about those who didn’t?
Patrick: I guess it must be down to linguistic ambiguities. It was about surviving on, life after life, meaning life after the film.

A widening of the battlefield? (Extension du domaine de la lutte).
Patrick: Yes. As actors and collaborators, we wanted to go beyond the framework of the film and to continue La Commune as a project beyond the projection room, as an organisation.

Sarah: When I think about survival, I think about what we are left with, after eight years, on the fact that we still keep together, continuing the debate, which originated on the set. So we have the film as a finished project, which can of course be seen, while within the Rebond pour la Commune we are trying to upkeep what is ephemeral by nature – a discussion and a democratic film process.

Patrick: At the same time the word „survival” could be also seen through the rifts, tensions and stirs that were taking place on set, and the emotional engagements of everyone of us, which peaked as we were filming the scenes at the barricades. What was important then, was the question we were asked at the casting stage: would you have gone to the barricades? Do your personal ethics, your conscience allow you to consider dying for a cause, for freedom. A seemingly abstract question at first, it gathered meaning as time went on and as we got more and more involved and it crystallized as we were filming the bloody week, the defence of the Montmartre.

La Commune (de Paris,1871), reż. Peter Watkins, foto. Corinna Paltrinieri,
by courtesy of Peter Watkins.

That was the basic idea of the Paris Commune. It was, first and foremost, an armed revolution. In interview with John Gianvito for "Cinemascope", Watkins admitted that the more he was aware of the democratic processes and procedures, which he released during the shoot, the more he was aware how a certain kind of control and hierarchy was being perpetuated, both on set and in the dominant/hegemonic language of the media. How would you define this combustible blending of egos, director's pressures and the atmosphere of anarchy which happened on set? Would you agree with Paul Virilio that cinema is a war and the director a dictator?
Maylis: Watkins was a dictator with good intentions. Each aspect of his work – the subject matter, film form and the way in which he cooperated with the cast is politically informed and committed.

Patrick: Peter is extremely adaptable, he draws people like a magnet. Because he knows how to listen, people open up to him, trust him and are willing to sacrifice a lot within this filmic intervention, the act, even if it has been orchestrated against them.

Sarah: To me, as someone with theatre and film experience, it was thanks to Watkins that acting finally gained full meaning. It seems easier to express using the English verb to act than in French (the verb jouer means 'to play'). To act denotes an action, an expression of an outlook, putting oneself in a situation or another and voicing an opinion on a given issue. The whole process of casting was democratic, as the majority of the actors were selected based on their own political beliefs. But imagine 200 people on set, when each and everyone of those individuals is trying to express him or herself fully and send make their political appeal to the viewer. Watkins was of course aware of the challenge, but he would not let anyone feel excluded. Despite this clash of personalities and temperaments, everyone's voice was heard with respect. That is why the film is so long.

Patrick: I, on the other hand, feel that this freedom on set was quite obvious for the professional actors, but the majority of us with no theatrical or film experience had to go through a period of adaptation, to not let all of this freedom go to our heads. There was a lot of queuing, the production budget was limiting, and it seems that this wasn't how some people imagined artistic collectivism and collective responsibility.

Caroline: There was even a confrontation between a group of revolutionaries and the TV Communale crew, filming the communards in action. The journalists were reproached for making their reports too short and random, like mainstream media news. After seven months of preparation in history and media studies, some expected a more human form of reporting, rather than a mimetic reproduction of the sort of thing Watkins would criticise in his films.

Let's talk about the preparation process. How were people recruited and what were the workshops with the director and historians like?

Patrick: The casting happened in two stages. We have planned some projections of Watkins' 1964 Culloden in several picture houses in Paris and in Saint Denis. Anyone who would come there could read our leaflet on the plans for La Commune. It read that we needed both actors and volunteers behind the camera. Then we contacted several organisations and social movements, like the sans papiers, feminists, unions and alterglobalists, who we organised screenings for. We were particularly keen to get people from outside the city, as in 1871 it was not the people of Paris, but the workers from Picardy, who worked on roads and infrastructure in the capital, who were most active in the Commune. Based on the idea of typecasting, we wanted to get some ethnic-local variation. France is undergoing a wide homogenisation process, all differences, all local accents are disappearing. Last but not least, we needed people who would, today as in the past, have stood against the Commune. Since the majority of civil servants and aristocracy ran off to Versailles, we were looking for people who would take the parts of these few bourgeois and employers, who stayed in Paris. We also needed to look for volunteers willing to be the army in Versailles. So we put ads in right-wing press.

La Commune (de Paris,1871), reż. Peter Watkins, foto. Corinna Paltrinieri,
by courtesy of Peter Watkins.

It is an interesting experiment and selection method – you chose people who had no acting experience, and on top of that are decisively right-wing, yet despite that they want to take part in this radical anarcho-leftist endeavour. What were your relations like, not on set, where you were in direct confrontation because of the script, but outside, in private?
Patrick: Well, proportions mattered... as I have already mentioned, not many representatives of the bourgeoisie stayed behind in the 11th arrondissement, we are talking about 5, 6 people: a priest, a doctor, a pawn shop owner, a laundry owner plus the army of Versailles. So they were the minority on set. The starting point was to separate between the political and politics. Many of us have had the experience of work in unions, social organisations, and, imagine this, there was even a woman there who now works as an assistant for one of the Sarkozy ministers. Add onto that the problem with democracy on set and, as it turned out, it wasn't the dogmatic leftists or anarchists who were best perceived during filming process.

Let me quote Gustave Courbet, who at the peak of the Commune events, on the 30th of April, wrote: „Here I am, thanks to the people of Paris, up to my neck in politics: president of the Federation of Artists, member of the Commune, delegate to the office of the Mayor, delegate to [the Ministry] of Public Education, four of the most important offices in Paris. As for Paris itself, the city is a paradise. No police, no meaningless squabbles. It works like a clockwork. If only it could stay like this forever. What a beautiful dream”4.
Is it not meaningful that, at the moment when the Commune was going ahead at full steam, one of its top activists speaks of it as a movement to be doomed to failure written off? Or maybe, as Alan Dalotel says, we dream of a Commune that never existed.

Jean-Pierre: I talk about this in the film. What do these mean: dreaming, a communard's dream, the utopian need for freedom. You know, Jacques Lacan once wrote, that revolutions are really after keeping the status quo. There is something in it. On the other hand, Deleuze had clearly drawn a division between a revolution and being a revolutionary. I would stick to this.

La Commune (de Paris,1871), reż. Peter Watkins, foto. Corinna Paltrinieri,
by courtesy of Peter Watkins.

Perhaps, according to Deleuze and Guatari, we ought to care about those smaller events, which slip out of control and place utopias in times, when we are no longer able to produce such utopian thinking. I think that the Commune as a revolution ought to be discussed and studied, since it is the best way of testing, identifying with its values and having them come true. Dalotel stresses this, when he recalls André Léo, one of the participants and activists of the Commune, who said: “First and foremost, that’s what the Commune is about: people speaking out, discussing issues and debating about the revolutionary utopia. [...] And if the Commune is able to teach us anything, it would be that we must get together, discuss, debate and when possible, unite”5.
Sarah: I think that the debate is still present, although perhaps in micro- rather than macro-scale, on the local level. Is this possible? At present, our basic problem is the fear of being together. As history shows, also in the case of the Commune, as exemplified by the Committee of Public Safety, power always corrupts. The question is: do we really want to be together, can we organise ourselves and dream together?

Berlin, 28.05.09.

English translation: Aleksandra Walentynowicz

La Commune (de Paris,1871)
, dir. Peter Watkins, 13 Production, La Sept Arte, Musée d'Orsay,1999, 345 min.




(1) K. Marks, Civil War in France, MEW 17, 349 [http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm].
(2) Despite being critical the situationists were of course „for” the Commune and in its failures they saw their „most promising successes”. Cf.: G.Debord, A. Kotány R. Vaneigem, Theses on the Paris Commune (1962) [http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/commune.html].
(3) Cf. S. Žižek, In defence of lost causes, Nowy Jork, p. 4.
(4) A. Antliff, A Beautiful Dream. Courbet’s Realism and the Paris Commune of 1871 [in:] Anarchy and Art. From the Paris Commune to the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Vancouver 2007, p. 32.
(5) A. Dalotel, The Paris Commune 1871. A transcript of the video by Oliver Ressler in cooperation with Rebond pour La Commune, Paris, France 2004 [in:] Alternative Economics. Alternative Societies, Gdańsk 2007, s. 215. Also available at: http://eipcp.net/transversal/0805/dalotel/po [27.04.2009].