Return to a dream denied

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 May, 2008, 12:00am

As 20th-century social movements go, le Mai 1968 is probably one of the most memorable and well-documented. Although that year saw events that had much longer-lasting repercussions - the Tet offensive, which revealed the grisly nature of the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Prague Spring being brought to a bloody end by Soviet tanks - the student demonstrations, national strikes and street barricades that sprung up across France 40 years ago have provided images which still define how 1960s counterculture is remembered.

Its prominence was vividly illustrated this time last year, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then running for the French presidency against socialist Segolene Royal, vowed to 'liquidate' the heritage of 1968.

Unlike Sarkozy's popularity ratings, the memory of 1968 remains today as strong as ever, in France and abroad. And just like back then, the medium of film - which chronicled, perpetuated and sometimes even initiated an explosion of raw energy across national borders - plays a key part in returning those events to the forefront of the public consciousness.

This year's Cannes Film Festival has thus appointed outspoken American actor Sean Penn as chairman of its jury. He will preside over equally political panellists, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai filmmaker who has campaigned hard to expose his country's draconian censorship system, and Rachid Bouchareb, whose film Days of Glory championed the overlooked legacy of Maghrebi soldiers fighting for France during the second world war.

This year's festival will also screen several films denied a showing at the 1968 festival, when leading filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle and Jean-Luc Godard forced the event to a premature close.

Film institutes around the world have also been quick to announce commemorations. The National Cinematheque Francaise in Paris - long seen as the place where the seeds of unrest in May 1968 were sown, the spark being the sacking of its respected director, Henri Langlois - will host Mai 68 International, a showcase of avant-garde documentaries about post-1968 social movements in Britain, Japan and Mexico.

In New York, the Film Forum and the Film Society of Lincoln Centre will both have programmes dedicated to the era, the former with 1968: An International Perspective and the latter with a showcase of Godard's 1960s output. For the past three days, the British Film Institute has run Pop Goes the Revolution, a series of six provocative films from 1968.

Hong Kong's contribution to the deluge is May 68: A Dream of Utopia. Part of Le French May, it's a programme of 10 films showing at the Broadway Cinematheque, the works of, among others, Godard, Malle, Jean Eustache, Agnes Varda and Philippe Garrel. Unlike some of its international counterparts, however, the films are not drawn merely from the few years around 1968: in fact, only one - Godard's La Chinoise (1967), a scathing attack on bourgeois youngsters playing at being radicals - is from the period, all the others having been made from 1972 onwards. The programme includes films from Godard's Tout Va Bien and Marin Karmitz's Blow for Blow to Garrel's Regular Lovers, made in 2005.

Shot after the revolutionary fervour had died down (and it died down pretty quickly in France, with Charles de Gaulle and his conservative allies re-elected to power just months after the demonstrations) the films are driven by an intense reflection about the fallout (or futility) of what happened during that hectic month rather than offering a superficial, rose-tinted celebration of youthful zeal.

'It's not our intention to go all nostalgic about what happened and romanticise what went before,' says Gary Mak Sing-hei, Broadway Cinematheque's associate director and the curator of A Dream of Utopia. 'We don't want to say things like, 'Oh, it would have been great to have been there at the time'.

'Our perspective is not just to give a straightforward illustration of the political events - we are more into looking at what their impact has been on interpersonal relationships and on society in general. It's not about recreating a 1960s vibe.'

True to its title, Mak's programme is centred less on adrenaline rushes of revolution than on the comedowns generated by the confusion of 1968. Instead of a misty-eyed look at youthful rebellion and its promises of a breakdown of reactionary social structures, A Dream of Utopia presents a desolate landscape of broken dreams. The factory takeover in Tout Va Bien, for instance, was not to become the harbinger of a socialist paradise; the central protagonists in the film, the journalist (Jane Fonda) and film director (Yves Montand) who are there on the shop floor to report on proceedings, return to their positions in mainstream society, respectively filing the same reports and making the same commercials as before.

With 1968's experiments failing to overturn the status quo, young men and women are seen as members of a disenchanted, empty generation turning inwards, as in Eustache's The Mother and the Whore (1973), Robert Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977) and Garrel's Regular Lovers.

Garrel's Night Wind is a road movie in more ways than one, with former left-wing activist Serge - who leaves France for Italy after 1968 - journeying across physical as well as mental landscapes as his red Porsche speeds along European motorways.

Although Mak's selection is downbeat about triumphalist gestures from 40 years ago, there's also a positive note, with many films centred on female protagonists. A Dream of Utopia provides women with the voice they were in fact denied during the turmoil of 1968, when male activists' enthusiasm for torpedoing capitalism revealed attitudes that bordered on atavistic chauvinism. Women were rarely seen in leading roles - a fate which befell Varda, whose achievements as a cineaste were not accorded the prominence of those of her male counterparts such as her fellow Left Bank directors Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and her husband Jacques Demy.

One of the key films in A Dream of Utopia is Varda's One Sings, the Other Doesn't (1977), a story about the friendship between two women - one an aspiring singer, the other a single mother - struggling on society's margins. Karmitz's Blow for Blow, meanwhile, looks at the exploitation of working-class women not only in the workplace but also at home, at the hands of men typically seen as heroic workers in other left-leaning films.

Godard's two films also have much to say about women's roles in such times of turmoil. While the rich boys and girls in La Chinoise play out their Maoist fantasies in their comfortable apartment, it's their poorer female comrade who has to turn tricks on the streets to bring in money. In Tout Va Bien, the men peddle dogma but it's the women who stand on the front line, scuffling with unionists trying to put down their militant takeover of the factory.

'The 1960s are a period in which minority groups like women, blacks and gay people fought for their rights and it's important to look at how to represent their voices,' says Mak, adding that the emphasis on women's emancipation is timely, this year being the centenary of the birth of Simone de Beauvoir, writer of proto-feminist bible The Second Sex. 'Somehow we think it's appropriate that we could peg the festival to this issue too.'

And that's not all Mak hopes to hitch the festival to; although events are hardly on the same scale, Mak sees the surge of local civic activism in the past year or two - as shown in the movement against the demolition of the Star Ferry and Queen's piers - as mirroring the idealistic social movements of 1968. 'There are few big things that could now happen in Hong Kong just like what happened there in 1968 - or in Hong Kong in 1967,' he says, referring to the anti-colonial protests that paralysed the city a year before Paris came to a standstill with placard-carrying demonstrators and baton-wielding policemen.

With the memories of hunger strikers at the Queen's Pier now crowded out by the Olympic torch and the febrile nationalism whipped up around it, A Dream of Utopia's films - revolving around the post-1968 hangover - might provide some timely viewing.

May 68: A Dream of Utopia, May 5-28. Details, go to