Beneath a large portrait of Mao Zedong, a group of students begin a discussion about their “eternal struggle” with the enemy. Using dense ideological language, these young activists ponder the new era in which they are to build their utopia.
“Death to examinations,” they shout, as they walk around their campus, wrecking classrooms along the way.
These could be scenes from the Cultural Revolution, but Prehistory of the Partisans is not made or set in China. Filmed and directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto, the 1969 Japanese documentary zeroes in on a group of far-left student militants who occupied Kyoto University in protest against Japan’s educational system, political norms and security treaty with the United States.
Shown as part of a programme dedicated to activist and documentarian Shinsuke Ogawa and his filmmaking collective at last month’s Cinéma du Réel festival, in Paris,Prehistory made for timely viewing.
With another section focusing on documentaries about social movements around the world in the mid- to late 1960s, the festival set out to explore “other 1968s” besides the one that saw civil unrest unfold on the cobblestone streets of Paris in May of that year.
Slogans daubed on walls across the French capital back then included: “Be realistic, demand the impossible”; “Beneath the paving stones, the beach”; “Run comrade, the old world is behind you”. But the upheavals were much more than just a French or European affair. Chinese political ideology – in this case, the extreme doctrines behind the chaotic Cultural Revolution – had found a foothold in the so-called first world.
Ignoring or ignorant of the mayhem unleashed by Red Guards in China, radical students, artists and academics were turning to “Mao Zedong Thought” for guidance. During les événements, a large portrait of the “great helmsman” covered a wall of the Sorbonne; among the graffiti and placards was the slogan, “Marx, Mao, Marcuse,” no doubt prompted by the wide availability of translated versions of Mao’s “little red book”, published by the Chinese state-owned Beijing Foreign Language Press.
This reverence for what was then described as the “wind from the East” (a term that Jean-Luc Godard, who dabbled with Maoism in his 1967 film La Chinoise before becoming a fully fledged Maoist the next year, would appropriate for the title of an agitprop documentary in 1970) was made evident in how radical collective La Gauche Prolétarienne (“The Proletarian Left”) called for people to be inspired by the “China in our heads”.
The programme at the Cinéma du Réel festival revealed how Mao and China captivated young radicals from that era.
As well as Prehistory, it included Italian artist and filmmaker Mario Schifano’s Umano non Umano (1972), a frantic, audio-visual, pop-art collage that pays homage to counterculture icons such as Alberto Moravia, Mick Jagger (in his ’60s heyday) and student demonstrators. Interwoven are images of Mao and fellow leaders watching a parade in Tiananmen Square.
And then there was German film director Helke Sander’s documentary Break the Power of the Manipulators (1968), in which she condemns media baron Axel Springer for imposing his conservative views through West Germany’s best-read newspapers.
With the help of screenwriter Harun Farocki (whose 1967 short The Words of the Chairman revolves around the use of a page of Mao’s “little red book” as a weapon against the Shah of Iran), the film bears the hallmark of Maoist agitprop common during that fiery period, complete with promises of utopia and misplaced hope for political leaders from distant lands.