The revolution will be televised – in fact it already has been. Peter Watkins’ stunning 2000 film La Commune (Paris, 1871) follows the events of a working-class uprising in Paris in the late 19th century by using a fascinating anachronism: the presence of television reporters who document each step of the revolution as would a modern-day news crew.
The technique gives the events an urgency that makes them seem strikingly contemporary. Watkins’ film, clocking in at five hours and 45 minutes, is a deeply researched document, as well as an essay on how the ideas and practices of the commune are still relevant to today’s world.
The revolt took place in 1871, when many Parisians were unemployed after the war of 1870-1871, during which the Prussians had besieged the city. The French capital had been defended not by regular troops but by the National Guard. Paris was home to many radical socialists and revolutionaries, and these factions dominated the upper echelons of the Guard.
A dispute over the government removing the cannons that defended the city sparked a successful revolt by the Guard, who declared Paris an independent commune. But an enlarged government army and bloody street fighting finally brought the movement to an end.
Watkins used amateur actors – mainly activists from the political left who answered an advert to appear in the film, but also some who supported the government’s position – and he depicts a rival government television station that contradicts the version of events broadcast by the revolutionary channel. The actors, who talk mainly direct to camera, researched the commune in depth, and improvised their lines, using their own views of events to fuel their characterisations.
“The actors’ research into the roles they were playing proved crucial inasmuch as they gradually learned the significance of a historical event that even in France is often ignored or misunderstood,” says author Richard Porton, who writes about the film in a new edition of his book Film and the Anarchist Imagination.
“I’m not sure if this precisely mirrors the idea of communalism, but it does point to the fact that Watkins not only wanted to depict an egalitarian historical moment, but also wanted to practise egalitarianism on the set.”
Watkins says he made the film partly to show how the commune’s ideas were, and remain, necessary. “What happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social utopia – which we now need as desperately as dying people need plasma,” he writes on his website.
La Commune (Paris, 1871) will be screened on May 13 at Broadway Cinematheque, in Yau Ma Tei, as part of the M+ Screenings: Beneath the Pavement programme.