THE FILMMAKER-ACTIVIST AND THE COLLECTIVE:
Robert Kramer and Jean-Luc Godard
To all film-makers who accept the limited, socially determined rules of clarity of exposition, who think that films must use the accepted vocabulary to “convince,” we say, essentially: “You only work, whatever your reasons, whatever your presumed ‘content,’ to support and bolster this society; you are part of the mechanisms which maintain stability through re–integration; your films are helping to hold it all together; and, finally, whatever your other descriptions, you have already chosen sides. Dig: Your sense of order and form is already a political choice. Don’t talk to me about “content”—but if you do, I will tell you that you cannot encompass our “content” with those legislated and approved senses, that you do not understand it if you treat it that way. There is no such thing as revolutionary content, revolutionary spirit, laid out for inspection and sale on the bargain basement counter.
—Robert Kramer (1)
The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.
—Jean-Luc Godard (2)
The initial impetus for this thesis was a desire to take a closer look at filmmakers who have been deeply engaged in an attempt to enact and affect social and political change through their work.
Of course, a vast and disparate range of filmmakers could be characterised in such terms—indeed, almost all filmmakers wish for their work to have some kind of positive impact—so it quickly became clear that this initial concern needed to become more refined and specific in order to facilitate the research and development of a thesis. This was achieved by focusing on a specific historical period—the Left movements of the late 1960s and early ‘70s which centred around New York and Paris; on a particular form of politicised filmmaking, which will be outlined below; and within those contexts selecting only one filmmaker from each country: Robert Kramer from the US, and Jean-Luc Godard from France.
The convergence of film and Left politics in the late 1960s was something that I found particularly fascinating, especially because that convergence had resulted in certain radical modes and styles of filmmaking that, it seems to me, have become highly uncommon in more recent cinema. By modes of filmmaking, I mean the practical way the filmmaking process was organised: financing, planning, production, post-production and distribution. By styles of filmmaking, I mean the way the films themselves were designed and structured: camerawork, editing, sound design, narrative organisation. While there were, of course, many filmmakers during this period who employed other more conventional modes and styles, the most engaged and aggressively political filmmakers (who, significantly, were often political activists outside of filmmaking) seemed to share a critical questioning of established modes and styles and a desire to create new ones. This was not just a generational rebellion, a hunger for something fresh and original; it came out of a politicised analysis of mode and style, influenced by contemporary political activism and theory.
Within this new perspective, it was not possible to simply make a Hollywood film, using the established modes of production and distribution and the established stylistic and narrative conventions, and insert within that a set of radical anti-war or anti-capitalist messages. It was not possible because those established conventions were not neutral, but had serious political implications themselves, implications that overrided any message one may try to propagate within them. As Kramer wrote, they were “already a political choice”. Godard’s famous distinction between making political films and making films politically is perhaps the strongest distillation of this point: if you are putting forth political messages, but have not considered the political implications of your modes of production and distribution or your styles of shooting and cutting, you are not making films politically.
Kramer and Godard were clearly both consciously attempting to do this; however, both were also working in different cultures, coming from different backgrounds, with different temperamental and artistic tendencies, and different political allegiances and engagements. Consequently, the alternative modes and styles of filmmaking developed by each were divergent in many respects. But what Kramer and Godard do fundamentally share, on top of their deeply politicised view of mode and style, is an engagement with collectivist practice.
The collective represented the most radical shift in political filmmaking, usually signifying a transformation in financing (often sourced individually, collectively, or through political groups), planning and production (often enacted using democratic or anarchistic methods) and distribution (often self-organised or organised in tandem with political and community groups and networks). While a surprisingly common ‘60s phenomenon in France, and an increasingly emergent one in the US, the collectives of which Kramer and Godard were part—The Newsreel and the Dziga Vertov Group (DVG) respectively—are now the most well-known of the era. In the end, the work of both filmmakers fell short of the collectivist ideal, but it was an ideal that was nonetheless central to their filmmaking during this period.
The final factor that made this narrowing of focus particularly fascinating, was also what has made it most problematic: namely the extremely marginal position the filmmakers’ work of this period now occupies within film history. While I stated above that Newsreel and DVG were “the most well-known of the era”, such a formulation, although true, is somewhat misleading. They’re the most well-known (with the possible exception of the Medvedkin Group) because, as far as I have been able to discover, all the other film collectives of the period are, outside of the occasional namedrop, completely absent from film history. Kramer and Godard’s collectives fare better by comparison (but only by comparison): they manage to at least occupy extremely marginal spaces within film history.
Consequently, finding written material on the work of each filmmaker during this period has been difficult, but not impossible. Contemporaneous film journals with a political bent, such as Film Quarterly, Jump Cut and Cahiers du Cinema, have all been either archived online or collected in book form, and these have proved key resources. Bill Nichol’s Newsreel, which although out of print is available through the British Library, provided a coherent overview of the Newsreel movement and its roots. (The respective web-memoirs of several ex-Newsreel members Roz Payne, Allan Siegel and Paul McIsaac helped draw a fuller picture of the collective’s dynamics.) Dziga Vertov Group, a collection of essays recently published in Brazil and edited by Jane de Almeida, was an essential resource, most of all for providing a thoroughly researched filmography of an often elusive and ill-defined body of work. Although not available in Ireland, the publishers kindly emailed me a copy.
In terms of the filmmakers themselves, the many book-length studies of Jean-Luc Godard proved some use, although most gloss over the Dziga Vertov years to one degree or another. Ironically, there is less material on Robert Kramer in English than there is on Godard; since Kramer’s move to France in 1979, almost everything written on him (and the only two book-length studies) have been written in, and never translated from, French. The exceptions, however, have been exceptionally strong ones: the online critical journal, Rouge, has featured many in-depth analyses of Kramer’s work, and Kramer’s own website, windwalk.net, which he developed right up to his death, is a wealth of information, and features several insightful essays by Kramer himself.
Finding the actual films, however, has in some cases been the most difficult task. None of Kramer or Godard’s films from this period are commercially available in any format. In fact, most of Godard’s films post-’67 are hard to come by, and only two of Kramer’s 19 films are commercially available on DVD at present. Consequently, while I have managed to see many of these films, they have not been acquired by conventional means. Almost all of the DVG films are available on the avant-garde video website ubu.com; several of Kramer’s films are downloadable through the member’s only torrent site karagarga.net, and on the ep2k protocol accessible with aMule software.
Some of the more hard-to-find items required quite a bit of detective work, and among the people who gave me invaluable tips along the way were Kramer’s daughter, Keja Ho Kramer, as well as his former co-director John Douglas, and critics Bill Nichols, Adrian Martin, Ray Carney and Jeremie Couston.
The main body of this thesis consists of one chapter on each filmmaker. Each one will chart the respective filmmakers’ engagement in radical collectivist filmmaking, spanning roughly from 1968 to 1972, beginning with the circumstances of its inception and the context of the filmmaker's initial involvement. The concepts and motivations that informed the collective will be outlined, and the modes and styles through which these ideas were expressed. The nature and extent of the audience these films reached will be considered—however, as the audience tends to be the most neglected subject in independent filmmaking, on which very little research has ever been carried out, discussion here will focus more on the filmmaker's attitudes and intents towards their audience. Each chapter will conclude by addressing the circumstances of the filmmaker’s break with the collective in the early ‘70s, and a brief outline of the filmmaker’s activities from then on.
The conclusion will discuss what lessons can be extracted from the example of each filmmaker during that period, and how much of that might be applied to a contemporary politicised filmmaking practice.