It all begins with some old film reels, memories of a trip: A group of elegant people ventures among the Red Guards, smiling, exchanging greetings, playfully looking at the camera. And yet these frames have something special, starting from the year in which they were shot, 1966: China was going through the Cultural Revolution and it wasn’t likely for Western tourists to be freely able to enter the country. Especially if, as in this case, they weren’t part of a Western Communist Party delegation, but rather belonged to the opposite political view.
The person filming the group is João Moreira Salles’s mother, a lady of the Brazilian upper-middle class strongly opposed to revolutionary ideas, to the point that they had decided to move back to their country from Paris — where they fled after the military coup in Brazil — when the events of May 1968 broke out.
Starting from those apparently neutral images, Salles built his No intenso agora, which debuted in February at the Berlinale (it was in competition at Panorama Dokumenta) and is now competing in Paris at the Festival Cinéma du Réel. From 1966 China, it takes us to the images of 1968. France, Prague, Brazil: Salles, who also provides the voiceover narration, looks for the same spaces as in his mother’s images, the melancholy hiding behind joy, the trace of defeat in the enthusiasm of the moment, the intensity of a “now” which already bears its future decline.
Was it really foreseeable? Was it really impossible? What can we grasp of that generation on the faces of those kids and future leaders like Daniel Cohn Bendit?
Some scenes are taken from other films, like Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai and Romain Goupil’s Mourir a 30 ans. A girl tries to calm her restless mother whose son hasn’t come home. Nonetheless, following the great demonstrations and De Gaulle’s addresses, the nearing end becomes evident on the face of a laborer who has to decide whether to go back to the factory or get fired, and also in the pain that runs through everyday life, which will never be like it was before and yet still seems to play by the same rules.
In Prague, the spring’s enthusiasm is quashed by soviet tanks. In Brazil, a kid is killed during a demonstration. Class differences define even the posture of people in the streets: master and servant.
Salles’s gaze places itself within this conflict, trying to grasp history’s nuances — and the subsequent interpretations of it trying to profit in accordance with the theory they want to prove — along the edges of these images.
I talked to Salles in a small Parisian café, under time pressure due to the strike at the Pompidou, which forced us to reschedule over and over. At the screening there also were some of the directors of the films that he used in his own work.
Let’s start from a curiosity. How did the group that your mother was traveling with manage to enter China at that time?
I have never known for sure: When I found that footage my parents had already passed away. The travel had been organized by a French art magazine, which often arranged things like that and made a person available to them who had a great knowledge of the places, like a guide. It’s probable that everything had been arranged in advance, the year before, and since everything was already paid for when the Cultural Revolution broke out they took the trip anyway. I believe that the group my mother traveled with was the last to be allowed into China.
It was made up in a very weird way considering the situation: They weren’t students or militants, rather quite the opposite. My mother came from Minas Gerais, a very conservative and Catholic state. Together with her there were bankers, capitalists, and what she ran into was the exact contrary of her education and her vision of the world. And yet in her account of the trip she seems very touched by what she sees, by China at the peak of its critique towards the bourgeois society, in which a person like my mother witnesses the refusal of everything she believes in, of her place in society.
What brought you from that private footage to the images of May 1968?
I was interested in investigating how the enthusiasm turns into sadness whenever something that we strongly believe in, which shapes our very life, is called into question. The feeling that struck me when I was watching my mother’s footage, which I also found in her words, is what I also found in the archives of ’68. At the time we lived in Paris, my father had been a minister in the government [the president was João Goulart] overturned by the military, and therefore he decided to leave Brazil and move with the rest of us to Paris. There wasn’t a serious reason to do it as he wasn’t an opponent, and yet his democratic ideals — even though he was a businessman — could no longer get along with the regime. However, when in ’68 it all started, we moved back to Brazil as my family was afraid that there might be a revolution.
How can this “private” dimension be traced in a collective experience which was by all means contradictory but still questioned the society of those times?
The generation of ’68, or at least their leaders, had set some objectives: sending away De Gaulle, taking power, building a new society. In this they lost, because De Gaulle remained in place and the capitalistic society, as we are told by the tears of the French laborer toward the end of the film, kept dictating its rules.
During the French May, in the streets of Paris two different aspects existed alongside each other: What was happening was a revolution and an illusion at the same time. The power that had been fought until the end, as it is testified once again by the archive’s images, was stronger than before. This doesn’t lessen the importance of that moment, what it provoked, the movements for African American rights, the Black Panthers, the resistance against the Vietnam War, the workers’ struggle. It has been something marvelous, huge, the kind of thrust that young people were seeking. However, if one reads the memoirs on this time the overall feeling, with a few exceptions, is sadness, that everything is over and, as a French girl says in front of a factory: “How can we go back to the same life as before?”
If we consider the Czech Republic we find the same situation. At the beginning of Prague Spring everyone was happy, faithful in the possibility of change, while later at Jan Palac’s funeral the crowd is silent and grieved, everyone knows that it is all over, probably forever. Ten years had yet to pass before the fall of the Berlin Wall and they lived back then, in that present. The soviet invasion of Prague marks the end of ’68. Cohn Bandit was against the USSR, but at one point even Fidel Castro, who condemned it, said that after all there was nothing else to do because that country had broken the deal. This doesn’t mean that the generation of ’68 didn’t start some incredible transformations in every aspect of society, upsetting its stricter foundations. In political terms, however, it wasn’t what they aimed for: It was only a part.
In this way, though, every utopia gets annulled.
No, because it is important to be there in that specific moment and manage to find a compromise between a “great” dream and “small” battles which are nonetheless important to question what doesn’t work. But it’s not the same feeling as the one uniting the crowds in Paris or Prague’s town squares in those days, whose loss arose at the same time as their joy and hope.