Starlets of the Revolution

João Moreira Salles’ In The Intense Now shows how the revolutionaries of the sixties used — and were used by — the media.

Students protest police violence during the May ’68 uprising. (Photo courtesy of Icarus Films.)

It would be wrong to say that João Moreira Salles’ recent documentary In the Intense Now (2017) deals with the legacy of May ’68. Rather, it deals with its non-legacy: the different means by which radical movements were co-opted, compromised, commercialised, or crushed. Made up of archive footage from France, Czechoslovakia during and after the Prague Spring, China during the Cultural Revolution, and the director’s native Brazil, In the Intense Now explores the effects of the passing of the revolutionary moments of 1968 on those who participated in them.

Cutting quickly between archive footage from each country, Moreira Salles shows how mediation changed their struggles, with radicals influenced by news of similar events elsewhere and propagating their own through effective use of slogans, images, amateur photography, and documentary film-making. He also shows how quickly reactionaries co-opted the form of protest, using the greater clout of state-backed or corporate media in order to overwhelm the protestors, successfully projecting and then creating a sense of normality restored.

Near the beginning of the first of two hour-long sections, ‘Back to the Factory’, President Charles de Gaulle asks ‘What does 1968 have in store?’ However, the most interesting figure to emerge is a student, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, chosen by the media as the face of a leaderless insurrection, who is soon jabbing his finger at television presenters, saying ‘You’re wrong, and you might do well to re-read Marx’. In the Intense Now is insightful and affecting on the opportunities and compromises that come with such attention, ranging from the astounding role reversal of the French left’s most prominent intellectual, Jean-Paul Sartre, interviewing 23-year-old Cohn-Bendit about the pitfalls of a revolution without a programme, to Cohn-Bendit’s hurried departure to Berlin, his every move photographed by a journalist from Paris Match, whom Cohn-Bendit had to ask to fund his trip. Moreira Salles quotes Cohn-Bendit: ‘I was a starlet, with all the implications that has in the society of the spectacle’.

The section ends with Gaullists organising the biggest rally of May 1968, bringing 500,000 to the Champs-Élysées: a mixture of small businessmen, housewives, the bourgeois parents of the radicals, conservative students, and fascists who demanded that Cohn-Bendit, the son of German Jews who fled the Nazis in 1933, be sent not to Berlin but Dachau. Then, there is a clip from an aborted documentary shot by a Trotskyist group in late May, in which several men tell a woman to return to work at the car plant, as she weeps about how little has changed.

The second part, ‘Leaving the Factory’, opens with the summer of 1968, and Sartre’s warning to Cohn-Bendit that the holiday season would mean a drop in political urgency. After Cohn-Bendit accepts 100,000 francs to write ‘The Book’ on May ’68, and churns out a slapdash quasi-theoretical text in just six weeks, he fades from Moreira Salles’ narrative. Slightly disjointedly, we then see amateur footage of Soviet tanks crushing the Prague Spring and the funeral of a student killed by the Brazilian military dictatorship. A long extract from Romain Goupil’s film Mourir à trente ans (Dead at Thirty or Half a Life, 1982) reflects on an ‘entire generation’ trying to deal with ‘precocious nostalgia’ and then makes it clear that they couldn’t. Many of these radicals — including Killian Fritsch, the slogan-writer who dreamt of ‘the beach beneath the street’ — took their own lives.

What can we, now, take from this melancholic, quietly pessimistic document of radical failure? Beyond the obvious lesson of Sartre’s warning about learning from our predecessors’ mistakes, the director offers no prescriptions. What emerges is the necessity of laying foundations for change through long-term, grass-roots work that creates a programme that will keep a wide coalition engaged, so that the telegenic excitement of the insurrectionary moment does not fizzle out, or turn into a dead end.

Though Moreira Salles makes no connections to more recent political movements, these are lessons that could just as easily be applied to recent insurrections like the Arab Spring or the Maidan uprising in Ukraine; there too, mass media helped the revolution spread and expand, but also led to the revolutionaries massively overrating the degree to which their actions would cause real, lasting change. The sober revolutionary realism of In the Intense Now can help us to avoid the brutal disappointments that afflict so many romantic revolutionaries, and point us towards more enduring ways to build a new world.