Continuing the theme of this academic year’s Humanities on the Edge speakers, João Moreira Salles addresses images and aftermath of revolution in his documentary film No Intenso Agora (In the Intense Now). The film uses archival found footage--as well as footage taken by Salles’s own mother on a tour through Maoist China in 1966--in order to explore the many faces of revolution in the late 1960s, and particularly the 1968 revolutionaries of Paris and Prague. In his review of the movie, New York Times reviewer A. O. Scott positions No Intenso Agora in contrast to the inevitable “50th-anniversary greatest-hit medleys” to a year “so encrusted with legend, nostalgia and pop-historical cliché.” Salles’ film, Scott argues, is something different, “a bittersweet, ruminative documentary essay composed of footage from the era accompanied by thoughtful, disarmingly personal voice-over narration.”
The primary narrative of No Intenso Agora concerns the events of May in 1968 France, a time which Peter Steinfels called, in a 2008 New York Times article, the “revolution that never was”: a period in which student demonstrations in protest against capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism, led to police retaliation, which in turn prompted demonstrations and general strikes throughout the nation in solidarity with the student protesters. In his article, Steinfels articulates his difficulty, “40 years later, to discern what it was all about. Adolescent hormones, the death of communism, the death of capitalism or, as [France’s then culture minister] André Malraux suggested at the time, the death of God?”
Critics of No Intenso Agora have remarked appreciatively that Salles seems as invested in examining our way of seeing this historical moment as in the moment itself. The film provides close reading of the context and emphases the footage itself reveals about the history-making it is trying to record; as Alan Scherstuhl describes in his review for The Village Voice:
As we watch Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the other student leaders of the not-quite-leaderless social revolution of May 1968 in Paris, Salles speaks with detached amusement about the short hair of the revolutionaries, a reminder of the conservative France that they sprang from. He considers the ways that the radical spirit would soon be co-opted if not quite crushed, how Cohn-Bendit understood himself to be playing something of a character, and, most pressingly, how the movement, as mediated through press coverage and even the amateur footage that Salles has collected, developed a quite traditional conception of its lead actors and its own extras. Women and minorities often went unheard in ’68 France. And they also were tellingly overlooked by the people filming the scenes that Salles features, the cameras seeming to look past or over the black protesters, always marginalizing them in the frame. (Scherstuhl)
Other narratives and lines of inquiry--the crushing of the Prague Spring liberalization movement, Salles’ mother’s voyage through Maoist China, the characterization of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, excerpts from Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai (The Lovely Month of May) and Romain Goupil’s Mourir a Trente Ans (Half a Life), analysis of “the alleged advertising origins of the slogan ‘Sous les pavés, la plage’ (‘Under the paving stones, the beach’) and its author’s tragic fate” (Garson)--play out in support of and in counterpoint to this prevailing May 1968 narrative of France. By juxtaposing all of these elements, the film connects the personal with the public with the political, ultimately acting as a testament to the subjectivity of historiography and the ways in which moments of great turbulence and intensity are narrativized and mythologized.
Salles’ previous works similarly explore this question of subjectivity. In his 2007 documentary Santiago, he uses footage taken thirteen years before, when he had been determined to profile his family’s eccentric butler, “who dreams of being a French aristocrat from another century and speaks in a mélange of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese” (Almada). It is easy to see why Santiago would have been alluring as a subject for a young documentarian: he was “[a] seemingly obsessive-compulsive character, who typed and compiled over 30,000 pages of the history of the world’s aristocracy and played the maracas to Vivaldi” (Almada). The footage was shot in 1992, but Salles after generating nine hours of footage over five days, Salles abandoned the project, only to reapproach it years later from a different angle, this time asking questions not about the figure in front of the camera, but the one behind it: Do the camera angles he used, the elements he chose to film and not to film, communicate more about his own desire to remain at a distance from his family servant? A Variety review asserts that Santiago “considers the limits and potential of film to convey ideas” (Koehler), the ways in which filmmakers are blind to their subjects simply due to their intention of seeing. The film, which many critics named one of the best Latin American documentaries of its decade, “not only traces the director’s artistic journey from the deceiving straightforwardness of realism to the experimental explorations of the avant-garde, but also dramatizes the striking transformations the documentary genre has experienced as such” (Dieleke and Nouzeilles 139).
All of this leads me to one of the undergirding questions, not only of No Intenso Agora, but of this year’s Humanities on the Edge theme of “post-revolutionary futures”: What function do past revolutions (or almost-revolutions) hold for us today? In his essay, Steinfels asserts that “the utopian impulse” of Paris May 1968 “is no longer much in evidence. Today's dreams seem to be much more defensive in nature--damping down wars, fending off hunger, containing epidemics and preventing planetary destruction.” If this is the case, then what impulse does indeed keep No Intenso Agora from becoming a retrospective, a half-century following a historical moment of eruptive revolutionary spirit, in what has become a post-revolutionary age? The title of the documentary does imply a temporal doubleness: both the intense now of 1968 as well as that of today. Perhaps the film will suggest an answer, but by the filmmaker’s own assertion it might suggest something more important than an answer. “[T]oday I prefer films that, ending, leave me more perplexed than certain,” said Salles in an interview, now ten years old, about Santiago (Dieleke and Nouzeilles). “It is a consequence of my observation that persons can’t be completely captured, that something always escapes, flees, and I believe that documentary should take account of that, not have to maintain the imperialist pretension of a total occupation of the territory.” If there is some way of continuing the anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist intensity of 1968, then, Salles’ approach suggests that it begins in our way of seeing.
Salles’ event will take place Friday, February 9 at 7:30 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. In addition to being part of the Humanities on the Edge roster, Salles is taking part in the Ross’s Norman A. Geske Cinema Showcase, which has previously brought prominent film faces like actress Irene Bedard, writer/director Bob Byington, and filmmakers Jon Jost and Kalyanee Mam. A Q+A with Salles will follow the screening of the film. Find more information here.
Image Credit: “No Intenso Agora.” Cinéma du Réel.
Almada, Natalia. “João Moreira Salles’ Santiago.” International Documentary Association. 30 June 2009.
Dieleke, Edgardo and Gabriela Nouzeilles. “The Spiral of the Snail: Searching for the Documentary - An Interview with João Moreira Salles.” Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies, 17(2). 2 Aug. 2008. TandFOnline.
Garson, Charlotte. “No Intenso Agora.” Cinéma du Réel.