Last Friday evening, February 9th, João Moreira Salles visited the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center to screen his new documentary film essay No Intenso Agora (In the Intense Now). Following the screening of the film—which was presented as a part of the Ross’s Norman A. Geske Cinema Showcase as well as the Humanities on the Edge lecture series—Salles appeared for a Q&A with the audience. No Intenso Agora combines archival footage, both professional and found amateur footage, with Salles’s narration to conduct viewers through the events of 1968 in Paris, Prague, and Brazil. However, as Salles said during the Q&A, “This is not an historical film about ’68.” Questions of politics and history, though central to the film, are not what primarily animates it. Instead, the film has to do with experience, as emerges in the segments focused on Salles’s mother’s trip to Maoist China in 1966: the experience of time, its passing, the emotions it draws us through along the way, the ways in which time and history draw attention to themselves in their immediate vivacity and echo somberly to us their absence when they have passed. The film has to do, perhaps, with the experience of something Walter Benjamin described as “now-time” [Jetztzeit] in his writing on the concept of history, how revolutionary moments always leap into the past, to draw on the images in which they recognize themselves, but these images are always evanescent, tending to disappear in a flit of non-recognition.
The title of the film, as Rachel Cochran pointed out in her preview of the screening, does suggest this temporal doubleness of now-time as a relation between the present and the past, but Salles’s film complicates interpretations that would attempt to draw out some identity of political stakes or activity between the events of ’68 and today. While this film is not a retrospective, it is neither a program of action, nor an incitement to rebellion. Instead, it is a performance of critical and reflective seeing, a provocation regarding, not so much the way we narrativize the past, but the way we see it and the way in which our seeing situates ourselves within it. Salles situates his own act of seeing largely within the melancholy frame of one who had felt joy in the encounter of the new and then faced subsequent immediacies in which the new had slipped away. It is for this reason that so much of the film focuses on his mother’s travel notes from her trip to China, a trip which was filled for her with beauty, happiness, and surprise. When asked about the inclusion of these segments in a documentary that focuses so much on what we identify as “political” events, Salles responded that, in fact, it all started out with that footage of his mother’s trip, and the other segments were arranged around that original footage. The segments about his mother’s trip brought forth for him a “non-political intensity” that paralleled the political intensities of those other global moments. “If you try to find a political link, the film fails,” Salles said. “Instead, it’s the fact that at a certain moment in time you feel alive, and then you lose that ability to be engaged in the world.” This transformation that he observed happening to his mother over time connects in affective ways to the experience of ’68 and the subsequent return to normalcy in France or the invasion of the Soviets in Prague.
These central themes are introduced in the first moments of the film: the now and the future of the past, the experience of the time that elapses between them, and the character of the camera that records these. It begins with amateur footage of a Czech family enjoying a chilly day in light linen clothing. “All I know is what the images show,” Salles narrates. The camera shifts to Brazil in the same moment, Salles’s boyhood, an image that purports to depict children walking on a sidewalk but also inadvertently “captures class relations in Brazil.” Salles adds, “We don’t always know what we’re filming.” The camera again shifts to a tourist’s images of Mao’s China, arranged to accompany Salles’s mother’s travel reflections. “This is amateur footage. It wasn’t filmed to become a part of history.” The images present “not the past but history in action.” Such an opening triptych gives to the viewers this “now-time” of historical and political intensity in which the film will absorb itself, but the subtitle of the first half of the film that immediately follows, “Back to the Factory”—referencing from the start the inevitable end of May, all the workers returning to work as normal—carries a sense of imminent failure into the potential of the historic present that the cameras missed or avoided in their recording of it.
This sense of fatality is complicated by the subsequent inclusion of de Gaulle’s December 31, 1967 speech to the people of France predicting a peaceful year while conceding that “the future is not the province of men.” Salles affirms this, narrating, “It really is difficult to predict the future,” as we see images of the standoff between the police and students at the Sorbonne in Nanterre, May of 1968. We hear the students singing all together, “The final struggle is beginning now.” This was a now that could not have been predicted, and yet as the now begins to unfold, the students seem so certain that this beginning evinced an eschatological struggle, some ultimate future or end that was emerging for them in their intense, jubilant now. We know, and the film affirms, that just as de Gaulle was wrong about a quiet year, the students too were incorrect in their predictions of the future. Nevertheless, Salles places us within that intense now, and we learn to see what the camera learns to see, what the camera does not know it is seeing.
So much of the focus of those scenes in Paris during May ’68 is on the joy that people experienced being together at the eruption of the potential that life could be new and different. We see this joy expressed via the figure of Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the charismatic face of this leaderless movement who would ultimately leave mid-May for Berlin, perhaps in unrecognized anticipation that the movement would end. We see the famous image of him grinning irreverently at the police officer standing him down. We see and hear him speak passionately of the desires of the students as he participates on a panel for French television—the precise moment when, as Salles narrates, the camera learned to see him and to follow his movements. The still image that appears during the final credits of the film is drawn from a segment of these joyous scenes, one in which a young woman smiles on the phone, gleefully informing a concerned mother that her son, a part of the student movement, is well. The subtext is that they are all well, better than they have ever been. As I watched these scenes of May ’68 Paris, I felt this joy too; the jubilant intensity of that past became a present affective force for me as I saw what the camera saw.
But I felt, too, that solemn, disillusioned feeling of losing one’s grip on that intensity. The subtitle “Back to the Factory” is remembered in one of the last segments of the first part, a segment that focuses on a French woman named Jocelyn, at the end of May, refusing to return to the Wonder factory where she worked before that ecstatic month. As the camera trains itself on her face, we are signaled by the narration to a shift in what is seen: “The student no longer matters. Politically, he is irrelevant, and the camera no longer seeks him out.” Instead, we are given the worker, and as she compares the pitiful reforms granted to the unions with the thrilling expectation in those preceding weeks, she feels that nothing has changed. When asked about this pivotal segment in the film, Salles remarked that the scene was included in response to a problem: how to show that May had come to an end without saying it. “You see in the scene of Jocelyn that the sense that life could be different had come to an end. She didn’t want to go back to her old life but May had come to an end. […] You see union workers all actually going back, and she’s still protesting. But, in fact, she did go back.”
This disillusionment carries through the second part of the film, much of which is centered on Prague—not its spring, but its autumn invasion by the Soviets. A camera sees from behind a high curtained apartment window. A camera sees the television, depicting what other cameras see. At one point the camera goes to the street to get a better look, and the street reminds us of the place where so many of the cameras of May ’68 Paris situated themselves to see. But this does not last, and the narration tells us, “Later, the camera goes back to the apartment,” that from then on it “prefers to film it on television. Nothing more can be learned in the streets.” The camera rolls, perhaps not knowing that it is “filming the end of politics on television.”
The images are usurped by “authorized images” of the various funerals of the dead figures of those movements, Prague, Paris, Brazil. Salles notes the way a dead body is used by power, that what might seem a memorial to the cost of authoritarianism and state repression is depicted, by the state edifice, as unfolding in “an environment of perfect freedom” in which “the mechanisms of repression are invisible.” Salles notes as well the disappearance of the families and lovers of these dead ones from these images, how the images are made to see unity and freedom but what they do not see is what may yet have vestigial attachments to the lived lives of these particular dead. The suggestion may be that the personal and the intimate flees from the “useful” image. In our efforts to see history again and to recognize it, to appropriate it to our present, perhaps we lose the life of that lost now-time, insofar as life involves experience and intense emotion brought on by the real. What we lose in returning to the past with the intent to utilize it, attempting to identify some teleological future in it—the blindspot of the cameras of the political documentarian, of the state, and of commerce—is precisely the feeling that Salles's mother tries to articulate regarding her experience in China: “the ineffable emotion that follows the shock of the unlooked-for encounter.”
So, seeing what we’ve seen in this incredibly affecting film, we must remind ourselves again what Salles tells us—that this film is not a work of historiography about ’68. It is not about ’68 at all, I think, in a sense compatible with Gilles Deleuze’s take on that moment, as expressed in the title of his essay “May ’68 Did Not Take Place.” Deleuze writes that the moment of ’68 amounted to “a visionary phenomenon, as if a society suddenly saw what was intolerable in it and also saw the possibility for something else” (234). But for him, ’68 was not produced by this visionary phenomenon of seeing something possibly new or other-than. As Cohn-Bendit remarked, there was no model for May ’68. Rather, Deleuze continues, “The possible does not pre-exist, it is created by the event. It is a question of life. The event creates a new existence, it produces a new subjectivity” (234). No Intenso Agora absorbs us in seeing what it is to experience the new, in feeling that intensity by seeing it felt by those who were there, but it also makes us aware how feelings change, how the subjectivity of the one who viewed history happening never quite feels a belonging to what comes after the new. Salles’s film does not give us a ’68 that we can comprehend and apply to the current now, but it teaches us to recognize an intensity in that moment. In learning to see the intensity of that past now, perhaps we can learn to see another intensity were it to erupt anew, to not miss it, and—the part most easy to forget—to enjoy it.
Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap, 2006, 389-400.
Deleuze, Gilles. “May ’68 Did Not Take place.” Two Regimes of Madness: Text and Interviews 1975-1995, edited by David Japoujade, Semiotext(e), 2007, 233-236.