SELF-MYTHOLOGIZATION WAS BUILT into the story of the Zanzibar Group from the beginning. A loose confederation of young amateur filmmakers joined together in the late 1960s around shared radical politics and the patronage of twenty-five-year-old heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, they were named retrospectively for a voyage undertaken by one of their number, Serge Bard. Bard was a dropout from the ethnology department at the university of Nanterre who had crossed the African continent to reach the revolutionary Maoist government of Zanzibar, making a film along the way.
Bard never completed his proposed movie—somewhere en route he converted to Islam, took the name Abdullah Siradj, forswore representative art, and moved to Mecca—but a passion for the idea of flight from capitalist society, as well as violent revolutionary fervor expressed through oblique means, is among the features that unify the Zanzibar films, several of which will play through the month of August at Los Angeles’s Cinefamily theater. Most of the movies were shot in 1968 and 1969, when Boissonnas was willing to spring for 35-mm film stock. Though the dream didn’t last long, going to pieces as revolutions have a tendency to do, including the bloodbath in Zanzibar, it left behind a rich, combative body of work.
Presenting the program will be the multihyphenate Jackie Raynal, former programmer of New York’s Bleecker Street and Carnegie Hall cinemas. She will also be introducing her Barcelona-shot film Deux fois (1969), which opens with the director tucking into a lunch spread before announcing the subjects of vignettes to come, like a table of contents, and proclaiming, “Tonight will be the end of meaning.” The meaning-making interplay between spoken word and image, and a desire to disrupt their accepted relationships, runs through the Zanzibar corpus, such as in Bard’s Détruisez-vous: le fusil silencieux (Destroy Yourself: The Silent Gun, 1969) and Patrick Deval’s Acéphale (1968), a document of youth picking through the post-1968 rubble—the title translates roughly as “headless,” and it contains the exhortation, “It’s time to abandon the bright lights of the civilized world.” Shot on Bard’s old campus shortly before its May ’68 riots spread across France, Détruisez-vous stars Caroline de Bendern as a young woman haltingly discussing the prospect of revolutionary activity with a girlfriend (Juliet Berto), a sullen, quiet young man (Thierry Garrel), or an unseen interlocutor. If the stammering de Bendern is sometimes a less than convincing revolutionary firebrand, we discover this may have something to do with the fact that she is paraphrasing the speeches of a professor, played by Alain Jouffroy, a figure who Zanzibar historian Sally Shafto has identified as “a crucial mentor for these young people.” (De Bendern, an English aristocrat, was disinherited by her grandfather after a photograph of her holding a Vietcong flag on the Boulevard Saint-Michel became an iconic image of 1968.)
Détruisez-vous isn’t the proverbial undiscovered masterpiece, but it is of interest as an exploration of the feminine struggle with the macho mode of revolutionary discourse and as an illustration of the impact that Warholian primitivism, then newly introduced to France, would have on the Zanzibar films. The film is also of interest for its communication unhampered by language and the possible influence it would have on Thierry’s brother, Philippe Garrel, whose filmography is marked by a preoccupation with capturing thought in motion.
Garrel was the central figure of the group, and the one who went on to a long and historic career. He’d begun making films before his coevals—his first was completed in 1964, when he was sixteen. Garrel fell in with Bard, Jouffroy, and Raynal at the festival of young cinema at Hyères, where his first feature, Marie pour mémoire (1968), had taken a prize, which he accepted while announcing he was leaving cinema to pursue the business of prophecy. Like most of the Zanzibar gang, he was good-looking, on the periphery of the fashion world, and could’ve been described as a dandy—he wore an Edwardian ruffle and his hair down over his collar. He helped to spread the gospel of rock ’n’ roll while working on the television show Bouton rouge (1967–68) and took to the barricades like a good Cavalier. It was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the ’68 uprising that he shot Le révélateur (1968) in Germany’s Black Forest with actors Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff, two parents dragging their young child across a nocturnal rural landscape mostly devoid of habitation. The child seems mostly oblivious to the distress of his parents, though it can’t be said that he is oblivious to the presence of the camera—indeed, he is seen at times to actually direct it, gleefully breaking the fourth wall. (The film is silent, though Cinefamily’s projection will feature live music by Mary Lattimore and Jeff Ziegler, a harpist and multi-instrumentalist who record for the Thrill Jockey label.)
In Le révélateur, one sees Garrel developing the mythopoetic style that reaches full fruition with his La cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972). Both films concern themselves with figures in vast, open landscapes captured in mostly long shots, following their own obscure trajectories that put them on a course of recurring departure and reunion. In La cicatrice intérieure this is combined with cryptic acts of gift-giving: a bowl of fire, a baby goat, a sword. Shot in the most wasted, lifeless locales in Iceland, Egypt, and Death Valley, the film stars Garrel himself; his muse, Nico, who he had met in Rome while he was editing the Boissonnas-financed Le lit de la vierge (1969); and Pierre Clémenti, a pale figure who arrives in a black sailboat wearing nothing but a bow and arrow, his naked form luminous against a backdrop of volcanic rock. Made up of more than twenty sequence shots scored by selections from Nico’s Desertshore album, it is a movie of magnificent desolation, transposing disappointed idealism into a cryptic vernacular of symbols, and in its frigid, distant circumspection, exemplifying Henry James’s dictum: “Morality is hot—but art is icy!” (New Yorkers will soon have a chance to see the titles discussed at a Garrel retrospective at the Metrograph, the most complete ever launched in North America.)
Clementi, whose curious résumé includes Visconti’s The Leopard (1960), Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), and an eighteenth-month sentence for drug charges in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison in the early 1970s, was also an avant-garde filmmaker of sporadic but superb output, represented at Cinefamily by his Visa de censure n° X, filmed in 1968 but not completed until 1975. With his glass-cutting cheekbones, Clementi could’ve been a superstar, but he’d become radicalized in the 1960s and would wave off a big offer from Fellini to instead work with Garrel and the Zanzibar crew. Featuring footage shot during Zanzibar’s brief, globe-trotting heyday, the film is a dense, pulsing collage of double- and triple-exposures set to a careening psych-rock sound track by Delired Cameleon Family, whose howls of “Give me more grass . . . Give me more coke . . . Give me more LSD” are well-suited to a work that feels like a yearlong binge compressed into less than an hour.
Clementi was working under the influence of many, many illicit substances as well as the Montreal-born filmmaker Étienne O’Leary, who appears briefly in Visa de censure n° X and whose twenty-one-minute imagist avalanche Chromo sud (1968) plays with La cicatrice intérieure. Chromo sud is neon-drenched, occult-obsessed, and unbelievably lurid, lurching from tarot tables to Clovis Trouille canvases to Pigalle sex shops, accompanied along the way by a grating and somewhat nauseating seesaw sound track, which at times gives the impression of heavy breathing. O’Leary composed and performed his scores largely by himself, using prepared piano, tape distortions, and contributions from Nico on harmonium. (Among other distinctions, Chromo sud is the first film to give me tinnitus during home viewing.) Clementi’s and O’Leary’s works, maximalist outliers in largely minimalist company, can be seen as allied to contemporary psych/prog/jazz freak-out music and liquid light-show visuals, and in some ways as counterculture analogs to the proto–music video Scopitones made to accompany yé-yé pop tunes earlier in the decade.
Given how brightly Chromo sud burns for its brief duration, it’s not entirely surprising that O’Leary managed to complete only three films. Daniel Pommereulle’s life as a director wasn’t much longer. Most of his film credits are as an actor—he has a small part as a shepherd in La cicatrice intérieure and appears in Éric Rohmer’s La collectionneuse and Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (both 1967), in which he announces “the beginning of flamboyance in all domains, especially the cinema.” He worked principally as a painter and sculptor until his death in 2003. (Les amants réguliers, Garrel’s 2005 reminiscence of the May ’68 moment, is dedicated to him.) He owns a small piece of film history, however, thanks to Vite (1969), which brings to the fore the cosmic imagery threaded through a number of Zanzibar productions. Earthbound scenes—of crossing rocky terrain and wading through mud—shot in Morocco and scored with hectic drumbeats are contrasted with crystalline views of the moon’s surface and the rings of Saturn, filmed through the lens of the Questar telescope. In a body of films united by discontented wanderlust, here is the most far-flung destination of all—a new home, perhaps, far from the bright lights of the civilized world.
“The Zanzibar Films” runs August 10 through 31 at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.