PRINT May 2008


IT IS CLEAR THAT NICOLAS SARKOZY takes an especial interest in history. One of the French president’s first steps on taking office last year was to mandate that a letter by Guy Môquet, a martyr of the Resistance who was executed at seventeen, be read annually in all of the nation’s high schools. This past February, he announced that he would have each of France’s schoolchildren learn the name and biography of one Jewish child deported during the Occupation. And in March, he ordered a state funeral for France’s longest-living World War I infantryman and paid tribute to 105 maquisards, or Resistance fighters, who died battling the Germans sixty years ago.

But if the president is intent on commemorating and recuperating certain aspects of the world wars, his relation to France’s more recent history is conflicted, to say the least. One date he won’t be celebrating is the fortieth anniversary of May ’68. In a speech delivered during his presidential campaign, Sarkozy blamed the general strike for engendering moral and intellectual relativism, then went for the jugular: “This election is about knowing whether the heritage of May ’68 should be perpetuated, or liquidated once and for all.”1 Last year, his close advisers, Henri Guaino and Georges-Marc Benamou, each sparred with the most famous of the student leaders of May ’68, Daniel Cohn-Bendit.2 On both occasions, for this auditor at least, Cohn-Bendit won the day: In his exchange with Guaino, he observed that the real heir of the ’68 ideology of “jouir sans entraves” (to achieve sexual orgasm freely) was Sarkozy himself, with his multiple marriages and recomposed family, and that in contrast, he, Cohn-Bendit, was the real conservative; he also noted that “wanting to liquidate May ’68 is a little like saying one wants to liquidate Surrealism.3 As such debates indicate, May ’68 and its legacy are still hotly contested in France’s public discourse.

While many pundits on the French Right cite the tumultuous events of that month as the source of all or many of the country’s ills, Sarkozy’s statement is especially curious, because, of course, historical events can be forgotten, they can be misremembered, but, as Cohn-Bendit suggests, they cannot be liquidated or done away with. What is it about May ’68 that could drive a person as wedded to rationalism as Sarkozy to harbor such an irrational wish—a wish not merely to forget but to erase history? To answer this question in concrete terms, and to get a firmer grasp of the very dynamics that Sarkozy wants so badly to neutralize, one could arguably find no better litmus test than the so-called Zanzibar films. All were made in or around May ’68 by a troupe of Parisians including, among many others, filmmakers Philippe Garrel and Patrick Deval, film editor Jackie Raynal, artists Olivier Mosset and Daniel Pommereulle, waifish model and Garrel muse Zouzou, and Caroline de Bendern, who was dubbed the “Marianne of ’68,” after the female personification of Liberty and Reason depicted in much French statuary.4

For a long time, it was said that May ’68 produced only pamphlets, posters, and cinétracts, but no major works of art.5 The Zanzibar films, which have been lately emerging from the obscurity into which they fell after the group dissolved in the early 1970s, challenge this idée reçue. Influenced by the work of Jean-Luc Godard and by American underground cinema, but in some ways more extreme than either, the films are characterized by absolutely minimal editing, panoramic shots that leave viewers to find the focal points, quasi-improvised dialogue—or, in many cases, almost no dialogue—and nonlinear narratives that fitfully track the emergent political and social modes of their day. While all the Zanzibar filmmakers shared radical political views, a strong aesthetic sense was also an unspoken prerequisite for admission to the informal group, and it is surely no coincidence that several of its members were models. Thus, a certain stylized, even dandified sensibility permeates their work; they were not interested in jettisoning aesthetics along with bourgeois mores. Going beyond mere documentary, with its dubious claims to representing the past “as it happened,” the Zanzibar films, as much as and perhaps even more than any other body of cultural production to emerge from the period, instantiate the destabilizing potential of May ’68—a potential that still, apparently, has the power to disturb the likes of Sarkozy.

The filmmakers themselves were less a cohesive unit than a loose constellation, orbiting around the French heiress Sylvina Boissonnas. Between 1968 and 1970, Boissonnas financed about a dozen films that were retrospectively gathered under the rubric Zanzibar (a name inspired by a 1969 voyage to that then-Maoist country, undertaken by some of the group’s members). Boissonnas herself came from a family known for artistic largesse. Her mother, Sylvie Boissonnas (née Schlumberger), was a key benefactor of the Centre Pompidou, while her mother’s sister, Dominique de Menil, who emigrated to the US in 1941, was one of the twentieth century’s most important American art patrons. Her cousin Philippa de Menil founded the Dia Art Foundation in 1974. Sylvina’s activities in this area, however, antedate most of her relatives’. While Sylvina’s aunt was already active as a patron in the mid-’60s, it is possible that she was also influenced in her activities by the Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles, who in the ’30s financed several notable films, including Luis Buñuel’s incendiary L’Âge d’or, a veritable precursor to the Zanzibar group’s oeuvre. Whatever the case, it is clear that Boissonnas reconfigured the tradition of avant-garde patronage in the image of the ethos of the time. She recalls:

I think it is important to state that it is thanks to the “Spirit of May” that these films were able to come into existence. There was an idea of achieving total freedom for many of us, of leaving behind what Guy Debord had memorably called the “society of the spectacle” and of participating in several areas at once, without however being a professional in any one. We were in sync with the youth movement in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as with the Chinese cultural revolution (or how it was perceived in the West). We also sought to put into practice a collective management, to reject a delegation of authority. We dared to think of making films without being professionals, by using reduced crews, often made up of friends as technicians.6

It would be difficult today to overemphasize the outlandish radicalism of Boissonnas’s approach. Holding court at the Coupole restaurant, she simply signed checks for virtually anyone who petitioned her with an idea. It had taken the preceding generation, the New Wave, nearly ten years to break through the corporatism of French cinema—to shoot a movie, they had to obtain the authorization of the Centre National de la Cinématographie, the government body that oversaw and financed film production. Boissonnas’s methods summarily dispensed with such red tape. Her productions were called sauvage, or renegade, and as such had no access to conventional distribution circuits. (For a time there was talk of running an art-house cinema, but no one wanted to engage in such a capitalist enterprise.) In this context, it is important to note, as Boissonnas has observed, that the actors in these films helped to finance them by forgoing any salary. Boissonnas actively encouraged film technicians, including Michel Fournier and Claude Martin, to make their own movies and also financed the projects of complete neophytes. In enabling people without academic credentials or professional experience to make films, she put into practice an anti-authoritarian philosophy that echoes Joseph Beuys’s nearly contemporaneous demand for Düsseldorf’s art academy to open its doors to anyone who sought admission.

It is worth remembering and emphasizing, forty years on, that one of the dreams of May ’68 was “the abolition of capital and its profit.7 While one should perhaps not cast Boissonnas as a Robin Hood figure, passing her family’s money to the Maoists, neither can one simply call her a poster child for radical chic. Certainly her activities, which are tempting to view as conceptual gestures with an artistic valence of their own, constitute one of the primary ways in which the Zanzibar films resist misty clichés of revolution—Boissonnas is a living reminder that the relationship between the soixante-huitards and the forces they sought to overthrow was never just oppositional. This complexity is embedded in the Zanzibar films on the most fundamental, structural level: Boissonnas’s support enabled filmmakers to work with relatively expensive 35-mm stock, so that many of the Zanzibar works have a Hollywood-worthy sheen utterly alien to most underground films.

Other ambivalences, articulated at the level of content and style, are present from the very beginning, in the first Zanzibar film, Détruisez-vous, shot in the early spring of 1968; its title is taken from a popular slogan of the day, “Aidez-nous, détruisez-vous” (Help us, destroy yourselves).8 This seventy-five-minute film was the work of an absolute beginner, Serge Bard, who had been a student in the sociology department at the University of Paris’s Nanterre campus, the incubator for the May uprisings. In it, Bard anarchically crossbreeds two disparate influences: Godard’s La Chinoise and Warhol’s films and Factory. Knowledge of the latter came to Bard and the rest of the group via Mosset (who spent time at the Factory in 1967 and in Détruisez-vous incarnates the iconic Warhol pose, with hand coyly to mouth) and de Bendern (who had visited Warhol’s headquarters that same year, hanging out with Viva and watching the filming of Bike Boy and Nude Restaurant).9 Together, this trio consciously sought to create a French version of the Warhol milieu, as seen in the film’s loft scenes. With a threadbare plot lifted from La Chinoise, Détruisez-vous narrates the ousting of Thierry (Thierry Garrel) from a revolutionary cell led by Marxist poet and art critic Alain Jouffroy, a mentor for several members of the Zanzibar group who here adopts a paterfamilias role. The principal protagonist, though, is Caroline (de Bendern), who spends the film wandering aimlessly and helplessly around. Some of the dialogue is cryptic and Beckettian. (Olivier: “Do you know where you bought your pants?” Caroline: “I forgot. It’s not important.” Olivier: “There are things that are important and things that are not important?”) But some of it is didactically political. In one scene, Jouffroy, standing in an amphitheater, declaims a multi-point program, inspired by Anne Wiazemsky’s militant character in La Chinoise:

First point: Institute civil disobedience as a law.
Second point: Expropriate the Bank of France.
Third point: Destroy all the archives of National Security and Police Headquarters.
Fourth point: Nominate a general council of Paris, composed of 80 percent men and women younger than twenty-five years old, French and foreigners.
Fifth point: Make the army the decorative body for the public works.
Sixth point: For six months, transform the professors into students, and vice versa.

Hardly an agenda that the Gaullist government or its present-day heirs would endorse. And yet, it should also be noted that Jouffroy holds forth in a nearly empty amphitheater. (The audience consists only of four women, one of whom is Boissonnas.) At one point, Caroline comments that she and a friend had once contemplated blowing up a napalm factory in the US, but “we were completely stoned, and then we forgot about it.” Détruisez-vous, like La Chinoise, presages the events of May ’68; but while La Chinoise ends with an assassination, thus putting into practice (fictively speaking) its call for armed struggle, Détruisez-vous ends much more ambiguously, with a close-up of a giggling Caroline followed by a protracted (Warholian) boxing match filmed off a television set. One is left with a sense of doubt about the revolutionary project the film ostensibly espouses.

When the general strike began, the members of the Zanzibar constellation took to the streets, throwing cobblestones and building barricades. In early May, the cameraman for Détruisez-vous, Pierre-William Glenn, shot a scene in Mosset’s apartment in the Sixth Arrondissement and then walked out into the streets to join a demonstration. With the assistance of Deval, Jouffroy, Raynal, and Laurent Condominas, Garrel shot 35 mm footage at a demonstration, which Raynal the next day spliced into a short, Actua 1 (for “actualités,” or “newsreel”). Pierre Clémenti, an actor in two Garrel films from this period, also filmed during the demonstrations, flying back from Rome, where he was shooting Bernardo Bertolucci’s Partner, to capture the uprisings in 16 mm. His film The Revolution Is Only a Beginning: Let’s Continue the Fight, recently rediscovered, captures several confrontations between students and the CRS forces (Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité) in the Latin Quarter.

In June, order was re-established, and many members of the group (including Garrel, Bard, Deval, Raynal, and de Bendern) fled to Rome. They deposited the negatives of the films shot during the strike in an Italian lab, where all were lost or destroyed (by technicians acting in solidarity with their Communist and unionist comrades in France). When they returned to Paris shortly after de Gaulle’s power was restored, the political content of their films went underground, so to speak, as if the filmmakers felt that politics, henceforth, would have to be approached obliquely, direct action having failed.

Some Zanzibar filmmakers reacted to this failure by going into self-imposed exile. Daniel Pommereulle, for instance, shot a film in Morocco in 1969, titled Vite (Quickly), which crystallizes a profound sense of disappointment. Standing with a young Arab boy in a barren North African landscape, Pommereulle hurls vitriol at the Western world, chanting and gesturing as if attempting to make the revolution materialize through incantation. There is a sense that Pommereulle wishes he could go much farther than Morocco: Attaching a Questar telescope to a movie camera (a technical innovation at the time), he shot ravishingly austere footage of outer space, intercut with the desert sequence; his images of the galaxy recall the first pictures of Earth as seen from space, which had been taken by Apollo 8 the previous year.

Other members of the group remained in France, registering their disillusionment by expressing a sense of internal displacement, as it were. Shot in July 1968, Patrick Deval’s film Acéphale shows a group of soixante-huitards wandering aimlessly through a barely recognizable Paris. Gone is the picture-postcard city, replete with architectural landmarks and cafés and pinball machines, found in New Wave films. Instead, Acéphale is set in a kind of hard-bitten no-man’s-land in the Fourteenth Arrondissement and an abandoned subway station. Taking his title (which means “headless”) from Georges Bataille’s eponymous journal, Deval, like Pommereulle, suggests the need to achieve new perspectives by going beyond rational ways of apprehending the world and hints at an extreme response to the then-popular expression “Il faut changer de tête” (You must change your head): The opening image of a man’s head being shaved is accompanied by the sound not of an electric razor but of an electric saw, indicating the need to achieve a tabula rasa by whatever means necessary. But gone is the idea that such a degree zero can be achieved through hurling rocks and waving banners in the streets. After May, drugs and travel had become the key methods of achieving different states of mind.

A disavowal of the overtly political is also evident in the two films that Bard made following Détruisez-vous, in which he put aside bullet-point plans in favor of aesthetic research. Filmed by the renowned cinematographer Henri Alekan (who had worked on Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, as well as relatively mainstream movies like Roman Holiday), Ici et maintenant (Here and Now, 1968) and Fun and Games for Everyone (1968) exploit the kind of highly graphic image that the designer Roman Cieslewicz had popularized in the influential leftist journal Opus International (of which Jouffroy was an editor). Bard had Alekan shoot the image tracks on the kind of film stock usually used to record sound and, at the lab, had the technicians push the contrast to the maximum, creating starkly black-and-white images. Fun and Games for Everyone documents Mosset’s December 1968 opening at the Galerie Rive Droite. Accompanied by the jazz of Barney Wilen and Sunny Murray, it is a film-as-Happening, with Mosset, de Bendern, Salvador Dalí, Amanda Lear, and many others illustrating the kermesse, or carnival aspect, of the period.

With Garrel, perhaps more than any other member of the Zanzibar group, it is possible to speak of an evolution, because he made a number of films in rapid succession during these years. If the political program of his early film Marie pour mémoire (shot at the end of 1967 and focusing on the tangled amours of four countercultural youths) seems vague, it is nonetheless present in the spirit of contestation its young protagonists display. Marie pour mémoire was described as a film-choc (shock film), because of scenes such as the one in which Marie (Zouzou) wakes up in a hospital and realizes that doctors have aborted her pregnancy without her consent. One senses such “shocks” are meant not as cheap thrills but to induce real change, to address social conditions that Garrel felt constituted an emergency. In April 1968, in his acceptance speech for the first prize at the Festival du Jeune Cinéma at Hyères, Garrel announced that he was fed up with “cinema”; what interested him now was prophecy. If his film was to have value, he declared, it should be like a cobblestone, hurled into the theater. In hindsight, we know just how prescient Garrel’s declaration was to be.

Following the impasse of May, however, the contestatory spirit of Garrel’s work waned. And despite being the youngest member of the Zanzibar group, Garrel (born in 1948) seems to have been among the first to grasp that the revolution would not be sustained and that general disillusion would follow in its wake. Toward the end of May, he telephoned the actress Bernadette Lafont, asking her to leave Paris with him to shoot a film. When she pointed out that the riots and demonstrations were still under way, he told her there was no point in remaining until the end, since one already knew how it would all turn out. (It seems a poignant irony, given this skepticism, that Garrel would be compelled to return to May ’68 in his 2005 film Les Amants réguliers (Regular Lovers), which features his son, Louis, as a soixante-huitard in a Paris that seems haunted by revolutionary ghosts.)

Garrel’s subsequent works, Le Révélateur (The Developer, 1968), La Concentration (1968), Le Lit de la vierge (The Virgin’s Bed, 1969), and La Cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972), represent a steady movement toward a drug-laced interiority, culminating in his Le Berceau de cristal (The Crystal Cradle, 1975). Filmed at the end of May ’68, on the outskirts of Munich, Le Révélateur seems to be an oneiric metaphor for the recent events in Paris: A couple (Lafont and Laurent Terzieff) travel with their young son (Stanislas Robiolle), as if escaping from some unnamed danger. Ultimately, there is a suggestion that the child kills his parents; at the end, he wanders off toward a lake, like an infant Christ, the incarnation of “the child savior.”10 In Garrel’s next film, there is a retreat into the vase clos of the couple: La Concentration features an androgynous young man (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and woman (Zouzou), dressed only in their underwear, locked in a room with a bed. Le Lit de la vierge, meanwhile, is an overtly Christian allegory: In naming his characters Mary and Jesus, Garrel reminds us of the rebellious spirit of the generation for which Jesus was a hippie avant la lettre. One memorable scene suggests a baptismal rite, as Clémenti’s Christ leads his followers through water; but this Jesus seems more beleaguered than beatific.

It would, however, be a mistake to say that the Zanzibar films in their entirety describe a simple declension from the political to the apolitical. Here one could cite a significant strand that can be traced through the Zanzibar corpus: a feminism that stood in marked opposition to the chauvinism of the era. Two of the most innovative Zanzibar films, in fact, were made by women. Today, particularly in France, where many women are active as filmmakers, it is easy to forget that forty years ago the professional landscape looked very different—just as it is easy to forget the incredible fact that in the ’60s, a woman in France could not open her own bank account without her husband’s permission. Women who wanted to work in the industry and who were not actresses were generally limited in their choices: They could be editors or “continuity girls” or could join the ranks of the petit personnel: hairdressers, makeup artists, etc. With the encouragement of Boissonnas, Raynal broke this mold. In Barcelona in the autumn of 1968, she made Deux Fois (Two Times), one of the best-known Zanzibar films, which in 1972 shared the top prize at the Hyères festival. Raynal’s title puns on the opening line of fairy tales, “Once upon a time,” and the film lays claim to the Surrealist legacy of Buñuel and Cocteau and to the proto-Surrealism of the seventeenth-century playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, whose Life Is a Dream Raynal quotes toward the end. Like other Zanzibar films, Deux Fois disdains traditional ideas of causality and Western logic. The dialogue is scant, evincing the Zanzibar filmmakers’ predilection for silent film, and scenes are sometimes repeated, short-circuiting cause and effect. For example, a scene in which Raynal purchases soap in a pharmacy is inexplicably looped several times. More important, however, is Raynal’s political message concerning the emancipation of women. In one scene, the filmmaker appears in profile with her curly tresses blowing in the wind, until a masculine hand intrudes, tugging on her hair and pulling her out of frame.

Around this time, Boissonnas herself stepped out of her role as financier and into the director’s seat. The work she created, the primal, wordless Un Film, which she has described as an attempt to deal with a depression following the end of a love affair, is one of the most radical of the Zanzibar catalogue. In it, Boissonnas allows herself to be filmed in a barrel, covered in and immersed by various elements (earth, water, etc.); it’s an action with clear connections to the work of artists on the other side of the Atlantic, from Chris Burden and Vito Acconci to Ana Mendieta. Both Raynal’s and Boissonnas’s films anticipate one of the immediate results of May ’68: the birth of the French women’s movement, to which Boissonnas would increasingly direct her energies following the dissolution of the Zanzibar group in 1970–71.

Boissonnas has averred that the Zanzibar films were, in fact, not political, but of course this statement should be taken with a grain of salt. Above all, the films represent rejection: rejection of authority; rejection of the traditional hierarchies of film crews, of gender, of society in general; rejection of the “author”; rejection of traditional narratives; and, increasingly, rejection of language. They represent a turning away from metropolitan France toward other lands, in particular Africa, and if there is something naive or even crypto-colonialist in this penchant for the exotic, there is also a genuine attempt to re-imagine the world’s political geography, to encompass even outer space. The art critic and Nouveau Réalisme champion Pierre Restany summarized Boissonnas’s achievement, and by extension that of her collaborators, thus: “Sylvina Boissonnas had a certain premonition of the meaning of May ’68. She understood that that adventure revolved around alterity, that is to say, the other. May ’68 declared the inalienable right of the other to live with all his (or her) differences.”11

An analysis of the generation of May ’68 by the Canadian sociologist François Ricard allows us to obtain a better purchase on this politics of lived difference. Ricard uses the term “lyrical generation” (after Milan Kundera) to categorize those who were young in 1968, although for him, the phrase is less a “descriptive category” than a “floating category, both unstable and poetic.12 The members of this cohort are the advance guard of the baby boomers, born at or near the beginning of France’s trente glorieuses (glorious thirty), the three decades of prosperity that commenced in 1945. As Ricard puts it, for the people of this generation, born with a certain sense of optimism and joy, “insubordination wasn’t primarily a demand for liberty, it was the sign of liberty itself.13 The Zanzibar films cannot be collapsed into an easily digestible, and easily dismissed, tale of failed revolution, in part because they constitute the lyric sign of liberty rather than the programmatic demand for it. Their otherness, or alterity, encompasses a difference from “May ’68” itself—which is to say, from any set understanding of that historical breach. It was a difference maintained through aesthetics, through performing revolution even while practicing revolution—through what might be called dandyism but could also be called lyricism. Cohn-Bendit recently said: “1968 is over! Society has changed! The revolutionary myths of the Communists, libertarians, totalitarians, and I don’t know who else have collapsed like a house of cards.” But, he went on, “there remains nonetheless the liberating intuition of this movement, the emancipation of individuals by collective action resolutely anchored in the equality and autonomy of each and every one.14 The Zanzibar films are part of what remains after the collapses of all the “-isms” of 1968, and, as Sarkozy himself surely intuits, such ephemeral but enduring alterities cannot be easily recuperated.

Sally Shafto is a Paris-based film historian and critic and the author of The Zanzibar Films and The Dandies of May 1968 (Editions Paris Expérimental, 2007).


1. The speech was delivered on April 29, 2007, at Paris’s Bercy stadium. Citation taken from the account in Le Nouvel Observateur, April 30, 2007. Author’s translation.

2. Benamou debated with Cohn-Bendit in a discussion led by Annette Lévy-Willard in Grenoble, France, September 14, 2007. Available on the CD Liquider 68?, Frémeaux & Associés. Guaino debated with Cohn-Bendit on December 22, 2007, in a radio discussion in Alain Finkielkraut’s “Répliques” series, on France Culture.

3. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, “Par rapport à Mai ’68, Nicolas Sarkozy se comporte en pur Stalinien,” Le Monde, May 1, 2007.

4. De Bendern received this nickname after the photo by Jean-Pierre Rey taken during the events of May ’68: She is sitting on the shoulders of Jean-Jacques Lebel and holding the Vietnamese flag. This photo quickly became one of the emblematic images of the period.

5. This point is made by Keith Reader, among others. See Reader’s study The May 1968 Events in France: Reproductions and Interpretations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), 116.

6. Sylvina Boissonnas, letter to the author, dated June 16, 1999. Cited in The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, 174.

7. Reader, 99.

8. Détruisez-vous was partially financed by Sylvina’s brother, Jacques Boissonnas, at her request. The rest of its funding came from Sofracima, the company that had produced the antiwar film Far from Vietnam.

9. At least one of the Zanzibar entourage was filmed by Warhol. Daniel Pommereulle spent the winter of 1968–69 in New York, where he met Warhol at Max’s Kansas City and was subsequently filmed by him.

10. François Ricard, La Génération lyrique: Essai sur la vie et l’oeuvre des premiers-nés du baby-boom (Castelnau-le-Lez: Climats, 2001). Ricard’s study was first published in Montreal in 1992, and an English-language translation exists: The Lyric Generation: The Life and Times of the Baby-Boomers, trans. Donald Winkler (Toronto: Stoddart, 1994). The quote cited here is from p. 62 of the French edition. Author’s translation.

11. Pierre Restany, in an interview with the author, May 11, 1999. Quoted in The Zanzibar Films and the Dandies of May 1968, 174.

12. Ricard, 14.

13. Ricard, 127.

14. Quote from Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s debate with Georges-Marc Benamou. Author’s translation.