I had the opportunity to see the once-banned and long-repressed 1962 French documentary “Octobre à Paris” this week at Columbia University’s Maison Francaise. The film has the distinction of bearing witness in an almost singular way to a state-sanctioned urban crime that took place on October 17, 1961 (last Monday marks the 50 year anniversary). The wikipedia article documents both the context and the massacre itself in an excellent way, but, in short, the event marks the bloody homecoming of the colonial techniques of state violence. As the war between the French forces in Algeria and the FLN (Algerian revolutionary army for liberation) raged in Africa, the conditions in Paris saw the development of the FLN among the Algerian community as well as the organization of a very small number of French activists as well. Some committed to outright support of the FLN by “carrying suitcases” (les porteurs des valises–who were harshly punished by the French government), while others maintained a firmer legal standing by signing manifestos , or creating committees such as the one named in honor of Marice Audin, an Algerian mathematician who was abducted, and probably tortured and murdered by the French paratrooper forces in Algiers. This committee would eventually be the force behind the film “Octobre à Paris“.
The radicalization and violence of the FLN which at this time was targeting police officers in Paris were matched both by the creation of the OAS, a secret army of french generals and right-wing sympathizers convinced that De Gaulle would not defend French Algeria and also the Parisian police force under the command of Maurice Papon, who eventually in the 1980s was discovered and eventually convicted for having sent 1,600 Jews to their deaths during the Nazi occupation of France. If this fact was not known in 1961, the techniques Papon employed against the Algerian population testify to his experience as a ruthless Vichy functionary. As bombings against the police intensifed in August and September of 1961, on October 5 Papon declares a curfew for Algerians residing in Paris from 8:30PM-5:30AM. In response, the FLN, with wide support from the Algerians residing in Paris (around 150,000) and the wider North African population decide to stage a march in defiance of the racist law. At this time there appears to be very little in the way of French involvement in this march in terms of either organization of participation. It is this fact that perhaps allows for the violence to be policed away from public memory in a insidiously effective way: Here we have nothing like Martin Luther King’s powerful, but carefully orchestrated and stage managed march on Washington D.C. in 1963, but rather an oppressed class of immigrants deciding to take the streets (or sidewalks, apparently FLN members attempted to keep the march from blocking traffic) for their own rights without the helping hands of sympathetic organizations. Sympathetic organizations were a distinct minority in any case. The French Communist Party never supported outright Algerian independence or the FLN and its tactics for national liberation. The march is met with extreme police violence, abductions of thousands of men who were placed in camps used by the Vichy government for equally shameful acts twenty years earlier, scores are beaten to death, even tortured to death in “caves” by Algerian mercenaries (“harkis“, many of whom spoke no French) and countless numbers are thrown into the Seine river after having been severely beaten.
As news of the severity of the police violence reached the Marice Audin committee who had many contacts in the Algerian community, they made a request for donations which is I believe published by Le Monde to fund the committee, and eventually a documentary film, an idea of the biologist and committee member Jacques Panijel. Because a significant amount was raised, the plan was to enlist a film director of some renown, but Panijel claims that the request was denied by almost every single French director except Jean Rouch, who expressed some interest. With the Nouvelle Vaugue nowhere in sight, Panijel himself decided to surf the closest wave he could find and helm the documentary himself.
The resulting film displays a little of this technical and artistic confusion Panijel must have faced beginning this harrowing process: How to tell the story of what happened when there was no documentary film and only a handful of photos? How to portray both the narratives of that night, but also give a feel as to what it looked like? The result is a combination of direct narratives with closeups on wounds, recreations of the mobilization for the march, a few moments of experimental camera technique, and also documentary shots of the bidonvilles (shantytowns) where the majority of Algerians lived in the suburb of Nanterre.
Although my French is pretty good, the film currently has no subtitles in English and was screened as such. The accent of the Algerians was hard for me to decipher at times, not to mention the severe emotional distress involved in giving words to a scene of one’s own humiliation or torture. Nevertheless, the film for the most part consists of scenes where men and women recreate individual experiences from the march that are often intercut with shots of the narrated location, often from the perspective of the narrator: The camera crawls in the grass by the Seine; the camera slowly pans across the disgusting torture “cave” which is littered with broken glass, metal bars and scraps of wood. Doctors and nurses who tended to the wounded speak of their horror of what they saw and the derision some faced by going out of their way to help heal an injured Algerian. The massing of the people in their bidonville before the march is recreated and gives a sense of the 30,000 who took to the streets that day, as well as a recreation of march handlers checking each man for weapons in order to emphasize that the march was intended to be non-violent. The film eventually climaxes in an aggressive series of photographs matched with an abrasive musique concrete soundtrack.
The film then culminates with actual footage of the better remembered killing of eight members of the PCF (French Communist Party) on February 8, 1962 at the Charonne metro station, during a march against the influence of the secret army OAS. The anti-fascist message of this march and the martyrdom of the eight communist party members in a large way eclipsed the massacre of 17 October by reinforcing the patriotic role the PCF played during the Resistance as savoir of the nation and by pushing away the dark root of institutional racism and colonialism further from view.
Panijel attempted to screen the film in 1962 to friends, but the police arrived and confiscated the print. Because the film didn’t have a “visa” from the government, no distributer would touch it. Panijel claims to have screened it at Cannes in 1962 and that only Variety gave notice, but my searching on the Variety website archives reveals nothing. In May 1968 the film was screened several times in rotation with Battle of Algiers, but essentially ten years passed with only a handful of screenings, which were all clandestine. Eventually in 1972 filmmaker René Vautier stages a hunger strike against the censorship of Octobre à Paris and after 30 days the national film commission sent a memo that effectively stated that withholding a visa from a film would no longer be permissible for political reasons.
Film censorship was over, but France spent the next 20 years drifting further to the right and the film was effectively forgotten, as was the massacre that triggered a biologist non-filmmaker to act politically and artistically when no one else would. A combination of the trial of Papon for collaboration and crimes against humanity, historical research, a popular French detective novel and time eventually led to the French state acknowledging the deaths in 1998. But the battle to some extent still rages on over the wording of a plaque, the official death toll. After a long-repressed crime comes into the light of day, the brokers of official memory drag it as quickly as possible into the museum where it can be lit in a particular way and viewed as a passive object for our gaze, not as a living mass of history that we might not be able to control. What is more dangerous, a horrible truth we are dimly aware of but too frightened to research and confront, or an event-as-petrified-artifact, mute behind a plexiglass curtain, speaking in a borrowed language? This exhibit is only part of the museum, there is so much to see, to learn, to forget.
1962 is the year that Antonioni’s L’eclisse won at Cannes. It is a work of art that bears Antonioni’s astrally composed technique matched with moments of bacchic frenzy both in the stock market and among spoiled rich girlfriends blasting African tribal music while dancing primitively with painted faces. If Antonioni approaches the decadence and ignorance of the idle classes towards colonialism in this manner (there is also a worker of African-descent at the small airport with a coyly disdainful stare before they go for a quick joy ride in a jet), Octobre à Paris shows how raw and necessary an “amateur” attempt at capturing the “real” of colonialism can be. If there are unfortunate attempts to incorporate “experimental” techniques that only serve to take the contemporary viewer away to the unfortunate realm of the analysis of montage and film technique, the specificity of the experience, the cicatrice as witness, and the power of non-actors pulls you in the other direction. Which is the direction of action, of direct action–of art least of all for art’s sake, but because there is no one else who can; art for the sake of survival (of_______). Art as action.