Home Video Hovel: On Strike! Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group, by Craig Schroeder
Eight hour days, working wages, benefits and revolution make great fodder for a twenty-something kid from the suburbs whose Spotify play history is ninety percent Against Me! and Bruce Springsteen. But melodies about “revolution” and the “working class” are often romanticized for the sake of punk and rock music. But Chris Marker, French photographer and director, and his collective of revolutionaries known as the Medvedkin Group, put the tenants of a working class revolution front and center. With Icarus Films’ release of On Strike!: Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group–which is actually two films: Be Seeing You, directed by Chris Marker, and Class of Struggle, by the Medvedkin Group–Chris Marker provides a first hand account of the day-to-day struggles of workers trampled by a capitalist system without restraint.
It’s hard to talk about either film without a bit of context. In 1968, France was swallowed by protest and civil unrest, led by factory workers, students, anti-capitalists, anarchists and others disenchanted with capitalism in France. One year earlier, Chris Marker, a French filmmaker and budding revolutionary, documented the unrest in Rhodiaceta, a large textile plant in Bescanon, with the film Be Seeing You. A year later, with factory strikes in full swing all across France, the Medvedkin Group–a collective of like-minded workers-cum-documentarians trained by Marker–made Class of Struggle, documenting working class strikes in the Yema Watch Factory.
Though both films are fascinating looks into the individual lives of a working class rebellion, it’s hard for either film to stand alone, divorced of context. Neither film is meant to be a comprehensive history of the strikes in France, rather, a first hand account of the events as they unfold. The subjects are engaging and impassioned, but only ardent Francophiles will be able to navigate the politics of the film without pausing and consulting the internet to fill in the gaps. It often feels like you’ve been given the frame to a beautiful new sports car, but you have to build the engine yourself, and all you’ve got is a screwdriver and the owner’s manual.
Be Seeing You and Class of Struggle, clock in at thirty-eight and thirty-nine minutes, respectfully, and each are compiled almost entirely of reactionary and fiery interviews of factory workers, who work unimaginable hours, seven days a week for very little pay. Though Be Seeing You documents the beginning of the revolution, I’d argue Class of Struggle is the more interesting film. It’s more reactionary and self-aware, following up with some of the same interview subjects from the first film, now fully engaged in an active revolution. Class of Struggle also makes it a point to feature women protestors, something Be Seeing You failed to do almost entirely. Plus, there’s something about a semi-anonymous collective documenting a radical workers’ rebellion, that makes my punk-rock loving fist shoot into the air like one of Pavlov’s dogs.
On Strike!: Chris Marker and the Medvedkin Group is not an accessible film. But it is passionate and raw. It would make a great primary resource for a college thesis on the working class rebellion in 1960s France. But it’s not a complete picture; it’s like reading a novel but skipping every other chapter. But it’s hard to judge Be Seeing You and Class of Struggle under this criteria. Marker and the Medvedkin Group weren’t trying to paint a whole picture: they were trying to throw the entire paint can in the face of the capitalist system. Kick out the proverbial jams. And to that end, there are very few goals of which Be Seeing You and Class of Struggle fell short of.