- The Last Working Class City in France:Gheerbrant’s La république Marseille and Post-Global Cinema
The title of this essay is not to be taken literally: I will not be making the case that Marseille is actually the last working class city in France. My title is a reference to Chris Marker’s 1993 film The Last Bolshevik (Le Tombeau d’Alexandre), a film about Alexander Medvedkin, one of the pioneers of early Soviet cinema. Medvedkin was the inspiration for the Groupe Medvedkine, a film collective founded by Chris Marker and made up of French militant filmmakers who, in December 1967, decided to document the labor unrest that had erupted in factories near Besançon by making experimental films that involved the active participation of the workers themselves. Marker first met Medvedkin at a film festival in Leipzig in 1967 and their friendship lasted until 1988, the year of both Medvedkin’s death and the emergence of the perestroika movement in the USSR (Marker). Fascinated by a man who had for so long remained faithful to socialism, despite having suffered under Stalinist repression, Marker decided to make a film that would elucidate the reasons for Medvedkin’s life-long attachment to his ideals. As Marker writes in his blog, Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory:
[Medvedkin] belonged to that rarest breed who had kept unspoiled the faith of his youth: the tragedy of all these bloodstained years was just the sort of trick History plays; but now the clouds had been wiped out, and perestroika was the way to achieve real, pure socialism… In a sense, he was the last Bolshevik.
Marker’s resulting film, The Last Bolshevik, is not so much a biography of Medvedkin as an attempt “to draw the portrait of an era through the portrait of a man” (Marker).
I will argue here that Denis Gheerbrant’s Marseille is the last working class city in France in the same way that Medvedkin was the last Bolshevik for Chris Marker. Denis Gheerbrant‘s seven-episode documentary film series, La république Marseille (The Marseille Republic ), like Marker’s film, is the portrait of an era though the portrait of a city. Now, [End Page 44] however, the era in question is the age of globalization, and its subject is not a person but Marseille, a city that is fighting to remain faithful to its proletarian past even as the realities of globalization are destroying its working class. At a time when the death of the working class is being endlessly foretold (Beaud and Pialoux; Castel), Marseille’s insistence on keeping “unspoiled the faith of its youth” and its self-understanding as a working-class city constitutes—as Medvedkin did for Marker—an enigma to be solved. Should Marseille’s enduring attachment to its proletarian character be seen as a nostalgic throwback to a bygone industrial era and a denial of the social transformations that globalization has wrought in the city? Or could it be, on the contrary, an active, forward-looking strategy of resistance? Such is the question that underlies La république Marseille, a film whose title could be rendered, with a nod toward the English translation of Marker’s film, as The Last Working Class City in France.
But La république Marseille is noteworthy for reasons other than the analogy that can be drawn with Marker’s film. In seeking to understand Marseille’s long attachment to its working class character, Gheerbrant’s documentary signals the emergence of what might be called a post-global cinema, by which I mean a kind of filmmaking that is no longer content to understand, depict, or deplore the effects of globalization as French political cinema (fiction and nonfiction) has done over the last 20 years (O’Shaughnessy 2005, 2007; Marie). Rather, I propose to see post-global cinema as a creative arena in which film artists are now striving to configure what comes next. In my use of the term “post-global,” I am not suggesting that this is a cinema that comes at the “end” of the process of globalization, since this process is, of course, ongoing; rather, ”post...