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  • Tracking the Global through the Local:Slon/Iskra’s Documentaries of Displacement
  • Martine Guyot-Bender (bio)

The French public has a distinct taste for realist representations of public crisis. Citing figures from the Centre National de la Cinématographie et de l’Image Animée (CNC), Sarah Cooper has shown that interest in documentary film is steadily on the rise in France (9), as attested to by the growing number of documentary festivals and documentary films recently released in theaters. Within this context, Martin O’Shaughnessy links the popularity of the social documentary genre to a series of political developments in France, such as the 1995 protests against the infamous “Plan Juppé,” which aimed to slash public spending, and the French electorate’s spurning in 2005 of the Constitution proposed by the European Union (2). Within this diverse and prolific genre, Slon/Iskra, a pioneering film collective founded in 1967 by militants and cinema professionals gathered around alternative e filmmaker Chris Marker, has made a name for itself. Across nearly five decades of sustained activity (first in filmmaking itself, and now largely in film production and distribution), Slon/Iskra has been documenting social discontent both in France and abroad, and today stands as one of the only survivors of the oppositional filmmaking that flourished in France in the 1960s and 1970s.1

The organization now produces what it calls “cinéma citoyen” (citizen cinema), or low-budget films that document the distress of marginalized groups and denounce inequalities in contemporary social and economic life (Aquilli). Yet, it is striking to note that the group’s 2011 online catalogue, which carries 170 titles arranged under rubrics that address the social concerns of our times (Immigration, Social Movements, War and Repression), does not highlight “Globalization—a category one might well expect to find there, given the scope of the social, economic, and geographic upheaval it has produced in recent decades. Despite its provision of more equally shared prosperity, globalization has engendered true hardship for vast numbers of people around the world, which is certainly a source of concern for Iskra filmmakers. They do not, however, portray globalization as their chief opponent. Rather, they consider it as a backdrop of looming, unnamable forces bearing down on the very real [End Page 138] victims whose life circumstances they track. The fact that Iskra has not yet produced films that directly address issues pertaining to globalization derives, I would argue, from the collective’s own history, which has remained solidly rooted in forms of homegrown resistance.

Slon/Iskra as Authors: Local Advocacy, Global Perspectives

The acronyms Slon and Iskra refer to two distinct periods in the life of the same organization. The film collective first adopted the name SLON (Société pour le Lancement des Oeuvres Nouvelles, [Group for Launching New Works]) after the release of two ground-breaking films with which Left Bank, New Wave filmmaker Chris Marker was associated: Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam [1967]), which protested against the war the US was waging, and À bientôt j’espère! (Be Seeing You [1967]), a film that documents the strike of textile factory workers in Besançon (Roudé, I.S.K.R.A. 11).2 Subsequently, Slon lent its support to grass-roots initiatives such as those undertaken by the Medvedkine group, which placed cameras in the hands of factory workers and invited them to record aspects of their daily lives. The group also produced anonymous Cinétracts, or short manifestos comprised of still images that contested the status quo circa 1968. In 1974, the collective relocated its offices and took on the more explicitly activist title Iskra (Image, Son, Kinescope et Réalisation Audiovisuelle [Image, Sound, Kinescope and Audiovisual Realization]), a name derived from the Russian word “spark” (also the title of the newspaper Lenin launched during his years in exile).

By the late 1970s, most professional filmmakers associated with the collective had returned to their personal work. They left behind a handful of dedicated staff members who continued supporting independent political filmmakers in ways that aligned with the original ideological aims the group enunciated in its 1971 mission statement, which recalled that “Slon was born from the following, obvious, observation...


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