The 1973 film LA DIALECTIQUE PEUT-ELLE CASSER DES BRIQUES? („Can Dialectics Break Bricks?”) ranks as one of the paramount works of Situationist cinema. Rene Vienet created a new soundtrack for Tu Guangqi’s martial arts film THE CRUSH, transforming a kung-fu spectacle into a form of class struggle. The story of an anti-colonial uprising in Korea told in the original Hong Kong film is „rerouted” (a strategy the Situationists called détournement) to the political struggles in the aftermath of 1968. By the early 1970s, the class conflict in Europe and the struggles for independence from colonial rule and imperialism in countries located in what was at that time called the Third World had created a complex context in which many intellectuals were left searching for their position. Philosophy student Omar Blondin Diop was one of them, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard another. Their paths first crossed in 1967, when Godard wanted to make a film about the students at University Paris Nanterre with his then-new partner Anne Wiazemsky. Godard wanted to „film the movement,” according to Vincent Meessen’s essayistic documentary JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT (JUST A MOVEMENT), but the movement did not want to be filmed by him.
A Senegalese activist in Paris
Godard’s feature film LA CHINOISE (1967) is a reaction to the failure of that documentary project. In the film, a group of young people prepares for revolutionary action in an upper-class apartment in Paris, discussing the issue of violence. One of them delivers a lecture on Marxism: it is Omar Blondin Diop, a student from Senegal, who was seeking the right outlet for his own revolutionary involvement amidst the tumult of Paris in May of 1968. France put a hostile end to this questioning in 1969, expelling Blondin Diop from the country. He returned to Paris from Dakar that same year but then decided to join the political resistance in Senegal in 1971, following the example of the American Black Panther Party. He traveled to Syria via Turkey to undergo military training with Palestinian fedayeen guerillas. His next stop was Algiers, where the Black Panthers had a base at the time. Upon his return to Senegal, Blondin Diop was arrested on charges of terrorism and imprisoned on Gorée Island off Dakar, a place infamous for its strategic role in the transatlantic slave trade. He died in prison in 1973 under circumstances that have never been fully explained.
His stay with the fedayeen in 1971 has a parallel in the biography of Godard, who attempted—and ultimately failed—to complete a revolutionary film project in Jordan and the West Bank in 1970. Godard’s aim was to understand the armed struggle of the fedayeen against Israel as a „new Vietnam” (in accordance with Che Guevara’s watchword that it was necessary to create „two, three, many Vietnams”). When Omar Blondin Diop died in 1973, Godard was working with his partner Anne-Marie Miéville on ICI ET AILLEURS, which was ultimately not released until 1976, and in which he used his footage from the Palestinian territories. The questions that arose at the time for Godard, for Blondin Diop, or for the Situationist sinologist Rene Vienet arise once more today in corresponding form for Vincent Meessen, a Belgium-based artist and filmmaker who repeatedly turns to the topic of Africa in his works. In 2021, as in 1967 or 1973, it remains necessary to clarify how certain struggles can be inscribed into the current geopolitical constellations. In Senegal, the Y’en a Marre movement („We’re fed up”) has been active since 2012, pushing those in power to work for the cause of the common good.
China takes on a role in 2021 comparable to the one that postcolonial France assumed in 1971: a hegemonic authority out for soft power and a ready supply of raw materials.
A piece of the context behind this activism is the involvement of the People’s Republic of China in Senegal. As Meessen shows in one scene, the communist nation has built a museum in Dakar, its appearance inspired by traditional African architecture, an institution that is to bolster the identity of the West African state. In so doing, China takes on a role in 2021 comparable to the one that postcolonial France assumed in 1971: a hegemonic authority out for soft power and a ready supply of raw materials. Meessen also shows a scene in which Leopold Senghor, the first president of the independent Republic of Senegal, delivers a speech during a state visit by his French counterpart Georges Pompidou that comes across like a declaration of devotion and loyalty. It was in part for this reason that Omar Blondin Diop opposed Senghor, seeking instead a more radical path out of Senegal’s colonial past.
Godard, for his part, repeatedly turned to colonial struggles in search of a scenario that would help reify his ambivalent hopes for a collapse of civilization and a political restart based on the model of „primitive peoples,” as can be discerned in his 1968 film WEEKEND. In 1967 he failed to earn accreditation to shoot in North Vietnam. The following year he went to a region of northern Canada to accompany and agitate with the local indigenous people in their labor conflicts. By 1970 he had to acknowledge that the fedayeen of Palestine were not the historical subject he was looking for. In 1977/78, he made a final attempt to get involved on a personal level with actions outside of Europe: together with Anne-Marie Miéville, Godard traveled to Mozambique to establish a progressive state television network in the former Portuguese colony.
With his film about Omar Blondin Diop, Vincent Meessen faces in particular the challenge of overcoming this constellation: a European intellectual identifies with a postcolonial project and must acknowledge the impossibility of changing sides or his own unwillingness to do so. JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT, however, couldn’t simply be a film about Omar Blondin Diop, even if it fulfills all the requirements of a biography. For Meessen, Blondin Diop’s changes in place and position, in conjunction with the shifts in the greater geopolitical constellation, become a formative principle of his film. The key factor in this is the role of the People’s Republic of China.
The key role of China
For both Godard and Blondin Diop, China was an important factor in the late 1960s when it came to defining their positions within the complex differentiations of Marxism-Leninism. The Soviet Union was no longer suited as a political model—at the very least since the end of the Prague Spring but essentially earlier than that, once the extent of Stalin’s crimes had become known. Mao Zedong’s China, on the other hand, provided a recent role model with the Cultural Revolution (without Europeans yet having a sufficient picture of its atrocities). Maoism became a predominant political ideology in the student movement following 1968, though the role of postcolonial nation-states and independence movements in the Global South remained unresolved.
Rene Vienet’s LA DIALECTIQUE PEUT-ELLE CASSER DES BRIQUES? is in all likelihood also cited by Meessen because that film—counter to Vienet’s original intention—had become a moment of transition. Since then, what has become attractive about China is not so much its political model in itself, which can hardly be understood as left or communist anymore, but certain aspects of its popular culture. The Confucius Institute in Dakar, for example, offers martial arts courses: the subject of Vienet’s détournement is now held up as a national characteristic. In a highly incisive scene, a Senegalese woman named Awa delivers a lecture in Mandarin at the Confucius Institute on the significance of Althusser’s Marxism for Godard’s LA CHINOISE, that is, for a CINEMAO, a term from a piece of graffiti in Dakar that riffs off an inscription from the Paris of May 1968.
It is in turn a young expat Chinese woman, the daughter of shopkeepers in Dakar, who pays a visit—on Meessen’s behalf, so to speak—to the place around which JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT ultimately revolves: the island of Gorée, and the facility in which Omar Blondin Diop was held captive and ultimately murdered, as his friends can only assume. The killing of Blondin Diop put Senegal on par with the Democratic Republic of Congo, the film states. Senghor behaved „like Mobutu”—like Mobutu Sese Seko, that is, the long-ruling dictator of the Congo/Zaire who seized power via the politically motivated execution of Patrice Lumumba, the first prime minister of the independent Republic of the Congo.
For Godard, the Marxism of Louis Althusser lent itself as a guiding principle in 1967 due to the radical openness it exemplified. Rather than leading to the ideologized know-it-all-ness with which the student movement frequently approached the struggles of 1968, it opened the way to an experimental practice in which, to paraphrase Jacques Rancière, the most elementary actions are rediscovered. This is where the physical exercises to explore the Tao in JUSTE UN MOUVEMENT come in. (Whereupon „making a movement one thousand times” almost calls for the reverse: it takes just one move for a political act.) In this context one can also see the experimental communal living of Ephraim Asili’s THE INHERITANCE (see LINK), which makes clear reference to LA CHINOISE, though in the form of yet another détournement. The misspelling of Anne Wiazemsky’s name („Anne Wiamensky”) on the film poster hanging in the Philadelphia house is an incidental indication that the legacy Asili speaks of is not (at least not directly) the cinemaoist ways or missteps (Tao means „the way”) of Godard and perhaps also Omar Blondin Diop, but rather that a concrete context—in this case, the urban African American activist movement MOVE in Philadelphia—provides a new generation with a starting point into new readings and new social practices. And with these, a new politics as well—in Senegal, in the USA, in France, in the Palestinian territories and maybe even one day in the People’s Republic of China—that is no longer based on an ideologized search for dialectical constellations as in the era of LA CHINOISE, but on creative appropriation and on mourning the victims of earlier struggles.
Bert Rebhandl works as a freelance journalist, author and translator in Berlin.
Translation: Hilda Hoy