"To Show the People in Paris How We Live Here": Working-Class Representation, Paul Carpita, and Film History

By Haenni, Sabine | Framework, Spring-Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

"To Show the People in Paris How We Live Here": Working-Class Representation, Paul Carpita, and Film History


Haenni, Sabine, Framework


French and Anglo-American film historians usually stress the "idea of continuity" that dominated French cinema after World War II.1 Susan Hayward claims that "the look of France's cinema did not change considerably" after the war, and Alan Williams suggests that the foundation of institutions such as the CNC (Centre National de la Cinématographie) helped nurture "the strong artistic continuity between the new French school of the Occupation and the postwar Tradition of Quality."2 During the war, when the German company Continental made films in Paris, production in the South had become more important, at least before the occupation of the Southern zone in 1942. Many film professionals found themselves in Nice, the country's second largest production site, and other cities such as Toulon and Marseille saw the foundation of new production companies.3 After the war, however, most film histories shift their focus back to Paris. Film production seems once again centered in the capital.

In terms of representation onscreen, however, historians have noted one major change compared to the pre-war period. The 1930s, Susan Hayward tells us, saw "the emergence onto the screen of the working class in a big way. The proletariat-most especially the Parisian working class . . . became the new iconography denoting 'Frenchness.'" Such a new iconography entailed a shift not just to the representation but also to the valorization of the working class. And yet, "after the Occupation and into the 1950s, the working class all but disappeared both as an icon and as a preoccupation (either positive or negative)." Instead, the 1950s are characterized by an "aura of uninventiveness" during which genre films such as thefilm policier and comedies dominate.4 In a more detailed account of the fate ofthe cinematic working class, Michel Cadé acknowledges the paucity as well as the diversity of working-class themed films that in his view do not constitute a clearly defined "genre," but equally emphasizes their relative flourishing in the 1930s, after 1968, during the 1980s, and from 1992-2002. Cadé also notices a brief moment of flourishing working-class representation during post-war liberation, which came with a brief left-wing political victory.5

I want to start with this briefpost-war moment marked by "revolutionary illusion" and "great Hope for social change."6 According to historian Emile Temime, this was particularly true for the country's southern port city of Marseille, which had been deeply affected by the war, when it was the major port in Europe from where people fleeing fascism tried to escape, and which had resulted in the total destruction of one of its central neighborhoods.7 After the war, Marseille was a stronghold of the Communist Party and briefly had a communist mayor, before strikes in 1947 paralyzed the city's port-strikes that would flare up again in 1950 and 1951.8 One of the more fascinating filmmakers to come out of this milieu was Paul Carpita, a son of a dock worker and fish-monger, who had become a schoolteacher, who had been active in the Resistance, and who had joined the French Communist Party (PCF) in 1943.9 In 1947, Carpita created Ciné-Pax, a small filmmaking collective-which he was happy to call a "counter-school of cinema"-committed to filming "counter-actualities" that were then screened unofficially in Marseille's Saint-Lazare Cinema. Some footage shot for Ciné-Pax, particularly that of a strike of the dock workers in 1950, was incorporated into the fictional feature-length film, Le Rendez-vous des quais/Meeting on the Docks (FR, 1955), about the daily life of dock workers in Marseille during the Indochina War (1946-54), which would be finished only in 1955.10 In this essay, I understand Carpita as coming out of this postwar moment, and I will unpack how especially his feature film creates spaces where intersectional working-class identities-differently marked by anti-colonial struggles, gender, and race-come together in an alliance based on friendship. …

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