Once There Was Cinema

On the new proletkino

Film still of three people looking through a sliding glass door of a house from the outside deck. An older woman, right, washes the window; a younger woman, middle, mops; and a man, left, mows the lawn.
Still from The Second Mother, dir. Anna Muylaert, 2015.

Juliano Dornelles and Kleber Mendonça Filho (directors). Bacurau. 2019.

Bong Joon-ho (director). Parasite. 2019.

“Sometimes I go to movies,” a character says in Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982), “or watch television, and they never show people at work.” She is standing inside a drab gray factory, industry humming in the background. When she asks why, she receives a deadpan answer: “It’s forbidden to shoot in factories.” Like so much in Godard, this exchange manages to be both sincere social critique and something of a joke. Surely there are deeper reasons for the cultural neglect of labor than company policyand anyway here we are in a factory, our thoughts leading us back to other films set in factories: to Godard’s own British Sounds (1969), in which he blasted machine noise over a background recitation of the Communist Manifesto; or to Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Touki Bouki (1973) and Lino Brocka’s Insiang (1976), which both set the mood with the blood of slaughterhouses; or to the famous montage in Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas’s The Hour of the Furnaces (1968), also featuring the nightmare of the abattoir, this time cut against taunting images of yankee advertisements in a nod to Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike (1925), with a jazz-pop concerto floating overtop. 

Maybe these are exceptions. “Whenever possible,” the German filmmaker Harun Farocki claims in his video Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), “film has moved hastily away from factories. Factories have not attracted film, rather they have repelled it.” The claim appears totalizing: the factory as film’s unconscious, its great unrepresentable. But film, in Farocki’s use, implies something narrower than cinema in its entirety: not film so much as bourgeois film. The title of his video comes from one of the first films ever recorded, the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving the Factory (1895), a nearly two-minute shot of workers streaming out of the Lyon photographic plate factory owned by the directors themselves.

Bourgeois film: the phrase conjures a lost world of seething Communist weeklies, their back pages in thrall to the tidy metaphor of base and superstructure. But for much of cinema’s first century, “bourgeois film” was real enough: it could be said to exist because it had something to define itself against, an artistic and ideological challenger belonging to the bourgeoisie’s historical antagonistproletkino, as the early Soviets called it. The working class, too, had its cinema. “Leaning on the trades unions, supported by state organs, closely linked to the party, Proletkino goes cheerfully to work”so announced an editorial in the journal published by Proletkino, one of many film organizations launched in the early years of the Soviet Union. The group aspired to invent cinema by, for, and about the working class, supported by and expanding the institutions made in the proletariat’s name.

A series of objectives condenses in this vision. As the project of working-class cinema was transformed and went global in the subsequent decades, these objectives would only be realized in part, spawning a diversity of proletkino-aligned films that checked some of the founding vision’s boxes, but not others. In the 1920s and ’30s, Communist Party–backed films, rarely made by working-class artists themselves, pioneered formal breakthroughs, from Eisenstein’s montage to Renoir’s novelistic realism, as working-class institutional worlds developed in parallel: workers’ film clubs and agit-trains in the USSR, Popular Front film productions in France. The ’40s and ’50s saw the rise of Italian neorealismstories of proletarian life, shot at street level in the open air and featuring nonprofessional actors, though largely operating independent of working-class institutionswhich later inspired new film movements in India, the Philippines, Iran, and Brazil. And as the New Left became a global force, a Latin American film movementThird Cinemareinvigorated the bond between working-class political parties and working-class cinema, flourishing during Allende’s tenure in Chile and the first post-revolutionary decade in Cuba. Third Cinema’s influence also spread to every continent, and its novelty lay not just in its anti-imperial force, but in how it lent proletkino’s vision a new practice of cultural organizing. As the Argentine directors Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas explained, movement- and party-affiliated exhibitions doubled as “enlarged cell meetings,” with pauses and prompts for audience discussion built in, leading to the discovery of “a new facet of cinema: the participation of people who, until then, were considered spectators.”

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