This program in the form of an essay aims to shed light on some of the more disturbing aspects of contemporary life. Specifically, it looks at experiences involving conflict with power and at the imminent arrival of an even greater confrontation. A clash that exceeds the political realm and expands towards the notion of civilisation itself, and that seems to emanate from a source within the inner life of human beings.
Bearing this in mind, we present a series of screenings that look further than the immediacy of recent events, the logic of action-reaction, and the persistent notion of the other as intrinsically negative, in order to take a step back and observe from a distance that allows reflection.
We convey this vision through a programme with a dual core: La Commune by Peter Watkins, and The Mahabharata by Peter Brook, which we have contextualised with a series of documentaries and other documents that show contemporary expressions of the central theme.
La Commune offers a vision of contemporary conflict that transcends political oblivion. A cinematic reflection that looks back to a historical milestone – the emergence and disappearance of the 1871 Paris Commune and, at the same time, questions our own social reality and its representation in the media, given that Watkins chose to work with non-actors, people who express the actual conditions of their lives in Paris in 1999.
We will screen this film in three parts, each followed by a discussion session led by members of Rebond La Commune, the group that was created as a result of the making of this film.
Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata also deals with conflict but rather than taking a historical approach it positions itself outside of history, outside of linear time. It plays out in mythical time, the time of constant return and of the dialectic tension between the oblivion and remembrance of true human nature. The Mahabharata presents this conflict on several levels – linked to politics (power), civilisation, and the survival of life on Earth –, but also as an expression of the inner struggle that is fought out within every human being.
Each of the three parts of The Mahabharata will be preceded by excerpts from a conversation that we recorded with Jean-Claude Carrière, the screenwriter in charge of the theatrical adaptation of Brook's The Mahabharata, in which we explore the keys to this work in relation to the notions of conflict and oblivion.
This story is about you
The programme begins by following the course of the Mahabharata, an immense poem that flows with the majesty of a great river, which is full of “inexhaustible riches, defies all analysis, whether structural, thematic, historical or psychological. Doors are continually opening, which lead onto other doors. The Mahabharata cannot be held in the hollow of one’s hand. There are many ramifications. Sometimes seemingly contradictory, they succeed each other and intertwine, but we never lose the central theme of a looming threat, to which everything starkly points. We are living in a time of destruction. The question is, can we avoid it?” (1)
Against this background, from its very first lines, the Mahabharata takes us on an inner journey of knowledge and transformation.
- What is the poem about?
- It is about you. It is the story of your race. How your ancestors were born. How they grew. How vast war arose. It is the poetical history of mankind. If you listen carefully, at the end you will be someone else.(2)
The illusion of power
The story gradually introduces us into a confrontation between the Pandava and the Kaurava. A confrontation that is a battle for power, although it arises from two almost opposite conceptions of life. With all their nuances and ambivalence, we see the Pandava proceed in accordance with their quest to fulfil the dharma, while the Kaurava seem to be guided only by desire and fear: the desire to possess power and the fear of losing it. They do not hesitate to use all possible means to achieve their end, they respect no limits whatsoever. And they act with the complicity of their parents, a blind king and a queen who voluntarily blindfolds herself.
Then the two sides play a game of dice, as a way of representing and temporarily avoiding direct conflict; but it is also a frame-up. The game is rigged – power play is always rigged. There can only be one outcome: defeat and the loss of everything they own, even their freedom. The Pandava face a future of exile and war.
In the present day, this rigged game takes on shapes and names that often hide its true purpose: to create a reality that is tailored to the private interests of a few. This is the case of so-called “free trade”, for example, which is supposedly a fair game in the sphere of economics. But the unequal terms of its participants and the non-reciprocal nature of the rules mean that it is inherently based on a desire for supremacy. Other examples disguise the obvious corporate and entrepreneurial nature of some social networks, and of many digital tools that barely hide their dark underside of control. And so we dwell in a realm of appearances: we appear to choose, we appear to communicate, we appear to be safe, thanks to a dense network of social devices. But inadvertently, when we comply with the daily ritual of submission to our work, to the educational and health system, to culture and to entertainment, we are signing a silent contract:
I accept competition as the foundation of our system, even though I am aware that it generates frustration and anger for the majority of those who lose. I agree to be humiliated and exploited in exchange for being allowed to humiliate and exploit those on a lower rung of the social pyramid (...)"
I accept that, in the name of peace, the largest Government expense will be Defence (...) I agree to be served up negative and terrifying news from around the world every day, so that I can ascertain the extent to which our situation is normal. (3)
Obviously, failure to sign “the contract” entails various increasing forms of exclusion. In view of this situation, protest can easily be channelled through the realm of appearance and made to give up its transformative power. But if protest tries to become real it will be stigmatised as sectarian, aggressive and violent, regardless of the means and ends it chooses.
Del Poder (“On Power”), the documentary by Zaván, focuses precisely on this aspect: the moment at which power reveals its true nature, beyond the fine names that it adopts to protect and legitimise its actions. This moment of revelation when power shows its true face comes about when it turns to the violence of repression. Genoa, 2001, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protest on the streets. It is not an isolated event, the movement has been gaining strength, in Seattle in 1999, in Prague in 2000, and it is starting to represent a possibility for change… The “authorities” shield the city. They fence in entire neighbourhoods and suspend the Schengen treaty, to protect the summit of the heads of the world’s eight most powerful states. According to police trade union sources, they deliberately plan for a scenario of extreme violence, without ruling out the possibility that people may be killed (4). Police violence is unleashed, people are beaten indiscriminately. There are soon casualties, hundreds of them, some of people in comma. The situation quickly becomes a trap for the protesters, to such an extent that Amnesty International declares it “the greatest violation of human rights in Italy’s history since World War II.” Carlo Guiliani is killed by two shots to the head; the Commissioner who is tried for his murder is subsequently absolved. Far from reigning in the police violence, this death seems to stimulate it and give it its true meaning. The repression continues undiminished during the days that follow. Del Poder shows us the events unfolding through a montage of footage, mostly archival material filmed by the actual activists with non-professional equipment. It offers us a silent vision; images without sound, as if they were being observed from a great distance, which paradoxically brings them closer and at the same time allows us to see beyond the veil of the news-image, leaving room for equanimity. An equanimity that doesn’t in any way soften the denunciation, but instead increases its seriousness. What I’ve seen reminds me of depictions of Argentina during the military dictatorship, declared German Member of Parliament Hans-Christian Ströbele. (5)
On May 27th, 2011, the police tried to evict citizens who were camping at Plaça Catalunya (Barcelona), exercising their right to gather in a public space. What ensued was one of the best-documented episodes of police brutality in recent history. The effective, exemplary and unyielding response of the protesters also made history.
When the citizens who had been attacked lodged a complaint against police violence, the judge decided to close the case without even listening to the complainants. The shelving of the complaint left citizens as a whole in an extremely serious state of vulnerability.
Exile can take many forms. Some of them don’t even involve physically moving elsewhere, but they do entail going through a period of which the true limits are not known.
The Mahabharata presents exile as a period of extreme hardship, in which death is always present. But so is the growing awareness of its opposite. To leave one's portion of power, to be banished from the city and forced to live in nature, also means embarking on a search for knowledge and a radical questioning of reality.
A questioning that puts life itself at stake. As in the scene where the Dharma, which has taken on the form of a lake, cross-examines the exiled brothers.
What is quicker than the wind? Thought.
What can cover the earth? Darkness.
Give me an example of grief. Ignorance.
Of poison? Desire.
An example of defeat. Victory.
What is the cause of the world? Love
What is your opposite? Myself.
What is madness? A forgotten way.
And revolt? Why do men revolt? To find beauty, either in life or in death.
And what for each of us is inevitable? Happiness.
And what is the greatest wonder? Each day death strikes, and we live as though we where immortal. (6)
One of the things at stake is the dualist conception of reality, from its very roots, because the opposite emerges from the self. The notion or illusion of alterity emerges from this crease or break. To forget its origins is a sine qua non condition for the exercise of power: the possession, illegalisation, and exploitation of the Other. An alterity that ensnares even those who position themselves on the reverse side of that illusion.
To resist falling into dualism, or to remember its origins, also implies recognising the ambivalence of all experience. Victory is a form of defeat; reality is both real and unreal at the same time…
Nature and social movements also have their own ambivalence. The analysis of certain trees and plants that contain both productive and destructive elements may also enable us to question certain political tendencies that reduce discourse to a dichotomy between good and evil. (7)
The earth’s complaint
But there is also another reading of this fixed game that the Mahabharata spoke of, one that goes beyond the clash for power; a broader reading that is not about the triumph of one side or the other, but deals directly with the survival of mankind and life on earth.
I have heard the earth complain. What did she say? She said: Men have grown arrogant, every day they give me fresh wounds, there are more and more of them. They are violent, driven by thoughts of conquest. Foolish men trample me. I shudder... and I ask myself, what will they do next? (8)
Violence against nature had never been as intense and as widespread as it is under global capitalism, which sees nature as pure alterity.
Coline Serreau’s Local Solutions for a Global Disorder focuses on a specific, crucial aspect of this violence – that which intensive agricultural exploitation (which is fittingly named) exerts upon the earth, farmers, products and their consumers. It reminds us that its origins are closely linked to military technology, and particularly to a notion of agriculture as war and conquest. Traditional farmers from countries like Ukraine, France, Morocco, Burkina Faso, India and Brazil talk about the female nature of the earth and about their work, their capacity to generate community and knowledge. This is compared to a male chauvinist vision that only sees the earth as a source of exploitation and short-term gain, a mere physical medium for chemical products such as fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides…
The earth ends up becoming a genetic testing ground for experiments that only seek instant profits. And technology plays the role of a sinister utopia that is able to virtually hide the increasingly numerous deserts of depleted or simply poisoned lands.
And again, as in the Mahabharata, we can sense the complicity of a blind king and a blindfolded queen in the background. In this case, the blindness and partisanship of governments controlled by blood ties with the big corporations: hundreds of vegetable species, types of fruit, etc., are excluded from authorised seed catalogues, and it becomes illegal to grow or sell them. And at the same time, new genetically modified species are quickly approved even though their impact on the environment and human health have barely been tested.
In a process that runs parallel to the political reality, power goes as far as to make reality illegal, with the aim of ultimately replacing it. An attitude that seems to flow directly from the vision that Antonin Artaud described in 1947: One must by all possible means of activity replace nature wherever it can be replaced (...) so we shall see at last the reign of all the fake manufactured products, all of the vile synthetic substitutes in which beautiful real nature has no part, and must give way finally and shamefully before all the victorious substitute products. (9)
But Coline Serreau’s film does not simply present a catastrophic vision. It allows farmers, philosophers and economists to speak about the new alternatives they are experimenting with, and to denounce the causes and strategies behind the current environmental and political crisis. Pierre Rabhi, Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, Brazil’s landless workers, Kokopelli and Vandana Shiva in India, Antoniets in Ukraine ... The interviews show that there are other options, that a possible alternative is already happening and offering concrete responses to environmental challenges and, more generally, to the crisis of civilisation that we are currently in the midst of.(10)
In the dead silence of the morning, at 5:29:45 Mountain War Time, the Jornada del Muerto was bathed in an intense flash of a light that man had only seen from the stars. Julius Robert Oppenheimer, who is often credited as the father of the atomic bomb for his role in the Manhattan Project, wrote: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the lines from the Hindu scripture, the Bhaghavad Gita (in the Mahabharata), where Vishnu (…) says: “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” (11)
In 1965 Peter Watkins made The War Game (La Bombe), a film about the possible effects of a nuclear strike on the United Kingdom. The heads of the BBC, which had produced the film, were horrified by its realistic and political force. Watkins' film is a harsh condemnation of nuclear escalation as a crime against humanity, and of the ridiculous protective measures with which the government seeks to reassure the population. The data from the atomic blasts in Japan and the massive air raids over Germany at the end of World War II offer some measure, on a small scale, of the magnitude of the disaster. Immediately after the explosion, the tragedy worsens with police control and the repression of a population that has been largely abandoned to their fate. After consulting high-ranking government officials, the BBC decides to ignore its own internal codes of conduct and block its broadcast for twenty years. The same thing happens to the Watkins’ next film, a political allegory that is critical of the political-police repression in the US during the Nixon government. Punishment Park (1970) barely runs for four days after its New York Premiere and has never been seen on TV in the United States.
Watkins then continues to make works that are continue to be marginalised by the media. The combination of a direct and innovative language, his courage and his radical approach to his subject matter makes Watkins burst the banks of the “tolerance” that the audiovisual industry espouses. Finally, in 1999 he embarks on La Commune (Paris 1871), produced by the Arte television network. Watkins decides to shoot and edit it in open dissent with what he aptly calls the "Monoform": a kind of grammar that the television and film industry imposes on its “products” and justifies with supposedly objective and technical criteria such as audience figures, visibility, programming... The Monoform doesn’t just set the default for what audiences are capable of watching and the content they are interested in, it also predefines their vision of what they watch. And this vision is highjacked by the effects of visual over-stimulation arising from a rapid-fire bombardment of images, sound effects, voices, music, a frenetic series of ever-changing camera angles and movements... These variations on the Monoform are all predicated on the traditional belief that the audience is immature, that it needs predictable forms of presentation in order to become ‘engaged’ (i.e., manipulated). This is why so many media professionals rely on the Monoform: its speed, shock editing, and lack of time/space guarantee that audiences will be unable to reflect on what is really happening to them. (12)
La Commune is a radical departure from Monoform. It is shot in black and white, it lasts almost 6 hours, it is a montage of long, slow shots, it does not have a musical soundtrack, it uses non-professional actors who address the camera... The result is nothing like the “fetishist monument” that Arte would have been happy to accept. Instead, its content, editing and the collective experience of the shoot make it into a project that challenges historical oblivion, but also the role of the actual media and the construction of reality.
Over 200 people participated in the shoot of La Commune, held at a former factory. Most of them were not professional actors but ordinary citizens who agreed to participate in this project about a historic event that most of them barely knew about, and to position themselves in the film according to their political affinities and preferences. In this way, history (1871) and contemporary reality (1999) were in constant dialogue. In itself, the shoot was a revolutionary experience that profoundly affected many of the participants. The experience did not only allow them to discover a forgotten part of their own history – an episode that the French educational system prefers to gloss over – but also its radical relevance today. Groups of workers, women and legal and illegal migrants talk about their current work status, about education, the media... and at the same time they play out the struggle in the barricades of 1871 Paris, where they are astonished to witness the death of their ancestors, the forgotten massacre of over forty thousand people.
We are now moving through a very bleak period in human history - where the conjunction of postmodernist cynicism (eliminating humanistic and critical thinking from the education system), sheer greed engendered by the consumer society sweeping many people under its wing, human, economic and environmental catastrophe in the form of globalization, massively increased suffering and exploitation of the people of the so-called Third World, as well as the mind-numbing conformity and standardization caused by the systematic audiovisualization of the planet have synergistically created a world where commitment is considered old fashioned. Where excess and economic exploitation have become the norm - to be taught even to children. In such a world as this, what happened in Paris in the spring of 1871 represented (and still represents) the idea of commitment to a struggle for a better world, and of the need for some form of collective social Utopia - which WE now need as desperately as dying people need plasma. The notion of a film showing this commitment was thus born. (13)
La Commune does not fit into the epic tradition – it also opens up a reflection on the difficulties of the revolutionary experience: the way the old power structures tend to be reborn within it, the tendency of alternative media to reproduce media standards, etc... In The Spirit of a World Without Spirit, Michel Foucault, paraphrasing a protester, reminds us that political or economic change is not enough – we must overthrow the whole set of values that this reality has constructed. But above all, we have to change ourselves. Our way of being, or relationship with others, with things, with eternity, with God, etc., must be completely overhauled. It will only be a true revolution if this radical change in our experience comes about. (14)
Throughout 2001, from Tunis to Toronto, from Cairo to Barcelona, the world saw the emergence of decentralised, autonomous protest movements. If these popular uprisings have taught us anything, it is that revolutions do not occur as singular events – with the toppling of a tyrant or the capture of state power – but are complex processes that share the same objectives. (15) And so we see the failure of the media, police and cultural barriers that have been put up to keep people apart. All these protests have something in common: the desire for freedom and a decent life, the rejection of a disrealtity that hides and highjacks life.
A few hours before he died, Dimitris paid the rent for the apartment in which he lived alone. Then he caught the subway to Syntagma and shot himself. A note in his pocket said: My name is Dimitris Christoulas, I am a pensioner. I cannot live under these conditions. I cannot look for food in the garbage bins. This is why I have decided to end my life (…) I believe that the futureless young will one day take arms and hang the national traitors upside down in Syntagma square. (16) April 4, 2012
In the story of the Mahabharata, the path of war becomes inevitable when those who wield power decide not to grant the banished people even enough land to cover the point of a needle. When basic conditions for living are withheld. When the illusion of power possesses and blinds those who think they wield it. - Has everything been done to prevent the war? Absolutely everything? - Can it be prevented?
- I can tell you with absolute conviction you won't have the choice between peace and war.
- What will be my choice?
- Between war and another war.
- The other war, where will it take place? On a battlefield or in my heart?
- I don’t see a real difference. (17)
It is no coincidence that an old Persian story on which Peter Brook based one of his productions comes to mind here: One day, 30 birds overhear somebody talking about the Simurgh. Some of them think this mysterious word means Power itself, others think it is the forgotten Truth, they’re nor sure... but they feel irresistibly drawn to it, like moths in the darkness are drawn to the flame of a candle. So they decide to embark on this long and difficult journey through the darkness, not knowing how long it will take. They face danger and encounters, they cross through the valley of doubt and the valley of love, of separation, wonder and death... Only to finally discover at the end of this pilgrimage that they themselves are the Simurgh. (Simurgh means 30 birds in Persian.
Oblivion, and everything that this word brings to mind, has been possible thanks to the inspiration of Jean-Claude Carrière. We also want to express our special thanks for the collaboration and ideas of Patrick Watkins and Toni Cots.
(1) The Great History of Mankind, Jean-Claude Carrière, 1989.
(2) The Mahabharata. Adaptation by Peter Brook and Jean-Claude Carrière, 1989.
(3) The Contract, Anonymous on the Net, 2003.
(4) El Atropello de Génova, Rafael Poch, 2012.
(5) Ibid 4
(6) Ibid 2
(7) Ibid 2
(8) Ibid 2
(9) Solutions Locales pour un Désordre Global, Coline Serreau, France, 2009.
(10) Julius Robert Oppenheimer.
(11) Peter Watkins. http://blogs.macba.cat/peterwatkins
(12) Peter Watkins. http://pwatkins.mnsi.net/commune.htm
(13) Peter Watkins. http://blogs.macba.cat/peterwatkins
(14) The Spirit of a World without Spirit, Michel Foucault, 1979.
(15) Dimitris Christoulas.
(16) Ibid 2
(17) Mantiq al Tayr, The Language of the Birds or
The Conference of the Birds, Farid-ud din Attar, Persia S XI.
(18) Mantiq al Tayr, El Lenguaje de los pájaros o
La conferencia de los pájaros Farid-ud din Attar, Persia S XI.
Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona
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Image: La commune. Corina Paltrinieri