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Marin Karmitz: A Life of Cinema Activism

June 23, 2014

Sarah Françoise talks with the filmmaker, on the occasion of his MOMA retrospective, about political fiction, debating Godard, and fighting battles through the cinema.

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Photo by Benoit Linero for mk2

A few hours before the opening of his month-long retrospective at MOMA, Marin Karmitz is knocking back double-espressos in Midtown, surrounded by members of the Karmitz family, and of that other, bigger, family: the members of mk2, Karmitz’s film company. You quickly get the sense that family, for Marin, is more about sharing the mission of cinema than it is about sharing DNA.

Within minutes, Marin is re-arranging everyone’s to-watch list with remarkable anecdotes from cinema history: crisis production meetings with Godard under a station clock at midnight, the casting of Marguerite Duras’ cat in an avant-garde short. It doesn’t take long to realize that this man has had a hand in making half the films you studied in your first semester of film studies. His career as a director, producer, distributor, and champion of some of the century’s most distinctive films, is both epic and deeply personal.

After emigrating from Romania to France in 1947, Marin Karmitz founded his production company in the ’60s, with the goal of putting to use his cinematography diploma from France’s prestigious film school, the IDHEC (Institute for Advanced Cinematographic Studies), now known as the Fémis. After working as an assistant to Varda and Godard in the early ’60s, Karmitz began his own experiments with film language, including two short films based on the writing of Duras and Samuel Beckett. In the wake of the student and labor demonstrations that rocked France in May 1968, his leftist political activism made its way into his film work, most notably with Blow For Blow, a 1972 feature about striking female workers in a French textile factory.

Banned from many cinemas and projected around mines, community centers and factories by Karmitz himself, the film was a collaborative effort, bringing together professional and non-professional actors around a perpetually rewritten screenplay, which adapted to the colloquialisms of the workers.

Thus began a new chapter in Karmitz’s love affair with language in cinema and the language of cinema. With his holisitic approach to production, and his vision of cinema as a journey from screenplay to screening room, Karmitz’s collaborations with the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Gus Van Sant, Alain Resnais, Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, Pavel Lounguine, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Xavier Dolan, to name a few, all share a modern interest in humanism and in untold stories of difference.

Today is the last day in a retrospective that has unearthed early gems from Karmitz’ director days (Blow For Blow, Nuit Noire Calcutta), recent films by the likes of Cannes darling and mk2 protégé Xavier Dolan (Tom at the Farm), via seminal works such as Kieślowski’s Three Colors Trilogy and Kiarostami’s Ten. In line with Karmitz’ obsession with off-the-beaten track venues, mk2’s 40-year anniversary has also made waves in Brooklyn, with events and discussions at UnionDocs and The Invisible Dog.

—Sarah Françoise for Guernica

Guernica explores the crossroads of art and politics, concerns that have inspired and guided your work as a filmmaker, and your career as a cinema entrepreneur. Can you explain your relationship to this idea, and how you came upon it?

When I started wanting to make films, perhaps because I realized that this was a way to act and to concretize my revolt, I began questioning language.

It starts with my personal experience as an immigrant and as a militant activist. Militant because, on the one hand, I was revolting against my family, but also because, when I was 13 or 14, I was looking for friendship, solidarity and brotherhood to counter my solitude. And I found it in groups and in political activism. So there is my personal history, which starts with the war, with immigration, is shaped by the Algerian war and then, by May ’68. And in this context, led by this personal revolt, I was always asking myself: what can I do? When I started wanting to make films, perhaps because I realized that this was a way to act and to concretize my revolt, I began questioning language. And after May ’68 I entered a reflection on modernity: on what else that word could mean.

For example, I explored this notion of modernity through my work with Marguerite Duras (Nuit Noire, Calcutta, 1964). This compounded everything I had discovered through film studies, which was the revelation of modernity in films, through directors like Rosselini, Murnau, Bergman and Bresson. But when 1968 came around, it threw into question the role of intellectuals: should intellectuals be concerned only themselves and with issues of language, or did an intellectual also have an active role to play in society, and in the possibility of giving a voice to the voiceless and to various categories of the oppressed: women, immigrants, prisoners, etc. And so the legitimacy of our work was put into question—work that only concerned itself with language and with finding another form of cinematographic expression. And because I still had it in my head that I could change the world, I tried to inscribe my work within that other discourse. Meaning that the act of creation itself—the fight against preconceived notions or against academia, for example—forces you to question not only the form, but also the content.

The mk2 catalog reflects a cinema of ideas, of debate, of risk, of cross-cultural dialog. What do you think the role of cinema in a democratic society is today, and what do you think the cinema’s ambitions should be? Have those ideas changed since you made Blow For Blow, in 1972, and if so, how?

After May ’68, I couldn’t very well pretend that nothing had happened, or continue the kind of work I had done with Beckett or with the film Sept Jours Ailleurs. So, out of honesty, I owed it to myself to keep asking those questions. And I certainly don’t believe I solved the problem. I think I maybe brought an element to the discussion; using methods of field investigation, recording documentary-type experiences, and taking photos, I tried to tell a story that was solidly embedded in a struggle like those events.

A work of art, in general, and especially a strong work of art, inscribes itself into a political reality.

Speaking of Blow For Blow, can you discuss the controversy that surrounded not only the political ideas at the heart of the film, but also the formal/artistic choices you made to tell that story?

It was a fiction, not a documentary. I wasn’t interviewing people. They were actual factory workers, as well as actors playing parts that had been written—and often rewritten by the workers themselves, who sometimes would disagree with the words we were having them speak. It caused major controversy. And Godard was one of the people who took part in that debate. At the time, there was a very animated discussion between those who supported my perspective and those who supported Godard’s. On my side I had Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Michel Foucault. And on Jean-Luc’s side, there were André Glucksmann and Gille Deleuze, among others. And the discussion was: what is the role of the intellectual in the face of politics? Jean-Luc answered the question by doing a remake of Coup Pour Coup called Tout Va Bien with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. He took the same subject matter and applied the opposite vision to it: it was shot in studio with professional actors. So his point of view was: I, Jean-Luc Godard, will bring my universe, my language, and myself as auteur to the subject matter. And I was trying to put some of my knowledge, skills and power at the service of these women’s cause, of their attempt to liberate themselves. What interested me was using a new language, their language, which was not at all the sanctioned language of the bourgeoisie. These opposing perspectives are ancient, they run through the history of creation. Because across all disciplines, artists have been faced with the challenge of portraying reality.

So many of the films you make and distribute have a unique poetic perspective. Do you think political cinema is better rendered in poetry or prose? For example, more people’s ideas of Iran have probably been shaped by Kiarostami’s films than by reading a political diatribe. The idea of talking to people’s minds vs. appealing to them.

A film, or an image, does not have the same role as the written word. The written word can place you more directly within diatribe or treatise. Whereas image is necessarily much more complex. I think that an image, given its immediate power to portray reality, needs to unlock new levels of understanding. A work of art, in general, and especially a strong work of art, inscribes itself into a political reality. Let me give you an example: I think that Kiarostami is a greater filmmaker than most current Iranian filmmakers who, conversely, are much more heavily involved in the struggles of their country. Why? Because he is preoccupied with creating, and when this creation is powerful, it opens up the field to so many possibilities of the imagination that the political aspect is contained in it, too. A concrete example is his film Ten. Not only is it an incredibly powerful, brilliant work about the situation of women in Iran–women from different backgrounds, confronted to the reality of daily life—but his work is so strikingly just, not only in its mise-en-scène but in the storytelling, that women from all over the world can recognize themselves in it. And to me, that’s the true path: to be strongly anchored in a reality, and from that reality, relying on the strength of the content, the innovation of the contect, to go much further; to travel through history and move beyond present anecdote. And that defines an eternal work.

In a world where access to image reproduction equipment is widespread, what role do aesthetics play in furthering the medium?

The issue of content is not a technical problem per se—it’s giving meaning to the technology. Let us take an example. The New Wave used new technologies to question both the form and content of the French academic cinema they had been born into. They started by watching lots of films and trying to isolate, through these films, through film history, new forms, illustrated by directors like Rosselini, Bresson, or certain American directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Hitchcock. And then new technologies became available: handheld cameras, highly sensitive film stock, etc… And it allowed these directors who were already engaged in a dicussion of what is a non-academic form, how can we make different films, to come up with a new and different idea of cinema. They were able to work on location in the streets, with location sound and natural lighting—in short, they were able to make cheap films with huge constraints that led to tremendous areas of freedom. I know this because I myself was an assistant to Varda and Godard around that time, and I observed them at work. Their ignorance, which butted up against the classical or academic language of cinema, allowed them use these new technologies in the invention of something new. So they adapted the technology to what it was they had to say, thus giving their words a distinct form.

Showing reality is how cinema becomes the opposite of propaganda.

Small budgets, work on location, location sound, minimal lighting… Is the current indie cinema simply making more new wave films?

No, because no one has anything to say. At least, most of the time. A lot of new filmmakers are brilliant writers, but to say what? Sometimes, very interesting things, said in a language that is modern, but that’s rare. Let’s take a concrete example, the film that won last year’s Palme D’Or, Blue Is The Warmest Color by Abdellatif Kechiche. His writing is highly adapted to these new technologies: handheld cameras, shooting everying, and then when it comes time to edit, having mountains of footage and editing it. In a way, that’s a very easy way to make a film. That’s not what writing is. Writing is being able to master your subject, every step of the way. And then for it to be inscribed within the images. For example, Xavier Dolan’s most recent film, which not only has truly new things to say, but also says them in a uniquely personal way. Or Naomi Kawase’s film, which we showed in Cannes this year, whose content is also very original and which reveals a mastery of form. In these two cases, we are genuinely looking at works that ask the question: what is modern cinema? How can we move forward with modern cinema? How do we shape its evolution, its future?

If one idea of the cinema is that filmmakers have a responsibility to the social issues of the day—what are your predictions and wishes for the direction that French/British cinema will take over the next few years, especially in light of the recent election results in Europe?

That’s where you touch upon all the battles I fought. I tried to fight using the tools I had access to. I tried to combat barbarism, telling myself: never again. Never again, fascism. Never again, hatred of the other. Never again, exclusion. Never again, antisemitism or xenophobia, imprisonment behind borders, or the Vichy motto of Travail Famille Patrie. Because barbarism is one of history’s demons—it took that shape after the First World War and continues to grow to this day because, despite the disaster of the First and Second World Wars, no one was able to eradicate the violence. Cinema can either be an active participant in history, or remain an element of reflection. Showing reality is how cinema becomes the opposite of propaganda. This brings us back to the first question, and to my deep suspicion when it comes to any form of propaganda. Towards the end of the 60s, the consumption of images was limited to a few television channels controlled by the state. There were no private television channels, no internet, no satellites… And because cinema audiences were so large, images carried a certain weight. Canal+ came onto the scene around 86, and then private television flourished in Italy with Berlusconi, etc… And you can see how far-right thought, for example with Berlusconi, immediately tried to shoot down cinema as a mode of expression. Because he truly did put down the Italian cinema, which was a cinema heavily anchored in reality. I’m thinking of Dino Risi, Monicelli, the Traviani brothers, and of course, Rosselini. It corresponds to the defeat of a certain school of cinema that we no longer talk about much, yet was incredibly important. And so cinema started to move away from reality, from that side of daily reality that was being expressed through activist films, documentaries, or some of the fictions I worked on, for example. And if histories are no longer part of the filmic language, we’re talking about the vanishing of countries. For example, in France, there was practically nothing about the war in Algeria. Nothing bout May 68 and more importantly, the aftermath of 68. And nothing about today.

Your company’s tagline is “another idea of cinema”—what is this other idea of cinema?

There are two aspects to the struggle of cinema: there is the act of creation—the creation of films—and then there is the support to creativity. That’s what we call distribution, movie theater management; in a nutshell, showing the films. That’s what I refer to when I say that I am both a publisher and retailer of films.

You’ve also refered to your role as “midwifing” a film into being and then going on to serve as its “pediatrician”—how does this contrast with the traditional perception of a film producer?

The question for me is: how to help new films come into the world. And the answer to that question is directly informed by my personal experience as a film director. But introducing this experience into my work as a producer meant acquiring new tools to distribute these films. First, it’s imagining the cinema itself as a space that is intimately linked to the films. It cannot be a neutral space, in a neutral city, sort of like a parking lot for films. The idea was to create spaces where the film would be a bridge between other modern modes of expression: literature, through the bookstore, art, through the exhibition spaces, music, philosophy, etc… And this also related to architecture and town planning; from choosing “problem” neighborhoods, to not using every last square foot to seat audience members, but rather to give people ownership of a convivial place.

Secondly, it means showing different films, films that have a hard time existing, because the usual places that are concerned only with revenue and box office, are going to shun these films. Showing films in their original language—I think my greatest success is bringing undubbed films to Paris. Surrounding the screening of these films with elements of critique and debate—in a way, anchoring them in life and within political struggles.

Finally, working our way back to production, it meant thinking about and making a reality a phrase that is written on the walls of one of my cinemas: May the foreign serve the national, may the old serve the new. It means being attentive and open to multiculturalism, to diversity, to the world, to helping one another and of course, to the history of cinema. To not forget that history, but to discover it anew, to help lay the foundations of the next story.

What was your first life-changing experience of the cinema? Do you remember the film, the context, yourself at the time?

First I think of myself as kid, watching all the mainstream films, like the Chaplin films, etc. But I think the first sea change occurred when I understood to what extent cinema could be a mature and modern art form. And I’m thinking specifically of A Man Escaped, by Robert Bresson. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I suspect the cinema was empty. What I mean is that I don’t recall it being a collective experience—rather, I remember it as the unique experience of an encounter with a major art form. That’s when I understood that cinema could talk about those things better than painting, better than literature. Rather, the things that were being said in A Man Escaped could only be told through the medium of cinema. And those are the films that interest me; when a director makes a number of observations that can only be transmitted by this medium. And the same is true of every art form: what interests me in photography, is when photography tells stories that the cinema cannot. I believe every mode of expression holds the key to its own originality and its own capacity for creation.

Sarah Francoise is the deputy publisher of Guernica.

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