Like every other aspect of French society, the movies were shaped by the generative force of May 1968’s mass uprising. Seven to ten million people went on strike that spring, joining together for a spate of protests and shutdowns that saw long-standing calls for radical social change catapulted from the margins of French life to its center. While the postwar period had nurtured steadily growing currents of political resistance—a critique of consumer capitalism, an opposition to Western imperialism, battles for social equality and sexual liberation—it was in 1968 that these currents crystallized and intertwined. It wasn’t simply the Gaullist regime that was called into question at this time; it was modern life as a whole. May has become a kind of shorthand for this spirit of discontent, but the crisis was so deep, and so real, that it reached well beyond the month’s four-week remit. Coming to terms with its impact on cinema means working outward from the spring and tracing the stalks and branches of the unrest as they reached through that fall and winter and into the years that followed.
The lion’s share of our visual imaginary of these events was produced outside the industry. Film historian Sébastien Layerle notes over 180 shorts and features—documentaries and fiction, puppet theater and Gaullist propaganda—made by political parties, leftist collectives, professionals, and hobbyists in the late sixties and early seventies. The strikes and demonstrations led to a golden age of radical filmmaking that stretched into the following decade, increasing access to equipment and opening up new channels of funding and distribution. The vital films that came out of this period are a mine of ideas, feelings, and techniques, and the issues they explore remain at the bedrock of our everyday lives: work (Bruno Muel’s brutal factory portrait Avec le sang des autres, from 1974), health and sexuality (the incredible abortion-rights/home-birth feature Regarde, elle a les yeux grand ouverts, by Yann Le Masson and MLAC, from 1980), and solidarity with others (Carole Roussopoulos’s feminist strike video Christiane et Monique: Lip V, from 1976) among them.