May 1968. The French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur publishes a story that would go down in history: the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre interviewing then-student Daniel Cohn-Bendit. In a clear reversal of roles, it was the teacher who asked the 23-year-old student what he thought about the direction of the country. The famous interview says a lot about those days, when young people took to the streets of Paris, questioning tradition and proposing that “the strength of the movement is that it rests on uncontrollable spontaneity”, as Cohn-Bendit defended.
This feeling of intensity, of those who witness something unique in history, is one of the main themes of In the Intense Now, new film by João Moreira Salles. The feature film, which still does not have a premiere date, marks the filmmaker's return to the screen after a hiatus of ten years - his last work released was Santiago, in 2007. Screened at the Berlin festival and recently at É Tudo Verdade, the film reflects on the construction of utopias and their misdirections. As a starting point, the filmmaker used a private collection: the images that his mother, Eliza Gonçalves, produced during a visit to China in 1966, at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
In interview with CULTURE! Brazilians, the director says he found the material while editing Santiago. “As I was finishing the film, I missed including footage of my family. I asked them to look through my father's collection and they sent me a box with a little bit of everything: records of birthdays, vacations, trips. And in that box, there was a 16 millimeter roll, which was not a usual holder for home movies.” His mother's foreign look was a nice surprise. “I didn't know the images and when I saw them for the first time I was very touched, they gave me a certain concreteness of what I had heard her talk about for so many years. I saw the red guard records, the wall, the Mao Tse-tung posters, it was all there,” he says.
Salles did not include the material in Santiago and stored it for two years until he began to devise the new work. In In the Intense Now, the images produced by his mother alternate with records from May 68, the Prague Spring and the Brazilian military dictatorship. The director's first-person voice narrates the film, connecting the sequences. “Relating the images of my mother to those of 68 is a bit of a mystery about the film, for some people it works, for others it doesn't. The link in fact is not evident,” he says.
For the director, what really unites the two experiences is the feeling of fulfillment. “In my mother's case, she had a joy of being in a totally different place, talking to people who came from a world she couldn't conceive of. She marvels at this. In France in 68, it is a political passion, the idea of being part of a collective that walks towards equality. This feeling of being fully in something is what made it possible to draw these parallels between my mother's trip, which was evidently not politically motivated, and the 1968 movements, driven by the desire to change the world.”
In one of the first scenes of the documentary, a French worker talks about the 1967 strike, the biggest in France until then: “The workers realized that the essential thing was the dignity of each one, to be really men and not just consumers. Not just existing, but living.” The speech already reveals a lot of the spirit that would preside over the following year. According to historian Lincoln Secco, from the University of São Paulo, the movements of 68 were a consequence of post-war economic growth. “In societies such as European and American, there was an improvement in living standards that brought to the surface other claims associated with the idea of utopia, of the dream itself”, he says.
Throughout the film, there are many images of students laughing during these intense and fast three weeks that, in the future, many would remember as the best moments of their lives. However, the director also reveals another side, what It's All True curator Amir Labaki calls a "post-utopian hangover." “Any passion, whether erotic or political, turns into something else, passes and loses its intensity. From then on, the question that arises is: how to go back to living in the banal daily life? Many people who participated in the '68 movements moved on, not stuck in nostalgia for that period. Others couldn't. This is the case with my mother, who was very happy for a period and then was no longer able to support it”, says Salles.
The feature film does not reveal that the filmmaker's mother committed suicide in 1988. However, there are many references to death. One of the most impactful sequences shows the funeral of Czech student Jan Palach, who killed himself shortly after Soviet tanks invaded the country, ending Alexander Dubček's progressive government. Countless people attended the funeral to say goodbye not only to the student, but to a country project that had been completely ruined. The writer and former Czech president Václav Havel comments on the incident: “Palach's death, which would have been inexplicable at another time, was perfectly understood by the whole society. Because this death was a limit expression of our state of soul.”
Even occupying a smaller space in the feature film, the images of the Prague Spring, and its subsequent repression, have great importance in the narrative. These are records of amateur filmmakers who shoot fast, eager to witness history. Unlike the Paris images, in these there is an atmosphere of fear, a caution on the part of observers who seem to fear repression. For Salles, this material is perhaps the “biggest revelation of the film”.
The director defends that the invasion of Czechoslovakia was the “lime shovel” of the dreams of the 68 generation, who saw in the country a possible path to socialism. “Unlike the French May, people there witnessed their country being destroyed. The truth is that, with the arrival of the tanks, the curtain on the dreams of that generation fell, there were no more models to follow. And then the sadness begins,” he says.
be wary of images
In the Intense Now it is also a film about images. Like a historian looking at a document, Salles carefully analyzes the material before him. With his trained eye, he notices the many nuances that exist in a photo. He cites as a reference two great names in Brazilian cinema: Eduardo Coutinho, to whom the film is dedicated, and Eduardo Escorel, who edited the feature film. “They taught me to be suspicious of images,” he says.
Throughout the documentary, Salles freezes several scenes, looking for traces, the clues they carry about his time. “Who deserves to be in the picture? This is an essential issue. In Brazil, for example, the maid is always left out of family photos. The image is organized in the same way as social classes; this is a central point of In the Intense Now".
In the case of May 1968, Salles states that it is possible to perceive that the protagonism of the movement still remained with white men. “You look at the images and see, for example, that the blacks never occupy the center of the frame, they are always on the edges. Or that the women are much more silent, it is the men who speak”. In order to see these nuances, Salles says that it is necessary to spend a lot of time looking at the images before “becoming intimate with them”. The film was thus born in the editing room, from the director's desire to analyze this archival material, which deals with a collective history, but also his own.
To address this intimate point of view, Salles adopted the first person singular, a resource he had already used in Santiago. The filmmaker says that, in recent years, he has become increasingly interested in films that he calls non-transferable: “These are works that can only come out of the sensibility of an individual, the one who made them. In this sense, the first person singular is not inevitable, but it offers itself in a seductive way”. Therefore, he believes that his last two works stand out from the others, which do not have biographical tones. “It's not that I reject the previous films, but both Santiago and No Intenso Agora have an interesting aspect because they are an extension of myself. It gives them strength that I like to find in other productions.”
The first person is a common feature in many recent documentaries. Asked if this attitude would be a counterpoint to the search for an unattainable objectivity, the filmmaker answers: “I believe that we should not give up the idea of truth; a world of pure relativism in which any version has the status of truth is a very dangerous world. We live that risk today. My position as a filmmaker is to present the circumstances under which I produce my work. The audience needs to understand where you are talking about, what are the conditions, all of them: race, gender, class, etc.”
Supported by the forces of images, In the Intense Now is a film about the dream of a fairer world. It is impossible to leave the cinema without thinking about the present. Salles guarantees that this is the aim: for people to reflect on contemporary politics. He claims that it is possible to draw parallels between what happened in the 1960s and the current situation. However, he prefers to let people make their own associations, not wanting to “determine how they should think”.
Even so, the director comments on the lessons learned in 1968: “The stability of the system is not guaranteed. Just as the French May emerged, so did the Arab Spring, the 2013 protests in Brazil, among others. These things happen, they sprout where we couldn't imagine. May 1968 proved that this festive anarchy is a possibility always on the lookout for regimes that are solid and established”.