At War: Visuals of working class struggle against global capitalism return to Cannes

Adham Youssef
17 Min Read

Fifty years ago, France was shaken by radical waves of protests and strikes by workers, students, and farmers, in what is now known as the May 1968 revolution.

This year, galled by years of public sector pay cuts and President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal economic programme, France’s labour unions led civil servants, hospital staff, and other state employees in holding several strikes in 2018.

So far, nine trade union federations have called on public servants to go on strike against Macron’s policies. The walkouts affected schools and day care centres, flights, and some energy infrastructure, and disrupted public transport. Workers have kept up rolling strikes to protest Macron’s plans to do away with long-established labour guarantees for railway employees.

In the same year, at the 71st edition of the Cannes Film Festival, Stéphane Brizé premiered his latest film, At War, telling the story of a group of French workers refusing the closure of their factory. In the film, despite heavy financial sacrifices on the part of their employees and record profits that year, the management of Perrin Industries decides to shut down a factory. The 1,100 employees, led by their spokesperson Laurent Amédéo, decide to fight the brutal decision, ready to do everything to save their jobs.

Speaking with the press, Brizé reflected on idea behind the film and the technique used to transfer the struggle of the workers to an international audience.

Why this film? What are the force fields around which the film was structured?

To understand what lies behind what you see in various media that regularly go out to cover sporadic violence accompanying industrial unrest. And instead of “behind,” it would be better to say “before.” What occurs before these sudden outbreaks of violence? What roads lead to it? Anger, nurtured by a sense of humiliation and despair, building over weeks of struggle, and revealing, as we will see, a colossal imbalance in available forces. The film’s cowriter Olivier Gorce and I started out working on twin axes—conceiving of the film as a romantic epic while piecing it together with no dressing-up of real life. The film evolved around the description of an economic mechanism that ignores human considerations in parallel with the observation of the rising anger of workers caught in the tumult of plans to shut down their factory. An anger embodied notably by a union representative who deploys no political rhetoric, just the necessity of giving voice to his pain and indignation as well as that of his co-workers. His point of contention: refusing to be stripped of his job to allow a company to make even more money than it already does, despite that same company pledging to protect the workers’ jobs in return for them making financial sacrifices.

Is the situation depicted in the film exceptional?

No, absolutely not. If that were the case, it would have been a way of making the real say something that it does not say. This situation is so unexceptional that one hears of similar situations every day in the media, but without truly coming to terms with the issues and mechanisms at work. The example of Perrin Industries shown in the film is that of Goodyear, Continental, Allia, Ecopla, Whirlpool, Seb, Seita, and so on. In every case, expert analysis has revealed the lack of economic difficulties or absence of a threat to competitivity.

In that sense, your film was a political reading of strikes and workers’ rights?

Political in the etymological sense—it observes the state of affairs—but I am not the mouthpiece of a particular party or union. I simply scrutinise a system that is objectively coherent from the markets’ viewpoint but, just as objectively, incoherent from a human viewpoint. And those two viewpoints are set against each other in the film. The human dimension against the economic dimension. How can these two worldviews possibly overlap? Can they even coexist nowadays? I find the subject interesting because I’m not convinced that many people grasp exactly what is behind all these plant closures that you hear about every day in the media. I don’t mean factories that close because they are losing money. I mean companies that close plants despite their being profitable. The situation described in the film appears to be simple: “workers reject the sudden shutting down of their factory.” There is nonetheless a whole legal framework that must be respected. How do you approach such material? Olivier Gorce and I met a vast number of people to be sure we grasped the ground rules in this type of situation: workers, HR execs, CEOs, lawyers who specialise in workers’ rights or in defending business interests. Our purpose was to avoid summarily setting dogmatic ideas alongside each other. Rather, we aimed to pit radically different viewpoints against each other, using solidly researched arguments. Our meetings with a lawyer who specialises in defending workers whose factories shut down enabled us to understand the various stages of the process as they are laid down in law. That knowledge informed our encounters with Xavier Mathieu, a former union leader at Continental, who recounted how the conflict he experienced in 2009 had been organised and structured. After these meetings, we found ourselves facing a huge volume of information. The aim then was to distil the narrative arc of a man and a group swept up in a battle to save their jobs while respecting the due process of law, all without drowning the audience in legal nuances and, above all, without locking ourselves into a story that illustrated an intrinsically French reality. We had to sift through it all, find ways to make intricate issues easily understood, define the starting point of the conflict, as well as its end point, and transform all the workers’ means of action into moments of hope or dejection. One fundamental issue, however, was never called into question: our workers are simply trying to protect their jobs. Until they reach a point where a number of them no longer want to continue the struggle—or no longer can—and decide to accept the company’s offer of a severance package, which is very powerful dramatically because two persuasive viewpoints face off with the constant necessity of allowing these viewpoints to be heard as objectively as possible.

What emerges from the film is that in the end, every side—workers, executives, politicians—has potentially valid arguments. It is not a simplistic confrontation of good-guy workers versus cynical bosses and politicians. How do you reflect on that?

That was one of the project’s fundamental complexities—peeling away the layers of a system without reducing the various protagonists to caricatures. There is an economic system that is served by men and women whose interests are quite simply not those of the workforce. But if there is one thing that emerges clearly from all that we saw, processed, and analysed, it is that the playing field is not level. As long as it is legal for a plant that is running a profit to shut down, the balance of power is skewed from the get-go. You see it at every stage of the conflict described in the movie. Until the mind-blowing conclusion, when we find out that although a plant slated to shut down must by law be put up for sale, there is no law compelling the owner to sell it. In that context, the workers have practically no chance of winning the battle. They can resist, hinder the implementation of layoffs for some time, impact the company’s image through spectacular actions that make headlines, or cause it to lose money through sit-ins, which major industrial groups obviously don’t like one bit, but in the end, the workers’ financial fragility and lack of legal recourse mean they are unlikely to stop the plant from shutting down. The company’s strategy in this instance is to justify its sudden decision with arguments that must seem as objective as possible, often by crunching numbers to back up their arguments.

To embody this—the man fighting for his job and the jobs of his co-workers—you once more turned to Vincent Lindon.

It’s a relationship that grows film after film, year after year, and is truly extraordinary. It’s not so much the trust that exists between us that is essential to this process, but the complete absence of mutual sycophancy. After three films, in which I had Vincent playing men of few words, it was necessary to develop our practice and radically change the nature of the character and his arc, while continuing the necessary observation of the world. In this film, he is a man who speaks out, resists, fights back loudly. We both needed this because it’s one of our defining traits. We are invested with anger. A shift in the premise; an evolution of our practice: this role as a leader and this story fulfilled both those requirements.

Can you describe your practice with Vincent Lindon and the other actors?

Everyone is treated exactly the same. The script is extremely precise. I give everyone their lines to learn. Nothing revolutionary, basically. Somewhere along the line, a story comes down to structured text and dialogue. All that interests me is that the result looks natural, as if it occurred at that particular moment. Whereas everything is thoroughly prepared, of course, and by absolute necessity in light of the specific, technical topic we’re dealing with. There was no room for approximation. Same goes for technical aspects. The framing must seem spontaneous, whereas everything is planned out in detail.

What was your technical and aesthetic approach?

We shot with one camera sometimes, and sometimes with two or even three. It depended on what we were aiming for. It may sound paradoxical, but a scene with 250 people does not necessarily require more cameras. I needed my three cameras for the scenes with fifteen people talking around a table. We needed to be “where it’s happening” to catch what’s being said, at the same time as we were “where it’s happening next” to catch what’s coming next. So we moved forward like that, walking a fine line between the precision of the script and the illusion that everything is happening at the spur of the moment.

You punctuate the story with TV news reports. Why?

Firstly, because the media play a major role in how a conflict of this kind is assimilated. It’s impossible not to involve them in the story, so it became a useful way of putting over information that facilitated understanding of how the situation was developing. It was also fascinating to juxtapose our news footage and movie footage. The film never attempts to put the media on trial, but it’s interesting for the audience to observe the disparity between the supposedly objective reporting of a situation in news bulletins and the reality of mechanisms at work behind the scenes of a conflict. That reality is captured here by the cinematic process. Broadcast news has no time for nuance. It merely reports events with some pictures, a voiceover, and snippets of interviews.

The result is that we know something is happening somewhere, but it is impossible to transcend our personal convictions. There is simply no room for that. Let’s think back to footage of Air France executives having shirts ripped off their back by strikers. The violence of that footage undermines the legitimacy of the workers’ cause because any normal person immediately sympathises with the person who seems on the verge of a lynching. The violence of one misstep caught on film negates legitimate anger and struggle. It then becomes easy for politicians to jump on the bandwagon, naming and shaming so-called thugs. I don’t think any worker gets up in the morning intent on ripping the shirt off of the HR exec’s back. That footage of Air France executives embroiled in the workers’ anger is what started me thinking, what happened earlier for it to come to this? Months and weeks of struggle lead to incidents like that. News cameras are not there to record all that. Responsibility for showing that falls on movies and fiction.

For the music, you invited a composer to write his first film score.

Yes, his name is Bertrand Blessing, and he’s best known for his work with dance companies. I met him well before we started shooting, at a show that combined music, slamming, and acrobatics.

The energy of his music keyed into the energy I instilled in my story, although it was not even fully written then. I went to see him after the show and we soon began working together. I must thank Nord-Ouest, who produced the film on a very tight budget, for giving me the chance to pursue and test my intuitions. It’s an incredibly positive and trusting working environment. Bertrand’s music captures the chaos, and the workers’ tenacity and pride. That’s what I asked of him. It takes us into the realms of anger and rage of the workers’ combat.

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