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Ever wonder what it might be like to live through an honest-to-god popular uprising? Maybe you were involved with the Occupy movement a couple of years ago here in Boston, or else in New York, or any of the other cities in which it briefly flared up before guttering out or being extinguished (eviction’s a bitch). Still, as exciting and promising as it was, Occupy never represented a serious immediate threat to the authority of government (or Wall Street). More’s the pity.

The notion that “the people” — the 99 percent, in Occupy-ese — might seize political and economic power from entrenched elites and establish an equitable, organic order based in consensus decision-making and respect for human dignity has its philosophical roots in the French Revolution, but practically speaking, it found its most stirring and enduring model almost a hundred years later, in 1871, with the Paris Commune.

Had contemporary communications technologies been available at the time, we would have video footage of journalists on the scene interviewing workers, students, intellectuals and peasants as they took over the entire city, declaring independence from the government in Versailles and hashing out — in wildly lively, sometimes rancorous debates — both the grand vision and the practical minutiae of life in their brave new metropolis, even as it all played out in the streets, with the free participation of all citizens — and everyone was a citizen.

Such technologies didn’t exist at the time, of course. But if cinema is, among other things, a kind of time-machine that offers us powerfully immersive imaginative access to elsewhens as well as elsewheres, then British director Peter Watkins employs it in a particularly fascinating way: rather than simply fashioning an illusion of another time, he imports aspects of our present reality into the past. He does this by creating a living, beathing, continuous simulation of his subject — and then inserting television cameras and journalists to cover it and analyze it as they might have done if, say, CNN had somehow existed at the time. Or maybe Al Jazeera.

Watkins used this technique of simultaneous world-building and world-recording years earlier for CULLODEN (1964), a remarkable exhumation and reanimation — words like “reenactment”and “dramatization” fall well short — named after the 1746 battle it depicts, in which Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion against the British throne was crushed for good. There, too, it is as if we’re on the ground with a news team writing history’s first draft as the battle rages on.

But even COLLODEN can’t compare to the sheer logistical brilliance of what Watkins, along with his crew and a huge cast of non-professional actors, achieved here. Shot in only thirteen days, and playing out over the course of almost six hours (an abridged version exists, but this ain’t it), LA COMMUNE will lift you up and drop you down amidst the rush and thrill — as well as the frustration and, eventually, tragedy — of participating in a landmark moment in the always unfinished history of human liberation.

2/27 – 6PM
375 minutes

Harvard Film Archive
24 Quincy St.
Cambridge, MA

This screening occurs in conjunction with the exhibition Living as Form (The Nomadic Version), on view in the Main and Sert Galleries of the Carpenter Center, from February 7–April 6, 2014.

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