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The Cinma du Peuple: issues of analysisscale in the working-class movement in

France in the early 20th century

Luiz Felipe Cezar Mundim

1.
Nicole Brenez, in the preface to the book Cinma et Anarchisme en France, written by
Isabelle Marinone, evokes the passage in the Dialectic of Enlightenment in which Adorno
and Horkheimer talk about the character of the eminent role of laughter as a fraudulent means
to mislead the happiness in the cultural industry and, therefore, in the cinema. The Frankfurt
School asserts that Fun is a medicinal bath, which the industry of pleasure prescribes
incessantly and also that in the false society, laughter attacked happiness as a disease
dragging it to the unworthy totality of that society1. Following the path of totality, these
authors found out in the definitions of mass and spectator the contribution to the studies that
should be conducted under the critical theory of culture. However, we cannot forget that
cinema is also capable of producing offensive laughter which, according to Nicole Brenez,
leads to outbursts of true joy in the concrete world ravaged by injustice, individualism and
conformity2. It is about what you want to see or, more specifically, the strategies of research
on cinema and history, and not just about movies. In other words, it is a matter of scale of
analysis.
Although cinema has been created in the middle of commercial exploitation, it does
not set its achievement only in a commercial manner and in the film spectating. The
historicity of the publics domestication for the cinematic spectacle exposes the historical
alternative to other types of cinema control.
Besides the architectural and the languages singularities in early cinema, it is
remarkable the relation between the public and the cinematic spectacle. Its known that the
major public was made by workers, seeking for distraction in such places like vaudevilles.
And its also notable that the workers struggles organized through the union mobilization in
France were progressively structured in the same period in which the cinema was being
established.

1
ADORNO, T. W. e HORKHEIMER, Max: 1985. pp. 131-132.
2
BRENEZ, Nicole. 2009. p. 13.
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Perron talks about the Theophile Sauvage, a militant trade unionist of the Ardennes in
1911 and 1912, who has taken a cinematographe and some movies from Path and started
programming and projecting films combined with the unions protests3.
Besides Sauvage, the anarchist from Marseilles, Gustave Cauvin also made use of
projections in his campaigns and created the Social Cinema in 1911. The themes dealt with
the anti-alcoholism, birth control and anti-militarism, but also with films already produced by
companies such as Gaumont and clair.
It was at this moment of the labor militancys interest in cinema that the Cinma du
Peuple initiative arose. The aim of this presentation is to come up with methodological issues
in support to the research to be conducted on this pioneer page of cultural struggle of the
working class. Having got little attention in the history of French labor movement, the
Cinma du Peuple established a poorly articulated battlefield in the workers movement, the
field of cinema.
The piece of research that provides the basis of this presentation has sought to tension
the hypothesis that the Cinma du Peuple opened the struggle strategy based on the
experience of the domination and the ideological spread of cinema averse to workers
interests, which was the commercial and classical cinema that also established itself from the
1910s on.

2.
The Cinma du Peuple was born amid the French unionist strength led by CGT. In its
short period of existence, only between October 1913, and June 1914, it stood out in the
history of cinema as one of the first organizations of autonomous appropriation of cinema. It
was idealized as a cooperative and organized by militants who were already well known in
the French workers struggles by then, such as Yves Bidamant, Sebastien Faure, Jean Grave,
Gustave Cauvin4.
Paris, which in 1913 had approximately 200 cinemas with a million viewers per
year, gave way to the congress of the Revolutionary Anarch-Communist Federation. It
happened in the Maison des syndiqus in August of that year. The Cinma du Peuple was
created in the same scope that held the Congress as a limited liability cooperative with
personnel varied resources and capital. The program was published on Le Libertaire of
September 13, 1913, and was formally registered on October 28, 19135.

3
PERRON, Tangui, 1995, p. 26.
4
MARINONE, Isabelle. 2009. p. 59-60.
5
MARINONE, Isabelle. 2009. p. 60.
2
The foundation statute, in article 4, foresees that the cooperative would strive to
improve the intellectual level of the people, and should remain in intellectual communion
with any sections of the proletariat that acted based on the class struggle and whose goal was
to end wage slavery through a social and economic transformation6.
Besides having established a political and cultural program strictly representing the
intention to constitute itself as moviegoers as an organized group, where its foundation was
publicly disclosed and subject to the approval of the Assembly, the Cinma du Peuple
developed key aspects of what would be worldwide known as film society movement. It set
up its institutional regular practice with periodic projections, debates and conferences, also
resulting in the objective to produce their own films, made for the workers and the people7. It
was an experience of resistance with peculiar characteristics, which first raised the public as a
central category of the cinema while inserting the cinema in the tradition of the workers
struggles.
Isabelle Marinone highlights that the Cinma du Peuple directly addressed the
workers, and which was intended to provide productions with themes rescued of the
proletarians history. On the publication of September 13th, 1913 in Le Libertaire, it was
possible to read: Our goal is to make our own movies. Search on history, everyday life and in
the problems at work, scenic themes that happily compensate the regrettable movies nightly
offered to the workers8.
This militant perspective of the Cinma du Peuple was set as the movies were
released. Reports on the debut session of the first film produced, Les Misres de l' aiguille
(The Miseries of the Needle), clearly show the view and the neat character of the Cinma du
Peuple.
The film was presented again several times. From October, 1913 to May, 1914 the
Cinma du Peuple still accomplished the following films: Les obsques du citoyen de Francis
Pressens; Victime des exploiteurs; L' Hiver! Plaisirs des riches! Souffrances des pauvres!;
La Commune! Du 18 mars au 28 mars 1871 and Le Vieux docker. Among these, only Les
Misres, La Commune! and part of Le Vieux docker resisted to time and were found.
Nevertheless, 1914 changed abruptly all the French daily setting with the onset of the
Great War. The cinema was then seen as a great nuisance to the CGT, as it became
competitors to their union meetings and primary expression of brainwashing. The opposite
view is held on whether the film is widely used as entertainment to the soldiers, which helped

6
PERRON, Tangui, 1995, p. 28.
7
MACEDO, Felipe. 2010, p. 87.
8
Anonymous. Le Cinma Du Peuple, societ cooprative anonyme personnel et capital variables. Apud
MARINONE, Isabelle. 2009, p. 62.
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them to stay passively in the barracks or in the front, where the screenings were part of an
educational process that was also coarsening9.
It is interesting to highlight that the experience of the Cinma du Peuple, who has just
turned a hundred years, has been little discussed in historical studies. It is mentioned by a few
film historians, always in brief articles and texts that have recently revived its memory only.
Laurent Mannoni, in an article published in the special issue of the magazine 1895, in
October 1993, discusses and documents for the first time the Cinma du Peuple. It was
already possible to see the approach of the experience as resistance and reaction to a cinema
of domination and alienation, and a basis for the preparation and production of a peculiar
worldview on the paper. This is an important text, especially due to the reference of primary
sources10. Such sources, however, are solely the libertarian newspapers of the covered period.
The text Le contrepoison est entre vos mains, camarades is the study that follows
Mannonis article. Published in 1995 by Perron, it raises interesting issues related to the
organized labor movement, through the French C.G.T, and their connection with the cinema.
Accordingly, in addition to the dialogue with Mannonis article, which follows the same
narration line when he discusses the Cinma du Peuple, Perron attempts to a more expressive
documentary abundance on the subject, listing the periodicals and publications in a more
complete way.
Perrons intent is to present an introduction to the study of the relationship between the
labor movement and cinema, pointing out that the workers struggle reaches its first big
moment of approach to the cinema within the experience of the Cinma du Peuple. It seeks to
defend the idea that the Cinma du Peuple creates a new form of cinema, sidelined to the
capitalist production11.
The most important historiographical work is the book Cinma et anarchisme en
France, by Isabelle Marinone. Besides emphasizing the ambulant activities of the French
militants through cinema between 1908 and 1913, the book has a chapter dedicated to the
Cinma du Peuple, under the title 1913 to 1914: a fundamental experience the libertarian
Cooperative of the Cinma du Peuple12. In the chapter Marinone exposes the course of action
of the Cinma du Peuple through the dialogue with the documents, some of them different
from those used by Mannoni and Perron.
Interestingly, all these articles and book chapters were made from the initial search of
Laurent Mannoni, who published his article in 1993. Each one has some source of new

9
PERRON, Tangui. 1995, p. 25.
10
MANNONI, Laurent. 1993.
11
PERRON, Tangui. 1995. p. 36.
12
MARINONE, Isabelle. 2009.
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research, but all of them follow the same line of approach and basically use the same
documents that, in general, guide the linear historical narrative of the Cinma du Peuple.
They are presentations that reset the place of the experience of the Cinma du Peuple in film
history, but did not undertake specific research from a clipping that seeks to understand the
extensiveness of the performance of the agents involved.
Short in duration, which can explain its absence in historical studies, the experience of
the Cinma du Peuple goes beyond the time of its practical existence, through the legacy of a
first organized form of workers struggle with the cinema as basis. The same way Cinma du
Peuple appropriates the film altogether (production, distribution, exhibition), and lays the
bases for the organization of the film society movement.
Another hypothesis that requires more detailed methodological reflection is that the
public showed itself through the experience of the Cinma du Peuple not being a natural or
irrevocable hostage of the film works on the commercial circuit and also of the interests of
distributors in that circuit.

3.
Being a methodological component, with epistemological implications, the scale is an
unavoidable question in the research of many subjects of the social sciences. The pursuit of
rationality by through research, which is a defining relationship of modernity, can be seen in
the movement of contrast between the emphasis on the individual or on the group, on the
structure or on the subject.
Revel, when prefacing Inheriting Power, by Giovanni Levi, introduced us to the
genesis of the motivation for micro-analysis, which can be found in the criticism of traditional
social history, and also pointed to the practical implications of variation of scale of analysis
proposed by the Italian author. According to him, social history became his practice on the
assumptions that collective destiny had had more importance than the fate of individuals,
even kings or heroes; massive developments that were the only ones able to unravel the
meanin () of the human societies transformations through time13.
The social history criticized by Revel concerns to a research format centered in
anonymous and massive processes that intended to statistically seize or create, a priori, large
sets that characterize behavior from regular series. By discussing the issue of scale, and its
implication in the construction of the object, Lepetit criticizes the cartesian model applied in
the social sciences, which understands the parts only as combination of the whole. To Lepetit,

13
REVEL, Jacques. 2000. p. 8.
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there is no distinction between the different parts of the object. Actually, it relies between the
different dimensions in which it unfolds14.
Reversing the trend of large sets that overcome the complexity of the object does not
mean falling in the temptation of charm of the individual or the exceptional, but to restore a
more dynamic analytical view of social reality. In the words of Giovanni Levi the scale is
not a given preset, but the result of a strategic choice that involves the very meaning of the
research: what we see is what we choose to see15.
The approach to the subject of the research on the strategies of resistance to
commercial cinema in the early twentieth century requires a similar procedure of analysis in
both the composition of the relevant context and the search for understanding of individual
trajectories. From this approach we can highlight the special attention to the procedures for
historical research on cinema and the option to use the idea of public, which I believe to
expresses the necessary variation of scale to study the Cinma du Peuple that can give
emphasis to individual strategies.
The cinema as a contemporary phenomenon peculiar of modern culture presents
unique challenges to be researched by historians. Generally, these challenges are being faced
by two theoretical and methodological ways: one in which historical research uses mainly the
conceptual apparatus of aesthetics philosophy and cinema theory, centering the analysis in
the movies, and another one, in which historical research has sociology as its primary
interpretive tool, chiefly by the critical theory of culture. Evidently these formats of analysis
do not divide so in a clear manner, and this proposal of identifying themselves has as a main
purpose to produce specific reflection on scale.
The two-way analysis presented respectively refer to a much reduced scale of analysis
and in general restricted to the film object and aesthetic aspects, and to the macro scale
analysis and the adherent structural concepts of mass and spectator. What I propose by using
the concept of public is to perform the analysis on a scale that is alternative to these two
scales indicated. The public as an active element in history is the assumption, not the sacred
movie or the imposing film market.
The reflection around the public has a stimulus to perception of a contemporary
phenomenon of individuals meetings, or organized groups as an incentive, where there is a
predominance of criticism and reflection and it is directed to a common attitude, i.e., the
experience that can provide class consciousness that Thompson discusses. The individual in
the public, from this reflection, does not lose the ability of criticism and self-control, unlike

14
LEPETIT, Bernard. 1998, p. 93.
15
LEVI, Giovanni. 1998, p. 203.
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what is provided in the theories of the crowd and the masses; nor becomes a hostage to the
comprehensive determination of the films cinematic discourse.
The public was constituted in organizational experiences of struggle for hegemony of
the means of production and circulation of symbolic reproduction of reality. This struggle
happened on an unprecedented device with an immeasurable potential of reproduction of
reality, and it had in its own reproducibility a precondition of existence and expression. But it
was from the individual trajectories of militants in working class movement that this public
was constituted, such is the assumption of historical analysis on the Cinma du Peuple.

Bibliographic References

ADORNO, T. W.; HORKHEIMER, Max: Dialtica do esclarecimento: fragmentos


filosficos. RJ: Jorge Zahar Ed., 1985.

BRENEZ, Nicole. O cinema e o uso das representaes. In: MARINONE, Isabelle.


Cinema e Anarquia: Uma histria obscura do cinema na Frana (1895-1935). Trad: Adilson
Incio Mendes, et. al. RJ, Azougue Editorial, 2009.

LEPETIT, Bernard. Sobre a Escala na histria. In: Jogos de Escalas: a experincia da micro-
anlise. REVEL, Jacques (Org.). RJ: FGV, 1998. pp. 77-102.

LEVI, Giovanni. Comportamentos, recursos, processos: antes da revoluo do consumo.


In: Jogos de Escalas: a experincia da micro-anlise. REVEL, Jacques (Org.). RJ: FGV, 1998.
pp. 203-224.

MACEDO, Felipe. Cinma du Peuple, le premier cinclub. The Cineclubs Review, (n.1). Ed.
Praxis, 2010. p.77-90.

MANNONI, Laurent. 28 octobre 1913: cration de la socit Le Cinma du Peuple. In:


Thierry Lefebvre et Laurent Mannoni (dir.). L'anne 1913 en France. Revista 1895, octobre,
p. 100-107. Paris: Association franaise de recherche sur l'histoire du cinema, 1993.

MARINONE, Isabelle. Cinema e Anarquia: Uma histria obscura do cinema na Frana


(1895-1935). Trad: Adilson Incio Mendes, et. al. RJ, Azougue Editorial, 2009.

PERRON, Tangui. Le contrepoison est entre vos mains, camarades C.G.T. et cinma au
dbut du sicle. Le Mouvement Sociale, n. 172, Paris: ditions de latelier, juillet-septembre,
1995. pp. 21-36.

REVEL, Jacques. A histria ao rs-do-cho. In: LEVI, Giovanni. A herana imaterial:


trajetria de um exorcista no Piemonte do sculo XVII. Rio de Janeiro: Civilizao Brasileira,
2000. pp. 7-37.