One of cinema’s first images is of workers leaving a factory. The young women come out first, in their long dresses and summer hats. It is the end of their day, they look delighted, they link arms with friends, they have plans for that evening, they chat animatedly. Young boys run off, a dog jumps up to greet his owner, some people glance at the camera and smile. The joyful atmosphere in La Sortie des ouvriers de l’usine Lumière, first screened in Paris in 1895, is typical of the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière. The brothers liked to capture—and create—typical moments in a day busy with life. In another of their short films we see a very different group of people, this time disembarking from a riverboat. Distinguished gentlemen pour up the gangplank in elegant coats and top hats, some doffing these cheerfully to the camera as they walk past; the ladies are clutching handbags and parasols. Le Débarquement du Congrès de Photographie à Lyon is reminiscent of Sortie de l’usine in form: the still camera set a few metres away from the action, fully visible to those it is filming, unmoving, recording the crowd. The working class and the bourgeoisie, represented on screen in the same way.
This would not last. ‘Proletkino’, announced in 1923, was one of many revolutionary film initiatives to flourish in the early days of the Soviet Union, under the broad umbrella of the People’s Commissariat of Enlightenment. It was one of the first attempts to make films about and for the working class—and to register this formally, in the very production and aesthetics of the film. ‘The production of proletarian films is our first and basic slogan’, declared the organization’s journal, Proletkino, even as it registered the difficulties of the international situation:
A handful of German comrades struggled for two years to found the proletarian Volksfilmbühne and they failed. The American workers’ film cooperative has put enormous efforts into production, but nothing has been released because the cinema trusts suppress things. Upton Sinclair makes the first film that is really close to the proletariat and they confiscate it . . .footnote1
‘All the efforts of our Western comrades to create a workers’ repertoire founder on capital or are smashed by the fist of the ruling class’, the Proletkino editors continued. The spirit was uncompromising: there could be no proletarian cinema—films for the working class, made by them and about their lives and struggles—as long as capitalism was in power. In this light, Sortie de l’usine was no more than a visual document of workers captured by the most bourgeois of directors, who also owned the very factory the workers were coming out of. Only in the Soviet Republic, ‘where all past cultures are being re-examined and the culture of the future forged, can the dream of a proletarian cinema be realized.’ The journal was under no illusions: ‘Colossal difficulties await us . . . Proletkino’s first steps will be slow and full of mistakes.’ But it could not fail to register its own significance. Of all the hundreds of film magazines published in the West, ‘not a single publication among them deals with the great questions of the use of cinema by the proletariat.’ The electrifying early works of Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated how those questions might be posed. Strike (1924) dramatized, with gathering momentum, a rebellion by pre-1905 factory workers that was brutally repressed. Produced by the Goskino studio, it introduced exciting new techniques of montage that added extra layers to the narrative through form, the silhouetted hands of the fleeing workers cross-cut with slaughter-house scenes. The very subject, in other words, demanded a change and disruption of form. To represent the strike in a conventional way, using the same techniques regardless of what was being shown was to flatten cinema’s potential as a radical art of the masses.
Further incarnations followed. In the 1930s, Jean Renoir’s deep-focus mise-en-scène and longer, more elaborate takes framed the common humanity of Popular Front working-class leisure time: picnicking, making love. Of the sans-culottes portrayed (by pcf workers) in La Marseillaise, Renoir said: ‘Of course, first and foremost they were revolutionaries, but that didn’t stop them eating, drinking, feeling too hot or too cold.’footnote2 His Toni (1934), produced by Marcel Pagnol’s studio in Marseille, introduced immigrant workers, Spanish and Italian navvies and quarrymen, to the French cinema of the interwar period. In the 1940s, the impoverished social landscape of post-war Italy provided the backdrop for the neo-realism of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), in which Antonio, now on foot and empty-handed, is proletarianized all over again by the loss of his bike. Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960) dramatized the corrosive effects of migration to industrial Milan, while Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) was set among the prostitutes and petty criminals of Rome’s borgate. In Brazil, cinema novo filmmakers took their cameras out on the streets, merging documentary and fiction to produce a narrative and formal wildness in striking contrast to the down-to-earth grit of their European counterparts. In Britain, ‘kitchen sink’ realism took off in the same decade with a new wave of films from the industrial north, along with similar movements in theatre and fiction. Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) was one of the first to focus on the domestic trials of working-class (male) characters, young, angry and alienated.
All these films emerged in contexts where working-class political action was a significant social factor, the ‘short twentieth century’ of the organized proletariat coinciding with the golden age of the seventh art. What is more surprising is to witness a rich crop of films devoted to this subject over the past few decades, a period when the working class and its organizations, from trade unions to political parties, have never been politically weaker. In the cinema of the Dardennes brothers, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Laurent Cantet, Robert Guédiguian in Europe; of Wang Bing, Ai Xiaoming, Jia Zhangke, Li Yang and Wang Xiaoshuai in China; of Larry Clark, Harmony Korine, Debra Granik and Jeff Nichols in the United States—not to mention their extraordinary precursor, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978)—numerous works take up the challenge posed by Proletkino, making films that are ‘really close’ to the problems of the working class. Is it possible to speak of a new genre emerging here, a sort of proletkino 2.0?
What follows will not attempt to catalogue this international cinema in its entirety. Instead, it will focus on close readings of a small selection of feature films, concentrating in the first instance on Europe, where the socio-economic and political features of the neoliberal era—deindustrialization, de-unionization, atomization; rightward shifts by former social-democratic and communist parties—have been particularly intense. Examining works by Ken Loach in Britain, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne in Belgium, Robert Guédiguian in France, Pedro Costa in Portugal and Aki Kaurismäki in Finland, it will ask what experience is being posited here and what forms its representations take on screen. Is there an identifiable ‘way of seeing’ in these films, to borrow the term from Raymond Williams? What formal tropes and cinematic language do they use? Is ‘working class’ the right term for these subjects, who are often marginal, ‘lumpen’, scarcely employed at all? How are they gendered? What structures of feeling do they mobilize? If such a genre can be discerned, what is its relevance, and how might it relate to work being done both in other regions—the us, East Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asia—and in other forms: documentaries or tv, for example? Other studies will be addressing these questions; the present article is intended as an opening investigation into potentially new forms of proletkino around the world.