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Those who liked last year’s Cannes competition film At War, where Vincent Lindon played a union leader shepherding a long and increasingly desperate strike against factory management, should definitely check out Lech Kowalski’s fly-on-the-wall documentary Blow It to Bits (On va tout peter), which is a searing real-life version of the same story.
Chronicling the tireless, and often fruitless, efforts of French auto workers fighting to hold on to their jobs before their company is either liquidated or severely scaled down, the film offers up a powerful glimpse of protest from the inside, revealing the debilitating effects of a long-term strike that nonetheless offers certain rewards — especially in the camaraderie that the strikers find amongst each other.
Premiering in Directors’ Fortnight sidebar in Cannes, this latest effort from the U.S.-born, France-based Kowalski — who’s better known for his music docs D.O.A. (featuring the Sex Pistols) and Born to Lose (about Johnny Thunders) — takes us into the heart of the action, with the director shooting every single meeting and nonviolent demonstration he could, prompting him to even get arrested once for refusing to put away his camera for the police. (Even if Blow It to Bits is not a punk documentary per se, what better way is there for Kowalski to stick it to The Man?)
The strike in question involves GM&S Industry France, a rural manufacturer providing auto parts for industry giants Renault and PSA (which owns Peugeot and Citroen). Initially a booming business, the factory whittled down over the years as production shifted overseas, with one worker explaining how most French cars are now composed of parts produced abroad and then only assembled in France, if at all. In 2017 GM&S threatened to close down entirely, leaving the employees, who number close to 300, no choice but to fight back in the hope of salvaging their jobs.
When the movie starts, they have already taken over the factory and are threatening to blow it up if their demand, which is to stay in business, is not met. (The film’s title comes from graffiti that the workers have scrawled on a giant gas tank triggered to explode, and which reads: “On va tout peter” — “We’re going to blow it all up.”)
But management isn’t ready to budge, forcing the government to rather weakly intervene on several occasions — including a highly securitized visit from President Emmanuel Macron where he tells one angry protestor that he’s “not Santa Claus.” Yet the notion that business-is-business hardly passes muster for the strikers, who know that Renault and PSA benefit from major government support but then use that money to manufacture automobiles overseas, thus hurting the livelihood of French workers.
In fact, the main form of government intervention we see involves the scores of cops, gendarmes and riot police that the protestors encounter at nearly every turn, whether at their own factory or at the different sites they visit when taking their strike outside. One memorable scene shows the workers lying down on the road to block shipments from leaving a PSA factory. They are eventually, and somewhat peacefully, dislodged by the police, but not before PSA resorts to sending out shipments… via helicopter.
Just as Vincent Lindon was the hero of Stephane Brize’s At War, another Vincent (last name Labrousse) emerges as the leader here. Like many of his fellow workers — predominantly men in their 40s or 50s with no other employment opportunities in the area — Labrousse toiled at GS&M for 25 years before taking up arms. He reveals an impressive level of sangfroid in the face of considerable obstacles, including the fact that the only viable way to keep the company in business may be to get rid of at least half the staff — a reality that Labrousse and his team try to avoid.
Kowalski, who operated the camera and co-edited the film with Odile Allard, is granted near-complete access to the workers when they take over GS&M, as well as to the strikes they stage around France. Unlike the news crews who show up every so often to report on a new incident, the fact that Kowalski never stops filming allows him to capture some particularly touching moments, including scenes of laughter, joy and even one of fellowship with the very cops who have been ordered to drive the protestors away.
Indeed, the lesson culled from Blow it To Bits is not only that if you persist against all odds, and against the overwhelming forces of the powers-that-be, then you may wind up obtaining some of your demands. It’s that, at a time when workers are especially vulnerable, whether marginalized in short-term contracts or cast aside in the place of profit — this is true even in a fairly progressive country like France — perhaps one of the only ways to give them back their dignity is to bring them together for a purpose.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors’ Fortnight)
Production company: Revolt Cinema
Director: Lech Kowalski
Producers: Lech Kowalski, Odile Allard
Director of photography: Lech Kowalski
Editors: Lech Kowalski, Odile Allard
Composer: Sal Bernardi
Sales: Revolt Cinema
In French, English
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