1995. Forbach, Lorraine. Night time. At first all you can see is the light from hundreds of miners’ helmets. A demonstration is in place, which soon meets with a vicious response from the CRS riot police. Smoke appears, which gradually turns into blazing flames. Several floors of a highrise building are now ablaze.
Cut to: a gym where young boxers are training. They are multicultural, girls as well as boys, and despite the individualist nature of boxing, they are all in it together. Their trainer barks orders at them, sometimes abusing them as a group, occasional lavishing praise on specific individuals. He is scary and formidable, but looks like he has their backs.
Two of the lads from the boxing group go to the funfair. They compete on the punchball, then buy and share candy floss and a toffee apple. Then its the dodgems and the big dipper. They talk about getting a house together, spending a few wild years then eventually settling down and marrying or something. They consider possible jobs but they know that as Arabs, they have little chance getting into management. They’ll go on holiday together, but not till Ramadan is over.
More of the footage of striking miners, while one of the miners who was there reminisces. The police had gone in hard and the miners had to seriously discuss how to defend themselves. It had got so far that they started to assemble Molotov cocktails, using what he’s learned on military service. Fortunately, they never had to use them – “that’s rioting, but a miner strikes”.
Another older man has had an accident at work, and his boss lied in the insurance report. He is appalled that such a thing could happen. With his wife, he goes through what he should say at the industrial tribunal, but he is just too nice and is never assertive enough.
Back to the two lads, singing along to rap in a car. They’re going to the museum which is based in the pit which has long since been closed down. But it is part of their town, so they feel intimately connected, and are fascinated by the record of fairly recent history.
We end at a boxing tournament where different members of the gym are fighting. Instead of showing us consecutive bouts, the camera switches between different fights. It is viscerally exciting and one more sign of the collective spirit.
Grève ou Crève consists of such snippets of history and more. Director Jonathon Rescigno was born and grew up in Forbach, himself the son of Italian immigrants. He believes that the town’s past struggles live on in local collective memory. The younger inhabitants have different haircuts and listen to different music, but they are still all part of the same collective whole.
It is all fascinating stuff, but there are two aspects of which I’d like to have seen even more. Firstly, this is a mining town, and mining is traditionally believed to be a white, Christian occupation. The elder ex-miners who are interviewed look quite different to the younger kids, with different skin colour and different beliefs.
At present, France is wracked with rising Islamophobia, and Rassemblement National (the newly branded Front National) is receiving worrying levels of support, particularly in deindustrialised areas. It is great that this film celebrates the local unity, but to what extent is this unity jeapordized by national developments? There is no reason why the film should have to answer this question, but it would have been interesting.
Secondly, the film celebrates resistance and uses found archive film of miners’ protests judiciously. But it seems to locate active struggle in the past. At the moment, France is engulfed in huge mobilisations defending pensions, which follow over a year of protests by the Yellow Vest movement. This could have happened after filming wrapped, but again it would be interesting to know if any of this militancy reached Forbach. Do the local youth have other outlets to express their alienation-induced anger?
Nonetheless, the film is a fascinating montage of different stories from different people united by their birthplace. At times it was a little too inchoate for me, and the various strands do not always thread easily together, but they are never any less that captivating. And Forbach has a sense of outrage that should be common currency among film makers (but unfortunately is not).
This is a film not just about a working class community. It is made by a member of that community, not someone indulging in some sort of anthropological tourism. That alone makes Grève ou Crève worth seeking out. Its currently just running in the Berlinale, but will hopefully be on general release later in the year.