Olivier Assayas Interview: Changing the World Through Cinema

Following the Boston Marathon bombing the new rightwing mantra is “radicalization.”  French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ new feature Something in the Air is about the process of radicalization — but by revolution, not religion.  Set shortly after France’s historic worker-student mass strike of May 1968 Air’s politicized protagonists encounter anarchists, Maoists, Trotskyists and the counterculture as the  young militants come of age when, as Assayas says, “everything was political” and many of his generation felt that world revolution was imminent.  With this film and his 2010 epic Carlos — about the Venezuelan terrorist known as “Carlo the Jackal” — Assayas shows he is one of the planet’s top political directors.  Ed Rampell interviewed Assayas at, of all places, Beverly Hills after an advance screening of Something in the Air which — appropriately — opens after May Day on May 3.

Ed Rampell: Recently we’ve seen huge revolutionary upsurges in the Middle East, North Africa; here in America we had the Occupied movement and the indignant in Spain and Greek general strikes.  Does part of you still dream and hope there could be a revolution?

Olivier Assayas: Yes. But as much as I believe in those political movements, as much as they give one hope, because it gives a notion that youth again believes that it can have a collective effect on society, the way they envision politics is very different from whatever the 1970s’ were.  Because for good or bad the 1970s were Utopian.  The 1970s believed in the possibility of turning society upside down, of taking over.  It was Utopian, but then it had some sort of reality because at least in France we had a model, which was May ’68, which was like three years old, and it comes as close as it gets to being an actual revolution.  So, yes, this dream of a revolution, it was Utopian, but then it was also grounded into something that had actually happened, that had a solid reality.  Today, people don’t think of a revolution.  They think of adapting society, of making the hope of more fairness, more justice, more social justice, more generosity, which are old things — the modern world has become so brutal that of course, you have to recognize and endorse.  But in the 1970s it would have been called “reformist,” which was an insult.

ER: What role can cinema play in today’s politics?

OA: Cinema in general plays a very modest role in politics.  Politics are connected to real life, to real struggle, to the actual pain of real life people, and movies are very, very minor compared to that in terms of the effect they can have.  The only thing movies can do is, eventually, a movie like this is have some sort of dialogue with youths who would be attracted to some kind of involvement into politics.  Because often, they idealize the 1970s and movies don’t really represent the 1970s.  It’s a way of giving some kind of portrait to that period that can be understandable, can be some sort of reference point and which also could remind that they could be in a generation not so, so, so far from us. The conscience that a specific generation could change the world.

ER: Can you discuss some of the other specific rock songs used in your film and how they express the politics and other inner meaning you were getting cross, as a “layer of illustration,” as you put it?

OA: Um, I wanted to use specifically, protest songs to be present.  So I used this Phil Ochs song [Ballad of William Worthy] that Johnny Flynn sings, because it’s from another era.  But it was still around.  Wherever you were, some guy would pop up and he’d be playing a song that came from that history of protest songs.  It was very present.  The actual song is more a song of the early ’60s, mid-’60s at the latest.  And we are six or seven years but still it was just part of, those songs carried in terms of politics, in terms of involvement in politics, and was something that was extremely important in those years, yes, that I needed.  In terms of the way I use songs, they all have a specific meaning, so it would be long and tedious to go through every single one of them.  Maybe one way of dealing with this would be saying it’s the difference between the party in this film and the party we created in my movie called Cold Water, which I made in the mid-’90s, where I use a completely different soundtrack.  Which was also pretty much a soundtrack of the 1970s, but used big names, it used the songs, my whole generation could relate to, like Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Credence Clearwater Revival, so on and so forth.  Here, it’s a completely different ambient.  For instance, when I’m recreating the similar party scene in Something in the Air we are at this country house, villa, which belongs to this rich family, and they’re having this kind of hip, cool party.  You would not have music like Credence Clearwater Revival, it would be just uncool, right?  You could have Captain Beefheart —  Captain Beefheart was believable in that context.  Or Soft Machine or Incredible String Band, because they were underground, they were this avante garde thing.

ER: What kind of music do you like to listen to today?

OA: I listen to a lot of indie rock.  But the thing is now it’s everywhere.  It’s in fashion shows, it’s in commercials, when you go to a washroom in a hotel, it’s what you listen to.  It’s everywhere and it’s becoming problematic in many ways for me.  In the sense that my love of music, was also because the music carries something that’s not exactly revolutionary but it’s about values that are not the values of society.  The world I come from is a world that is defined by the relationship between art and politics in a certain way. I think that’s something that’s getting lost now and so I have difficulty adjusting to that…It has do with the innocence of youth which I think the modern means of communication, the obsession with consumption is erasing, is destroying in a certain way.  One essential aspect is that there was a belief in the future.  People trusted the future.  There was this hate, dislike, suspicion of the present, of anything that had to do with the material value of the present in the name of something that would be coming in the history.  That’s also why people were so obsessed with political history, because political history of the 20th century told them the lessons that would make them be successful with the revolution that would obviously happen in the very near future.  Again, hope means belief in the future, literally.  Today it’s something that’s gone.  Because this kind of despair or loss of faith because the world is not changing.  When you are kids today who grow up listening to politicians on TV or on the radio or in the newspapers, saying how important they are, how they have no grasp on the big issues of the world, how are they going to believe in politics?  How are they going to believe that they can do something and change the world for the better?  It’s not surprising that they lose faith in that and they lose faith in the future.

ER: Does Gilles sell out at the end of the film?

OA: I don’t think he does. Gilles discovers his true path.  He realizes that making movies in the industry is not for him, and eventually there’s an answer in something that has to do with experimental or independent cinema.  Maybe I’m deluding myself, but the reason why I ended up making movies is because somehow movies are about some kind of collective Utopia, something you do together.  It’s collective; it’s art you can share with people from all parts of society.  In the context of independent filmmaking, when you are on a film set you’re working with people who are there not because they’re doing a job, it’s because people love what they do, and they want to be part of something bigger than them.  I found a way through cinema, through independent cinema, to find a way to pursue the hopes of the Utopias of the ’70s.

ER: What’s next?

OA: Next for me is a movie I will be doing with Juliette Binoche.  It’s not the ’70s again; it’s today, it’s contemporary.  [Laughs.]…It’s about acting, it’s about the relationship between reality and acting.  Juliette plays a stage actress.

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