No Rest ’Til Zanzibar

By Kieron Corless

le-lit-de-la-vierge-philippe-garrel.jpgLe Lit de la Vierge, dir. by Philippe Garrel

Celluloid dandyism and the lost radical cinema of May 1968

The notion of an ‘underground’ seems debased today thanks to the word’s casual application and the rapidity with which marginal practices become assimilated into the mainstream. Which is why the so-called Zanzibar films, screened at the ICA in spring this year, arrived like a bolt out of the blue, even for close followers of the French cinema scene. These are genuinely underground reels, made by an informal collective of French filmmakers in 1968-69, very rarely screened and so effectively invisible that there’s barely a mention of them in reference works or academic journals. With the exception of Philippe Garrel, the various personnel involved in the Zanzibar enterprise seemed just to disappear from view as the energies of May ’68 waned and dissipated.

revelateur-philippe-garrel.jpgLe Révélateur, dir. by Philippe Garrel 

That these films have resurfaced at all is thanks principally to the persistence of Sally Shafto, who curated the ICA season. Shafto was working towards her PhD (on Godard) in Paris when she first got wind of the long-buried Zanzibar project. Her subsequent research unearthed 13 films (several others have been lost altogether) in various locations, enabling the first screenings in Paris in 2000 as part of a season on experimental French cinema.

The films’ reappearance after so many years is surprising enough but it pales next to the story of how they came to be made in the first place. They were all funded by just one person, heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, who not only shared the late sixties belief that everyone had the potential to be an artist but was prepared to bankroll the notion, no questions asked. The creatives upon whom she bestowed her largesse were a loosely-affiliated group of would-be revolutionaries including the late actor Pierre Clementi, Zouzou (model and actress in films such as Rohmer’s Love In The Afternoon), Philippe Garrel, the painters Daniel Pommereulle, Olivier Mosset and Frederic Pardo and the model Caroline de Bendern, amongst others.

acephale-patrick-deval.jpgAcéphale, dir. by Patrick Deval

Many of the group had no direct experience of film making but they shared a sensibility which viewed film as a means of transforming events and emotions into history. As such they were determined to make their mark as filmmakers as quickly as possible in response to the seismic upheavals occurring in Paris. They were all very young, educated and literate; one or two had even dropped out of college in their urgency to make films. Theirs was a demimonde of well-connected beautiful people; several of them worked in fashion and there were personal links with New York’s Factory and the London scene around Donald Cammell.

Their self-consciousness and attachment to physical appearance was expressed through dandyism, no doubt referring back to what Baudelaire styled “the last splendour of heroism in decadence”. This pose didn’t imply, it should be said, a perfumed detachment, or prevent them from hurling bricks at the riot police in May. The name chosen for the films’ production company refers to the actual African island, an aspirational location by virtue of its then Maoist government. Mao’s little red book had pitched up in Paris not long before, fuelling young intellectuals’ zeal for personal and social transformation.

caroline-de-bendem.jpgCaroline de Bendern

Thirteen Zanzibar films were made in just two years, a tremendous upsurge of creative energy which, thanks to the blank cheques handed out by Boissonnas, eluded the usual tortuous channels of film funding with all its attendant compromises; as Shafto puts it, the Zanzibar films were ‘renegade, outside the normal system’. They were contemporaneous with Weekend and La Chinoise; they too embody an intensity, a formal radicalism, a search for revolutionary immediacy. The films are not overtly political but the Zanzibar filmmakers were committed to the need for change in cinema and the wider world, giving their films an apocalyptic, utopian tone which occasionally shades into a more mystical idea of revolution.

The films share certain formal qualities too. The group’s desire to change French cinema – a ‘return to zero’ – manifested itself partly as a reaction against the New Wave. The group were collectivist and avowedly anti-auteurist (apart from Garrel). The films do contain narratives but they tend to resist easy summary. The visual style is spare, ascetic, stripped-down. Long takes are the norm with the emphasis on pictorialism within the frame. Improvisation was encouraged with the performers addressing the camera directly, giving some of the films a semi-documentary feel. The unique matrix of influences includes writers and artists from the French avant-garde tradition, particularly Bataille, but in terms of cinema Warhol (Chelsea Girls had recently opened in Paris) and Godard (in his later, more sociologically-minded phase) are undoubtedly the presiding deities.

philippe-garrel.jpgPhilippe Garrel

Scripts and dialogue tend towards the minimal, the emphasis more on visual elements and the mise-en-scene. “After May ’68 the films become virtually silent. That moment is really about the word in some ways. ‘The man who speaks makes the revolution.’ And after May they bypass language in a sense, which is partly to do with drugs putting them into another state of mind.” (from an interview with Sally Shafto). This widespread drug use amongst the group served the creation of a new filmic language, part of an attempt to move beyond traditional means of communication and subvert Western logic. Film sets were often mini-happenings, with crew members and performers tripping constantly, creating a genuine sense of immediacy and immersion in the present. The obliteration of normal time patterns engendered by drug-taking is reflected in the films’ episodic, non-linear structures, conventional narrative techniques further undermined through repetition and the inclusion of shards of apparent nonsense.

Godard commented that “at a certain point in history we will know if in fact it is even more important not to make films”. When the revolution failed to materialise, the Zanzibar project fizzled out, the participants turning their back on cinema. “All of them apart from Garrel decided it was more noble, more pure not to make movies.” (Sally Shafto). Whatever we may think about such ‘pure’ principles, it’s a great loss that these startling talents (bar one) didn’t develop their clear potential in the medium. However, the films they’ve left behind are important documents, subtly distilling the changes wrought by a period of cultural and political urgency. From the vantage-point of a quite dissimilar era, that sense of loss feels even more acute.

Key Zanzibar films


The film’s title is lifted from Bataille and means literally the headless man, prefiguring director Patrick Deval’s desire to push beyond rational ways of thinking through a combination of Eastern religion and revolutionary symbolism. The opening image of a head being shaved accompanied by the sound of a saw suggests the violence this may entail but also evokes the anger and desire for change in post-68 Paris. The film documents a ‘headless’ group of young people living in the woods and an abandoned subway station, their marginalised status detailed through direct camera address and obscure theatrics. The sentiments expressed can feel dated but the oneiric imagery is often unforgettable.


The first Zanzibar film, shot just prior to the May events and taking its title from graffiti on the walls of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts: “aidez-nous, détruisez-vous”. It’s also the series title most clearly indebted to Godard, particularly his La Chinoise, similarly shot at the University of Nanterre. The film appears to endorse the necessity for revolution and personal transformation but problematises this through a young woman’s halting speech. It’s austere and ambiguous, clearly preoccupied with language and the difficulty of communication; interestingly the director Serge Bard subsequently spent several wordless years living alone in the desert after his conversion to Islam.

Deux Fois

The boldest in its formal strategies and thematic concerns, Deux Fois was one of two Zanzibar films directed by a woman. Jackie Raynal was the youngest film editor in France in 1968 but she’d never directed – here she also stars as the enigmatic young woman who declares, ‘this evening will mark the end of meaning.’ What follows is less a narrative, more a series of discrete episodes which ask probing questions about spectatorship and function as a powerful feminist allegory of authorship. The film’s imagery is often dazzling and enigmatic, like Bunuel and Cocteau filtered through Warhol.

Marie Pour Mémoire

Retrospectively registered under the Zanzibar rubric but financed elsewhere, the 20-year-old Garrel’s precocious 1967 film is a frothy cocktail of Freud, Warhol, Christian imagery and his own brand of personal mysticism. A dating agency brings two young couples together but owing to a mix-up, Marie (Zouzou) wrongly ends up with Jesus, who makes her pregnant. Maurice Garrel, the director’s father, embodies a repressive patriarchy while Marie invokes artistic creativity as an act of resistance. This was a massively important film for young Parisians in the lead-up to May ‘68; the figure of Jesus was strongly associated with the recently assassinated Che Guevara.

Le Révélateur

Sensing the restoration of order which would occur at the end of May ‘68, Philippe Garrel decamped to Germany to shoot this silent allegory about a child with a Christ-like mission who, together with his parents, flees some unknown but palpable threat. There’s no narrative to speak of; instead a desolate family drama plays out in a series of nightmarish symbolic images which evoke traumas of wartime displacement and Germany’s Nazi past. Mention should be made of the film’s startling high-contrast black-and-white images – apparently Director of Photography Michel Fournier achieved their eerie plasticity with only a pocket lamp at his disposal.


The artist Daniel Pommereulle shot this, the most expensive Zanzibar film, during 1969 in Morocco and France. Both visceral and conceptual, it’s a rigorously intense, despairing piece which can be read as a bathetic attempt to reawaken revolutionary impulses on the wane in France - the title is a terse adverbial command or exhortatory battle-cry repeatedly muttered direct to camera by Pommereulle himself as a semi-demented desert shaman who, together with an Arab boy called Mustapha, casts spells, spits towards the viewer and disgustedly berates the West for its ugliness. Serenely beautiful shots of the moon provide an ironic counterpoint to the earthbound action.

Kieron Corless works as a film/television journalist and critic.