Robert Kramer's Scenes from the Class Struggles in Portugal (1977) remains an extraordinarily powerful film. Committed ideologically to the revolutionary process unleashed by the coup d'état on April 25th, 1974, Kramer rejects any pretensions to neutrality. The film is not a chronicle. It sought above all to intervene in the revolution. Combining newsreel and original footage, still photographs, interviews and narration, the film, today perhaps more than ever, recalls the radical moments of the portuguese revolution and its' principal protagonists, namely the people. Cinematographically powerful, the film also invites the question: what is revolutionary cinema?
Scenes from the Class Struggles in Portugal (Cenas da Luta de Classes em Portugal) 1/2
Scenes from the Class Struggles in Portugal (Cenas da Luta de Classes em Portugal) 2/2
Interview with Robert Kramer
Filming in the fist of the revolution
by Thomas Brom
from Jump Cut, no. 12/13, 1976, pp. 29-30
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1976, 2004
The following interview with Robert Kramer took place on December 9, 1975. Kramer directed ICE and co-directed MILESTONES (review and interview in JUMP CUT 10/11).
KRAMER: I went to Portugal this last time because MILESTONES was invited to the National Film Festival. At the time I felt uncomfortable about bringing MILESTONES to Portugal. I didn't really understand what relationship it had to the struggle there … But I went because we were doing solidarity work here, and it seemed like it would be valuable to go back again.
I was really surprised by the response at the festival. MILESTONES won the first prize, sharing it with THE PRINCIPAL ENEMY by Sanjinés. I was surprised by the way the people there—a fairly broad class spectrum of people—were able to get into certain aspects of what they considered the cultural revolution. This meant not only the question of the role and relationship of women, but also a lot of questions about the internal relationships of groups of people. This even meant a certain way of formulating the political question as a central part of daily life.
At the time, it surprised me that they responded to MILESTONES in that way. But the longer I stayed in Portugal, the more I understood something of where they were coming from. At the same time, because I was feeling rather guilty and sheepish about dragging MILESTONES over there, I brought some films from the Newsreel period. I brought PEOPLE'S WAR (shot in North Vietnam), SUMMER ‘68 (about U.S. political activity during that time), and TO OUR COMMON VICTORY (an agitational film made to organize support for the Mayday demonstration). I showed those films at the festival too. They won the Jury Award for Newsreel. (Newsreel, as you probably know, is alive and well in New York City. They have a number of films in production, and one community theater showing excellent militant movies. I think they are about to open two more theaters and expand their work in general.)
There was a really strong feeling of what was new in those films for the Portuguese. In a nutshell, it was the idea that a film could try to contain the same energy that was in the events themselves. Portuguese filmmaking is dominated by the interview technique, largely because most of the Portuguese filmmakers live off of state television. So there is very little of the kind of energy that came out of the whole cinema verite explosion.
The other aspect that was new to the Portuguese was the absence of separation between the people who made the films and the struggles themselves. Whatever the nature of the struggles, and whatever the limits of them, the people who made the film believed in them and were in the midst of them.
The Portuguese cultural workers in general, but especially the filmmakers, have many aspects of a colonized group. They look out of the country a great deal for models—to France and elsewhere in Europe. A great majority of them seem to be moving to the Right, whether they want to or not. The only categories of judgment they have are traditional ones about a kind of quality, a kind of distance from the material that allows you to judge it, and place it, and put a frame around it. It’s an attitude about what making art is that really doesn't allow them to leap in the middle of it and make films that try to serve the people, allowing the very framework of the film to be educated by the relationships between filmmakers and the people.
BROM: So how did you come to make the film on the Portuguese revolution?
KRAMER: After the festival, I went back to Lisbon. There, Phillip Spinelli and I got steady pressure to stay, invitations for us to stay. We decided to stay and work together on this film. There was really selfless and generous support and cooperation on the part of a wide range of different filmmakers and political organizations. No one could solve the whole problem of how to make a film, but each one would offer a camera, or contacts to get television footage. In a lot of ways, the prize was the key.
At different times, we finally were able to use three different cameras—one from the film school, one from someone else, and we had a Bolex. We got a lot of raw stock from state television, in exchange for their rights to screen the film when it was finished. But there was no real prior discussion about what we intended to do.
BROM: Were you working with political parties at the time?
KRAMER: I have a close working relationship with the PRP—the Proletarian Revolutionary Party. It’s sort of friendship and politics blended. In terms of energy and work and line, I was very attracted to them. So they not only offered a lot of encouragement, but they also made it very clear it wasn't their film in any sense. It was an ideal situation.
BROM: Can you describe the progression from the early conceptualization of what the film was, and then how that moved as you proceeded to acquire footage and go through these discussions?
KRAMER: I wish I could be clear. It’s now almost three weeks since I've come back, and I still haven't seen more than a few hundred feet of all the footage I shot. We didn't see anything when we were in Portugal.
I think the overall shape of the change is the deepening understanding of the class struggle. Superficially, when you get to Portugal you look to the political groupings to lead you through the maze. You continue to see it as a party struggle, which it certainly is at a certain level. That’s reinforced by the bourgeois media here, which deals basically with the parliamentary struggle.
Increasingly you begin to understand how the Portuguese themselves very quickly understand the party struggle and the parliamentary struggle, and look to the day-to-day struggle at the base—the class struggle within each organization and institution at the base—to understand the overall process of what’s going on in Portugal.
BROM: Did you intend to chronicle three months of revolution?
KRAMER: No. We intended to avoid that. I have a lot of questions about whether or not we have a film. I've been reading Ten Days That Shook the World, which I think is a real model for everything that we want to do in this situation. All of the limitations of our work are clear in that book, including ideological limitations.
There was simply no way we could chronicle the revolution over that time. There were just two of us. So what we chose to do was take on this question: How deep are the roots of the revolutionary process among the people? Why is it a popular revolutionary process? Why is it not what the bourgeois media says—a series of manipulations in the superstructure? We intended to document that in every way we could. We would deal with the Right only as you feel it in Portugal—down the end of this telescope held the wrong way. Basically, we grouped all of our material around soldiers, workers, and peasants, including as much emphasis on daily life as we could get.
BROM: Who initially was the film for? Did the PRP intend to use it, or to continue the filming after you left?
KRAMER: No. But just before we left, we started a film group. It included us, a number of other Portuguese filmmakers, and other Portuguese who wanted to learn about filmmaking. There was a sense of continuing this project, but more important a sense of creating the first up-front propaganda film work group in Portugal. There are a number of film cooperatives, some of them good and with reasonable politics. But none of them are basically committed to making propaganda. They formerly had used the television for bread and butter, but no longer. I don't know what many of them are going to do now.
Many of the filmmakers placed only minimal value on their television work, while we found this work tremendously exciting. The idea that you would have an hour a week on national television—which maybe three million people would see—they regarded as a drag on their talents and energy. Many look more toward making fiction feature films, which didn't have much connection to the Portuguese revolution.
BROM: When you were in Portugal, you were working with the PRP discussing the political questions as they arose. Now you're here. Where are you looking for political direction for the editing of the film?
KRAMER: I don't know … It’s a tremendous problem. When I came back, my intention was to go right back again. Bart we haven't got the money to get there. We intend now to put together a rough assemblage, and start to have screenings for people. It was something we did with MILESTONES. We had an open house every Sunday, and we showed whatever we were working on plus whatever else people wanted to see. That was a very useful device for us, and created a whole community around the film. I'd like to do that with the Portugal film, and ask people to make small contributions to complete the project. I also think we have to go back. At some point, the Portuguese have to see the assemblage.
We really shot selectively in Portugal—I think it was right, but it’s really scary. One mentality when you're shooting in a foreign country is to shoot everything in sight. I remember in Vietnam, I felt like I had to keep the camera going all the time. But when we left Portugal, we gave away 20,000 feet of film to friends that we didn't use.
We did, however, fight very hard to shoot some things—you have to fight very hard. Not only is there the basic level of the pressure cooker “in the fist of the revolution,” but also the combination of what underdevelopment, fascism, and Latin culture has done inside this whole process. So people don't show up. You might spend eight hours discussing to shoot 15 minutes. The growing class struggle has created real problems inside the forts. It was real simple three months ago to shoot inside any of the army bases, but by October, it was virtually impossible. That wasn't just for security. There are now competing structures of local power inside the army. There are cross-class formations inside the army that include officers, as well as the soldiers’ commissions. There’s a very high level of struggle inside the Assembly of Unit Delegates, which means they've closed their doors. Whoever is losing the political struggle doesn't want it to be filmed.
BROM: Did all of these groups want to check your politics before you could film?
KRAMER: For sure. In most cases that was done in a very up-front political way. We were asked a lot of questions, which were usually handled through translators. I speak fluent French, which helped a tremendous amount. That meant that literally anywhere we went, there was somebody we could talk with comfortably. French is also not offensive in Portugal. English, primarily because of the English business interests in the country, has a tremendous colonial weight to it.
BROM: Briefly, what were the subjects of most of your shooting? Were you primarily filming demonstrations and rallies?
KRAMER: The substance of most of the shooting was to try to find the politics embedded in daily life. So at least one big chunk of the film is about misery, continuing misery. There are people who say there has been a socialist revolution in Portugal. It’s not true. You know the scene in OCTOBER where there are people huddling in the snow? “And has the revolution gotten to these streets?” I like that.
We did work inside some rallies, but they were mostly ones that we had some kind of particular connection to. For example, we followed a group of striking workers from their strike meeting in the south, through the occupation of the Constituent Assembly, where we stayed with them.
The way it would often happen would start by going to some kind of a meeting. We went to a plenario of all neighborhood councils in Lisbon. At that meeting there were a couple of women that we noticed. We then went to another demonstration, and one of these women was there. Phil, who was shooting, recognized her and followed her. We found somebody who knew her. So we went back and filmed a lot with her. We filmed her at the market, where she sells flowers. Then we went back to her house and got to know her a lot better. Then we would drop by later to ask her what she thought of the events that were going on, and filmed little pieces of that. So a thread would develop.
We could then begin to script it. Here’s this woman. We could begin to try to understand what all the different parts of her life are, and what are the things that we could begin to think about showing. There were a lot of things popping out of that that we didn't have the time or energy to deal with. Like the man that she was living with, and the work that he did on the docks in the morning. Later in the afternoon he would show up in the market to work. His role in the demonstrations was very different from hers. A web emerges. That would be the ideal film, where the revolutionary process was actually reflected in people’s lives. Not just gotten at in interviews, but where you actually see the process.
There were limitations on what we could do using this technique. For instance, you couldn't see the house where she lives, at least inside. We don't usually use lights, and we certainly didn't have them there. It was just dark inside; everything in Portugal is dark. I'm really terrified to see most of the black and white footage, because most of it has been pushed to ASA 1600 because everything that happens, happens at night. In fact, Portugal doesn't start cooking until after 9 pm.
In Ten Days that shook the World, John Reed describes going out to this meeting of 20,000 to 30,000 people in a huge hall lit by five tiny bulbs suspended on a thin wire across the top of the amphitheater. Well, that’s absolutely par for the course in Portugal. You'd wait all day for this thing that you were going to go to, and get there to discover it happening in almost total darkness! I really have no idea what some of the footage is going to look like.
BROM: You've mentioned John Reed several times now. Did you identify with his experiences reporting Insurgent Mexico and Ten Days That Shook the World?
KRAMER: Oh, yeah. But the main thing is that everybody in Lisbon is reading Ten Days that Shook the World. I looked all over Lisbon for a copy of the book in English, and couldn't find one. I haven't read it, before now. I wish I had, because it’s really opened up my perspective.
BROM: I was trying to get at the methodology of John Reed rather than the substance. Do you see John Reed’s methodology, as you can determine it from Ten Days that Shook the World, as a model?
KRAMER: I'm only in the middle of the book now. There are certain components of the work that I think are right. Reed had privileged access to the Bolshevik Party. I think you can't make a film about a revolutionary process unless you have access to a revolutionary party. I'm not absolutely sure that it has to be access to “the” party. In Portugal it’s not clear which “the party” is, or even if it exists. But there has to be this connection with people who are making an analysis, that has to live in the world, that has to live in action. There’s a real difference between all the people who are sitting around understanding it, and people whose choices actually determine what’s going to happen to people’s lives. They have an intimate connection with practice that is essential for understanding what is going on. We would have been lost if we didn't come home after shooting and sit up several hours hearing about everything that had gone on all over the country that day, and understanding what a militant perspective of that was.
BROM: How about the kinds of things that Reed chronicles. He had to make choices about where to go and what to cover. Do you have any criticism of those choices?
KRAMER: Well, he has a tremendously successful way of relating the political struggle to the popular social struggle. We're really going to have to do that schematically. In film terms. I think we failed to do that.
For him the material is all descriptive. You write the speech or you write down the vision of the people surging in the streets. For a filmmaker, it’s largely a problem of physical choices. You can either be here or be there. We don't really have the material to show everything that was happening.
OCTOBER, THE GENERAL LINE, and STRIKE were playing in Lisbon as a triple feature for three months. It must have been fantastic to have the resources of the state to reconstruct events and the struggle of the people. I don't know how you would do it working with the raw reality. But we tried anyway using the Bolex—we'd say “Every single thing that’s done in OCTOBER could have been done with this camera!”
BRON: What relationship do you see between your experience filming, and your previous films?
KRAMER: This was really an important event for me. Most of the filmmakers around me were trying to get into documentary films and have the control over them that you have over a fiction film. That is, to develop a way of working with verite so you could actually compose a film that had the same depth and ability to move between different parts that a fiction film has.
But I was always trying to take fiction films and make them feel like documentaries. I hadn't really been attracted to documenting struggles directly.
This time it felt wonderful to document a mass revolutionary struggle. There was virtually no difference in the way we worked on the Portugal film and MILESTONES. We would get a body of material and then begin to think what needed to be there to fill it out. We'd look for a strand, and then follow it up with subsequent filming. Only the reality was that much more vibrant as it erupted around us. The disruptions that would constantly alter the direction of our work felt good, forcing us to include them in the scope of the film.
The main thing that I learned in Portugal is what it means for the left to be marginalized. It makes me wonder why we've done as well as we have. People are fed by a mass struggle. A mass struggle is like life blood. You can actually see the difference between a group of people who've been sitting in an office all day in Lisbon—doing necessary but bureaucratic political work for the Party, let’s say—and people who've just come back from a successful struggle of a tenant’s commission. It’s really like one person looks healthy and is standing up straight and has a positive perspective on what’s happening, and the other person is sort of dragging around and has a lot of negative criticism.
My films, more than probably any others, reflect that marginalization. I feel good about having made them, because I think that’s an honest reflection of reality. But it doesn't seem like that has to be done any more. Our project now is to somehow change that condition.
It’s really a whole different thing in Portugal. Even the smallest left parties have a direct connection to the people. For example, you walk into a party office and you see a lot of people who you think are just petty bourgeois students—they're just like us. Then you discover that these people are from villages from all over the country. Their style of dress has changed after three years in Lisbon, but their social reality is still that countryside. They can go back there and talk to people. It makes you realize how great the class separations are in America, and what an enormous struggle it’s going to take to overcome that.
BROM: Have you thought ahead to whom you want to reach with the film, and who’s going to distribute it?
KRAMER: No, I haven't thought about those questions. The film really needs to be made for a non-left audience—a broad American audience. That’s another reason we chose not to deal with the party struggle. At the time, we thought of those as a series of left questions that were not of interest to a broad audience—I'm not sure if that’s true now.
I think the heart of the way to make that broad film is to show the concrete basis for the demands for socialism. In some ways, I think that’s the only thing that we can do. We can argue this line or that line. But the primary thing is to find a way to demonstrate that people’s real daily oppression produces their resistance, and then struggle to change that. It’s not something mysterious or something caused by Communist ideology. Marxism-Leninism only describes it, and suggests some ways to aid it. But the primary thing is the struggle to change the social reality. The strategy of the film is to show basically that, and find subtle ways to draw the parallels here.