Blow for Blow, interview with Marin Karmitz

Film still of Coup pour coup (Blow For Blow ) © RR

In Blow for Blow (1972), Marin Karmitz plunges his camera into the heart of a workers' struggle in a textile factory in northern France. Documentary-like in form, this activist feature film jeopardised the career of the director who founded MK2 cinemas. The Festival pays homage to him this Friday 11 May at a dinner for film industry professionals from around the world.

How did Blow for Blow come about?

After May 1968, a number of women's strikes supported by militants from the proletarian left broke out across the country. Most of them took place in textile factories and I'd covered several of them as a photographer for the Libération agency. In the north of France, I met many of these striking women and wanted to give them a voice in a fictional work. Their determination was impressive. Just like immigrants, lunatics, prisoners and homosexuals, they had belonged until then to the inaudible fringes of the population.

The film's form is much like that of a documentary…

And yet the whole thing was scripted. I went to the factories to see how the strikes were playing out. I tried to understand the issues by talking to the workers. With this material, we worked out a screenplay and suggested to a few of them that they could be in the film. Some of them worked in the textile mills of Lille and Roubaix. Others worked nearer where the shoot was, in Louviers, south of Rouen. Their experience was priceless.

How did the shoot go?

It was an incredible experience for the entire team. But the living conditions there were so difficult that the first camera team hired for the film upped sticks after just a few days. We went as far as to set up tents in a mill to house everyone! As for the women, they agreed to be in the film because I offered them a chance to speak freely. I promised them not to change what they said in any way. They played their roles really naturally. There was no need to direct them – all I had to do was just to film them.

What was your working method?

I filmed rehearsals with the help of a little camcorder, following the storyboard. Then I showed the results to the women, who then had the chance to correct their dialogues or gestures. Then we shot in real conditions. They quickly saw that the professional actors were doing it badly and wrongly! And they were right. Only André Wilms had them convinced.

What was your aesthetic point of view?

In my previous film, Camarades, I'd shot the assembly chains as seen from above, from the foreman's point of view. This time I had to put myself on the level of the workers, and see the foremen through their eyes. I filmed at the level of their faces.

What did you set out to convey?

These women's capacity for resistance. They were in revolt against extremely difficult working conditions and sexual harassment. It was an act of resistance. It was the beginning of the feminist struggle. Fifty years later, the question of sexual harassment is back centrestage, and this time it's still a real risk to talk about it.

What was the impact of the film?

It was huge, as we spread the word in an activist manner. The cinemas, under pressure from the bosses in provincial towns, took it off their programmes. In Clermont-Ferrand, people went out on the streets to protest against this censorship. Every time the film arrived in a town where workers at a factory were about to go back to work, they went back on strike! Blow by Blow earned me the undying hatred of the bosses and unions too, which are treated quite critically in the film – and quite deliberately so. In personal terms, I sacrificed my entire future as a filmmaker with this  affair. I was blacklisted and that was a great source of suffering for many years.