For a couple of years at the end of the sixties hippie heiress Sylvina Boissonnas financed a series of films by a group of young artists and writers with little to no cinematic experience. The end result was the French equivalent of US underground movies, which is hardly surprising when you consider that Andy Warhol and The Factory had been a big influence on this informal group of around a dozen hipsters. When I saw the Zanzibar short Vite by Daniel Pommereulle screened at Tate Modern as part of a 1968 movie season in London last year, I got the impression that very few of those in the audience were aware of Zanzibar films: most seemed to have turned up to see the 1968 newsreel shorts that were screened alongside Pommereulle’s fabulous 37 minute freak out that takes you from the north African desert to outer space.
When I first heard of Zanzibar, quite a few years ago now, it was via whispered tales of a freaky heiress who would write cheques for hippies who wanted to make films, and then never asked them to account for the money she very freely handed out. Vite is actually the shortest Zanzibar flick, most are an hour to two hours in length, and with one exception they are filmed in 35mm, not the cheaper 16mm format that was so typical of American underground movies. Likewise, little effort was made to distribute Zanzibar material, so it isn’t nearly so well known as transatlantic improvisations by directors such as Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Bruce Connor, Jim McBride or Jack Smith. Reflecting Warhol’s Factory aesthetic, Zanzibar films are full of beautiful people, non-actors, a number of whom were high-fashion models. Likewise, the technicians and directors who made these movies were predisposed to formal experimentation because they had little if any film training. The results are on the whole much more interesting than the self-consciously commercial recuperation of letterist cinema by the earlier and older French ‘new wave’ of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (but not as good as Alain Resnais or Chris Marker when they were firing on all six cylinders).
It has always been difficult to see Zanzibar movies outside Paris, and at least four of the sixteen Zanzibar titles Shafto lists in her pamphlet appear to have been lost. Philippe Garrel is the only film-maker from this group still working as a director today, and he is now well known for more ‘mainstream’ material such as his 2005 movie Regular Lovers, starring his son Louis. Garrel Senior had a ten year relationship with Nico, the model turned drug-icon and pseudo-singer (she also appeared in seven films Garrel directed), and so his name should also be familiar to those with an interest in mock-rock and substance abuse.
The Zanzibar group took their name from a part of Africa that boasted a Maoist regime in the late-sixties, and which some saw as a crossroads between the ‘orient’ and the ‘occident’. An attraction to Maoism is merely one factor that makes it difficult to take the group’s political and mystical pretensions seriously. It should go without saying that despite their deployment of ‘communist’ rhetoric, virtually everyone whose political inspiration can be traced back to Lenin is a moderniser attempting to effect a shift from the formal to the real domination of capital in societies still largely characterised by agrarian modes of production. However, and as I’ve already said, aesthetically Zanzibar represent a real continuation of letterist experimentation in the cinema. Likewise, the fact that two of the Zanzibar films were made by women directors (Un Film by Sylvina Boissonnas and Deux Fois by Jacqueline Raynal) at a time when it was unusual for women to helm French movies, serves to further underscore the way in which the group’s practice ran ahead of its theoretical positions.
Sally Shafto’s pamphlet on Zanzibar consists mainly of an extended essay about the group and its dissolution during a journey through Africa that fell far short of its original geographical and artistic goals. This is appended with a ‘who’s who’ of the group, credits for sixteen Zanzibar films, and sleeve notes for an album of music recorded on the trip that put an end to this loose collective. There are a lot of really groovy photographs illustrating the text too, so despite an ungainly academic prose style quite an odds with the elegant subject matter, this is a good introduction to the Zanzibar group. What I’m reviewing here is a 64 page pamphlet put out by Zazibar USA (AKA Jackie Raynal-Saleh and Joseph J. M. Saleh) in 2000: there is also a dual French and English language book of this material with additional interviews issued as Zanzibar: Les films Zanzibar et les dandys de mai 1968 by Paris Experimental Editions in 2006. Neither publication appears particularly easy to obtain but if you put a little work into getting your mits on this shit your efforts will be well rewarded!
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!