Review: Blow It To Bits
by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: Lech Kowalski’s moving political documentary offers an inside view of the desperate yet dignified social battle fought by the workers of GM&S in France
"The axe is going to fall. People aren’t going to like it. The new buyer will do the dirty work and lay people off. It’s going to be painful". In Creuse, a department in central France where work is rare to say the least, the workers are all around fifty years old with a few decades of working for the same company tucked under their belts. And it is into the midst of the social battle fought by these 277 GM&S employees, based in the car parts manufacturing plant in La Souterraine, that the American filmmaker of Polish origin Lech Kowalski (who scooped an award in Venice back in 2005 for A l’Est du paradis) immersed himself for seven months in 2017. Deploying maximum empathy and armed with a camera which allowed him to get exceptionally close to the subject, Kowalski developed Blow It To Bits, a highly committed (during filming, the director was actually taken into police custody for contempt and obstruction) and profoundly human documentary, which was unveiled at the 51st Directors’ Fortnight as part of the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
It would only take a spark to set off the detonator system and ignite the gas cylinders that lie ready and waiting in the factory; a plant which has been seized by its workers but where the atmosphere of thinly veiled despair over what could be a far darker future is counterbalanced by the huge solidarity of the latter, and the inventive energy they have invested into saving what can still be saved by putting pressure on the government, on the main clients of the factory (Renault and PSA in particular) and on the potential buyer. Their aim? To limit the maximum number of redundancies and to negotiate an extraordinary bonus for those who are forced to leave. All this takes place under the continuous gaze of the media, which follows the very many twists and turns of the battle with great interest. "I’m not Father Christmas", the new President of the French Republic Emmanuel Macron declares in one of many episodes which unfold during the heroic defence mounted by the employees, all the while promising, nonetheless, to set up an emergency committee and to use the influence of the State - a shareholder in these automobile industry giants - to appease the situation. But what actually begins to emerge here is a cruel game of cat and mouse, from the tense negotiations held in vain at the French Ministry for the Economy in Paris, to the actions taken by the GM&S factory workers to get their message across, both on site (a few controlled fires, regular press updates on the non-advance of discussions) and outside (blockades of the Renault and PSA factory entrances by way of sit-ins, disbanded by the CRS – the French security police who await them always, en masse). With their barbecues during nights spent in tents and the bus journeys they embark upon, the workers adapt and improvise as their livelihoods hang in the balance, proud of holding firm yet permanently on the verge of tears.
Lech Kowalski lends a touching, human face to the battle of these doomed workers living on borrowed time, homing in on Yann, Jean-Marc, Vincent, René, Petit Lu and so many others. He foregrounds the non-violent position of the film’s protagonists, as well as the worthiness of their demands, and comments by way of voice-over on the tragic beauty of this last patch of resistance, where, in a senseless world of job relocation, “profit for the few spells the end of the future for so many", and also breaches the wider social contract vis-à-vis work. Kowalski’s is a very political discourse, in keeping with the career of the director who has always positioned himself on the side of the small and the marginalised. This engaged sensitivity - in league with his consummate skill as a cameraman and editor - allows him to portray the events taking place in this film in their many varied colours at a time when, in his words, "reality is stranger than fiction".
(Translated from French)
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