Experimental occitan

Érik Bullot

Experimental occitan

Flipping through the CJC’s first catalog, published in 1971, one realizes that the line between avant-garde and auteur cinema, according to the distinction proposed by Peter Wollen, still remains porous. 1 We find for example the names of Adolfo Arrieta, Roger Andrieux, Marguerite Duras, Jean Eustache, Yvan Lagrange, Sarah Maldoror, the Medvekine group or Luc Moullet. So many examples of a cinema “that does not fit or does not wish to fit into what is usually called the system”, to use the terms of the catalog, but that does not intersect with a clearly defined aesthetic or editorial line. The strict delimitation of the experimental field in France is complex, difficult and ambivalent.

This is how we find three films by the filmmaker Jean Fléchet (La Sartan, La Faim de Machougas and Traité du rossignol) which have the particularity, for the two first, to be spoken in Occitan. Shot in Caderousse, in the Vaucluse, La Sartan is a village farce, popular and burlesque, around a frying pan and a shrew (the two meanings from the word sartan in Occitan language). Close to the cinema of attractions and of amateur theater with its strong acting, its fanciful sketches and its visual gags, La Faim de Machougas, filmed during the autumn of 1963, tells the adventures of a hungry character, eating without respite, gluttonous, devouring sausages, cheeses and cherries with brandy, wrapped in spaghetti, who will only find peace in the pleasures of the love and the attachment to its ground, his head tenderly shoved in the humus. It is difficult not to interpret his setbacks as an allegory of the alienated Occitan people, dispossessed of his own culture. Fléchet decided to show the film on a mobile basis, with a van and a projector, in the villages of the Vaucluse. It is, he says, the adventure of a village filmmaker. “I had my editing room at home. In the evening we played the films, listening to the audience’s reactions. We would talk about it on the way out and it would convince me to change details of the editing from day to day. I felt like I was shaping the film based on the audience’s response.”2  The question of distribution was paramount in his eyes. Fléchet did not separate production from distribution, and opts for a local, rural, and independent distribution. Having heard
of this experience, the Ministry of Culture, through the CNC, initiated an investigation. Under the pretext of the absence of an operator’s license, despite the prior steps of the filmmaker, an administrative seizure was ordered, the films were confiscated and put under a seal. If this event seems to be only an administrative measure, it hindered nevertheless (a strange fact) the possibility of an Occitan cinema, that is to say in Occitan language, giving itself the means of its own autonomy.

We thus understand better why Jean Fléchet’s films, which break with the traditional system of exploitation, are found in the CJC’s catalog. But their presence remains a little unexpected by their carnivalesque spirit, their popular character, the attachment to the Occitan language. The editorial line of the CJC remained, certainly, still labile in these years. This is evidenced by a document dated 1972 that shows profound internal disagreements 3. Two virulents manifestos of Joël Magny and Yves-André Delubac express the refusal of a parallel cinema, located at the margin, and insist on the necessity to carry the contradiction to the heart of the system by transposing the class struggle in the cultural field. But a third text held our attention: it is a letter of Jean Fléchet addressed to the selection committee of the Rencontres internationales du Jeune Cinema in Toulon. He criticizes its members for only favoring a “certain type of cinematographic approach, quite formal”, which he finds “interesting, but which cannot be representative of what a free cinema wants to be today”. However, there already exists, he says, a cinema out of the system, “mainly in province”, which meets only a “pretty frustrating reception” within the CJC. In contrast to some “dogma ostracism” or a ” stiff esotericism”, he stands for a “teeming, vegetal, popular, vulgar -in a very strong sense- cinéma”„ that is to say “a real raw cinema”.

As early as 1975, the names of Maya Deren, Takahiko Iimura, Jonas Mekas, Werner Nekes or Gregory Markopoulos in the CJC catalog, proves a recognition of the experimental paradigm. The films of Jean Fléchet have disappeared. The reasons for this absence are undoubtedly multiple, not coming from the only ideological game, but also from affects, hazards and material constraints. During the 1970s, in tune with the occitanist movements and the political struggles born after 1968, occitan cinema spread through different collectives or groups. Let’s mention Ciné-Oc, created at the end of 1970 on the initiative of Guy Cavagnac and Henry Moline, “intended to promote the creation and the diffusion of audiovisual works revealing the various realities of the country of Oc”. Born in 1974, the Cinoc collective, around Michel Gayraud, encourages the production and the distribution of activist films in Super 8 anchored in the social realities of Occitania. In 1977, Jean Fléchet created the association Tecimeoc (Télévision cinéma méridional occitan), dedicated to the development of television and cinema in the South and Occitan, accompanied by a magazine. “Volem que nostre païs acabesse d’estre solament un décor agradiu e comode” (We want our country to stop being only a pleasant and convenient picture). If Occitan cinema claims a cultural and linguistic autonomy, it also exceeds the only regionalist program to designate a different cinema, acting as a rupture, which not only invents its own modes of production and distribution, but also its aesthetic criteria. “If we make fiction films, it is not enough to stage stories, actors and settings in the Occitan language. Is it conceivable that we would be content to use the Hollywood iconographic code to tell our stories? Our aesthetic is not to be found in Parisian fashion either, but rather in the carnival tradition or in The Arabian Nights,” writes Jean Paul Aubert 4. Occitan is the name of a promise.

We know how much the regionalist idea echoed the concept of colonialism. Far from seeing in the history of France only the progressive revelation of a latent nation, the writer and theorist of regionalism Robert Lafont analyzes in his essay Sur la France, published in 1968, the construction of the French nation by force and occupation according to a colonial model
(the Albigensian Crusade is one of the crucial episodes) 5. It draws a parallel between the external colonialism (the Algerian situation) and the internal colonialism (the French provincial reality, whose cultures and languages were repressed). The concept of internal colonialism will become around the 1970s a concept familiar to regionalist activist discourses. But doesn’t the situation of cinema offer similar insights? We remember Jean Eustache’s remarks about cinema: “I am in the night, I am a citizen of a country occupied by foreign forces, this occupation prevents me from being truly free and I don’t know how long it will last” 6.

However, despite these points of contact, the meeting never happened. A bridge has not really been established between the CJC and Occitan cinema. One can wonder about this missed appointment. Was it only possible? Certainly the Parisian location of the CJC, which is centralized, is a major obstacle,and regional identity, minority languages, have not been a decisive issue for many experimental filmmakers. But is the unhappened doomed to disappear? Can we write today a counterfactual history that would see the emergence of an experimental Occitan cinema, independent, futuristic, outside the system? If there is a cinema of the real, and no one would doubt that it has a right to exist, there must be something that could be called the cinema of the possible.


Peter Wollen, «The Two Avant- Gardes», Studio International, vol. 190, n° 978, 1975, p. 171-175.


Jean Fléchet, in «Cinémas des régions», CinémAction, n°12, 1980, p. 118.


«Propositions pour une mise en jeu du “Collectif Jeune Cinéma”», document dactylographié, 26 pages, 1972.


Jean Paul Aubert, in Cinémas des régions, op. cit., p. 134.


Robert Lafont, Sur la France, Gallimard, 1968.


Entretien par Serge Toubiana, Cahiers du cinéma, n° 284, 1978, p. 22.