A fascinating film for the cinephile and Marxist alike, Vincent Meessen’s (“Ultramarine”) “Just a Movement” blurs the line between documentary and essay film as it tells the story of Omar Blondin Diop. The film orbits Diop on a few distinct levels: his biography and legacy, the contemporary political situation in Senegal and Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film “La Chinoise.” Ultimately, the film is very esoteric. Those unfamiliar with French new wave cinema and the history of leftist politics will be left feeling at sea. This is a film either to be rewatched or skipped; if you’re willing to put in the work, there is much to learn.
The first level, chronicling Diop’s life as a Marxist revolutionary in the 1960s and ’70s, is told through interviews with his family members and friends. The viewer learns of his activities as a student in Nanterre in the late ’60s, culminating in the March 22 protest movement which directly preceded the civil unrest of May ’68. Following his involvement in the March protests, Diop was deported from France and ultimately made his way to Dakar, Senegal.
In Senegal, Diop organized resistance to neocolonialism and became something of an icon among leftist circles. Upon Diop’s death in prison in 1973 — believed by many to be an assassination — his icon status was elevated to martyr.
Diop’s biography is woven into his legacy and the leftist politics of today’s Senegal. The viewer is made aware of the continued struggle against neocolonialism, as French influence has been supplanted by Chinese “soft power.” In one of the film’s clearer political-philosophical discussions, two men discuss China’s desire to ingratiate itself with the Senegalese population in order to profit off of Senegal’s oil and mineral wealth. Chinese economic interest is compared to French colonialism, but in the discussion, one of the men seems to believe that there would be room for Senegalese agency in a symbiotic relationship with the Chinese.
There is irony in this discussion of contemporary Chinese influence, which is made apparent by Diop’s connection to Godard. Before the calamitous spring of 1968, Diop had a small role in Godard’s “La Chinoise.” According to distributor Kino Lorber, “La Chinoise” is about a group of students who “form a small Maoist cell and plan to change the world by any means necessary.”
Godard was an avowed Maoist, though Diop’s friends recall his aversion to the brand of violent Marxism. In “Just a Movement,” the conflict between Maoism and other Marxist philosophies, represented by discussion of “La Chinoise” and Godard, is echoed in the contemporary relationship between China and Senegal. Scenes from Godard’s film are evoked and recreated in Meessen’s, as the latter filmmaker aims to represent cultural exchange with China and the development of political consciousness by young Senegalese.
To appreciate “Just a Movement,” the viewer should be familiar with the many schools of Marxist thinking — I confess, however, that I am not. My cursory understanding of leftist thought does not equip me to fully distinguish one school from another. Accordingly, the film’s Marxist undercurrent was somewhat lost on me but I’m sure would stimulate the minds of those more acclimated to leftist political philosophy.
Visually, the film weaves in and out of the documentary format. Standard interviews with Diop’s friends bolster the narrative, while B-roll is given tacit emphasis and apparently fictional skits highlight major themes. I say “apparently” since the distinction between fiction and fact is often blurred. This is perhaps another reference to the real Diop’s performance in Godard’s fictional “La Chinoise.” Either way, it muddles the historical narrative and swallows the philosophical motifs.
The average viewer will appreciate some of what “Just a Movement” has to offer. We should all be aware of colonialism’s lasting impact, and many students will gain a basic awareness of Marxism. To understand the more fine-grained details of the film, the viewer would need a background in African history and the post-colonial political landscape. Meessen has accomplished a wonderfully advanced and thoughtful film on these subjects at the cost of alienating the uninitiated viewer.
The film is varied in tone. Diop’s contemporaries speak with nostalgia and fondness as they recall Diop’s life. The younger Senegalese speak with an eye to the future, wary of a French colonial past and desiring a symbiosis with China. Godard’s presence, through archival interview footage and “La Chinoise,” represents the complicated relationship between even the most left-thinking French and Senegalese.
Unfortunately, it is not told at the 100 or 200 level — this lesson is for “upperclassmen.” Nevertheless, it deserves to be watched and rewatched. Telling a fairly niche story, the film will resonate strongly with its intended audience.
Daily Arts Writer Ross London can be reached at email@example.com.