Enigmatic artifacts from French cinema’s secret history, the Zanzibar Films emerged from a loose cadre of artists shortly before and following May 1968. Though powered by 20th-century revolutionary energy, the group materialized via ancien-régime-style patronage: The 15 or so features and featurettes were wholly funded, carte blanche, by Sylvina Boissonnas, a young heiress and future militant feminist.
None of the twentysomething Zanzibarites had previously directed features: Daniel Pommereulle acted in Godard’s Weekend and Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse (the latter included in the Anthology retro); Patrick Deval and Philippe Garrel made short films; and Jackie Raynal was an established editor. (Later, Raynal relocated to New York, where she programmed the Bleecker Street Cinema.) Fashion was another bond. Zanzibar actors Zouzou, Nico, and Laurent Condominas all modeled, while director Michel Auder began as a fashion photographer. Nico, Auder, and others had Warhol ties; Auder’s para-Zanzibar document Keeping Busy (1969) follows Factorians Viva and Louis Waldon to Europe, post-Blue Movie.
Despite their chic provenance and exotic nomenclature, the Zanzibar films are hardly Barbarellas. In their common desire to achieve degree-zero filmmaking, the “Dandies of 1968” enact a more extreme rejection of classical narrative than their nouvelle vague forebears. While many of them were shot on 35mm, these films borrow from the small-gauge American underground’s low-fidelity grubbiness. Editing is kept to a minimum, while sound is often dada-asynchronous or absent.
Case in point is Philippe Garrel’s ultra-austere Le Révélateur (1968). A silent, black-and-white feature lit with only a single pocket lamp, and printed to accentuate its already stark contrasts, Révélateur portrays the apocalyptic peregrinations of a man, woman, and child through black woods, empty roads, train cars, and high-grassed fields. Calling it D.W. Griffith on acid wouldn’t merely be a journalistic cliché—since, according to editor Raynal, the cast and crew shot the film while on LSD.
The drug link is not incidental. Henri Langois screened Zanzibar films late-night at the Cinémathèque Français, and their phantasmagoric surrealism recalls contemporary head films like El Topo or The Acid Eaters. Particularly lysergic is Pommereulle’s gorgeous, color Vite (1969), which combines North African desert landscapes with super-long shots of the moon. Perhaps the best Zanzibar film, Raynal’s Deux Fois (1968) transcends mere experiment. A fractured fairy tale that begins with Raynal’s Pre-Raphaelite self-portrait and ends with a recitation from Calderón’s La Vida Es Sueño, Deux Fois reworks cinematic language into the enigmatic whispers of a dream.