Jean-Luc Godard’s Le chinoise, an iconically playful and richly naïve snapshot of quasi-revolutionary bourgeoise youth made shortly before France’s May ‘68 uprisings, is very much en vogue at the moment. The 1967 film has been ingeniously reinvented in contemporary Black America by Ephraim Asili last year, in the essential The Inheritance, and now has been extended and expanded by Belgian artist Vincent Meessen with his essay film Just a Movement, which is being presented, like The Inheritance, in the Forum section of the Berlinale.
Rather than effectively adapt the film’s premise to a new context, as Asili does, Meessen follows a key but frequently overlooked figure in the original film: the bracing presence of the only Black character in La chinoise, the Senegalese student, activist, and writer Omar Blondin Diop. This young man would return shortly after the shoot to a newly independent Senegal governed by Léopold Sédar Senghor and facing its own convulsions of the era’s youthful, idealist progressives. Only a few years later, rounded up along with more violent activists and revolutionaries, and only 27 years old, Diop was likely murdered in prison, though his death at the time was called a suicide.
Just a Movement tells this story, following a key and underknown figure in a crucial Western film of revolutionary hopes and contradictions, not only placing Diop in the context of a France on the verge of revolt, but even more importantly, in a Senegal struggling to define its postcolonial future. Mixing talking head recollections from Diop’s surviving family and comrades with scenes inspired by Godard’s film but updated to today’s context, beautifully cutting between scenes of the 1967 film and today, and including inquiries into Chinese influence in contemporary Senegal, as well as screening bits of his own film along with Godard’s to audiences in Dakar, Meessen gracefully shifts approaches and materials to deftly introduce numerous ideas and comparisons.
The documentary's portrait is fascinating but somewhat slender, and with Diop's impressive double story as an individual and as a symbolic representative of the hopes for change in Senegal (and post-colonial Africa generally), it seems possible that there’s an even more expansive film that could go deeper and farther. But this is not necessarily a criticism, for it is in the urgent act of opening the door into new possibilities of history, of thinking, that the film creates a space through which others can follow and explore. Just a Movement isn't only an intervention into the missing history behind Godard's famous film, it is also an elegantly provocative and urgent revelation of a fascinating and representative figure in 20th-century progressive activism.