“Boum Boum is at once an unflinching look at how Western governments have no qualms about violently oppressing their citizens when push (quite literally) comes to shove, but also an oddly romantic look at how love can find root on the barricades.”
“We made our love on wasteland
And through the barricades”
Spandau Ballet’s 1986 hit song somehow came to mind while watching Laurie Lassalle’s very personal Boum Boum. Granted, it isn’t set in Belfast during the Troubles, and it isn’t really a Romeo and Juliet type of story either with the lovers on opposing sides, but Lassalle’s documentary on the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement in France in late 2018 is a love story, and notably with the director as one of the lovers. By showing the progression of the movement in tandem with the progression of her relationship with one of her fellow protesters, Lassalle gives Boum Boum an unexpected angle on a phenomenon that took the nation by storm initially but petered out over time.
On November 17, 2018, France took to the streets. Mass demonstrations against rising fuel prices soon became an outpouring against economic inequality as a whole. During one of the earliest weekly marches, Lassalle meets Pierrot. Beard, topknot, and radical leftist ideas, plus a penchant for romantic text messages as only the French can write, make her fall in love with him. Soon the two go to the demonstrations as a couple with distinct roles: she operates the camera, while Pierrot as a reporter of sorts ‘interviews’ others out on the streets. They get a cross-section of France in front of their camera, from anarchists to everyday people fed up with stagnating economic development. Their commonality: they all wear a yellow high-visibility vest, a mandatory item for every French driver’s vehicle, to be worn in emergency situations.
Over time the protests become more violent, both from the side of the protesters and of the police. Whereas the initial protests were peaceful, the demonstrators are now targeted with flash-balls, leading to eye loss, neurological damage, or severe flesh wounds. Lassalle doesn’t shy away from this, which might make some scenes in Boum Boum not suitable for the most squeamish. She tracks the increasing grimness of the protests and the movement falling apart, with a hardcore group using more violence while the more moderate lament that “protesting costs money”. Pierrot complains about liberal guilt and people for whom their activism is the brand of their clothes: an identity. Slowly Lassalle and Pierrot drift apart, mirroring the Gilets Jaunes itself.
“How do you maintain the insane hope that you will change society?” Lassalle muses. Inadvertently she may be elucidating why eventually the Gilets Jaunes dwindled and Pierrot wasn’t far off with his complaints. While I don’t question Lassalle’s earnestness, the film shows that beside the actual romance working in parallel to the protests, perhaps her notions of a revolution are a bit too romantic, meaning that state-sanctioned violence can grind the Western spirit down. Interestingly, Netflix recently made their 2015 documentary Winter On Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom publicly available as a reaction to the war in Ukraine. No romance in that one, but it does show what real revolution looks like, including its ugly bits. That makes it an interesting companion piece to Boum Boum, which in itself is at once an unflinching look at how Western governments have no qualms about violently oppressing their citizens when push (quite literally) comes to shove, but also an oddly romantic look at how love can find root on the barricades.