Berlinale 2020 review: Strike or Die (Jonathan Rescigno)

The De Wendel family was decisive for the mining boom and subsequent industrialization of the Lorraine region in the French Grand Est. Three centuries later, their capital has grown to  a multinational investment group while the oil portraits of their antecessors hang in the local museum in Forbach, as if they were still supervising their workers.

1. The Roller Coaster

Two teenage boys spend their evenings at the nightclub and at the fair. They dream about moving together, finding girlfriends, settling down for adulthood. They’re about to take their first decisions towards a professional career. Their grandparents migrated to the region decades ago, one of them to work in the mining sites. Two generations later, their ethnic background as Arabs is still a factor in their search for a job, while the collapse of the pension system becomes a new obstacle their parents didn’t have to face.

The boys visit the local mining museum. As they descend to the mines in a rusty elevator, we are reminded of the attractions they visited at the amusement park. When asked about the strikes, a worker insists museums do not focus on conflict, despite having participated in previous demonstrations. The museum depicts a fictionalized version of reality.

2. The Theatre Rehearsal

An older employee has had an accident at work. His hand was hurt, partially losing its abilities. His boss reported he fell on the stairs, so he’s not fully eligible for insurance coverage. The man is worried, his wife is angry. The woman opens the door to his dining room. The table is set as an office desk. She’s now playing her husband, laying out what she expects from him: a complaint to his company for the fraud behind the accident report. During her drill, the man plays the role of his own boss. Another man, a retired one, shows us the props: helmets and grenades used in former strikes he’s now going to donate to the museum. His wife is in the back, almost silent.

3. The Boxing Ring

A middle-aged man works as a boxing coach. He prepares the group for a fight night, taunting the boxers before ultimately showing unconditional support, even love. The makeup of the group renders the dream of a modern Lorraine, a modern Europe. The descendants of immigrants melt in the dynamic; women are no longer in the background but sharing the stage. The bell rings, they are ready to fight.

Across the documentary, footage sequences portray the decade-long struggle for better working conditions across France. The clash against authorities, the demolished walls. As a remembrance of the tear gas fired against strikers, smoke invades institutional, spiritual and leisure spaces. Yet this same blinding fog is the one to be found at a music concert, a religious procession, the remains of fireworks. Echoing Debord, Jonathan Rescigno’s debut feature presents the complex social makeup of his hometown as a continuous spectacle. This liturgy, however, is not to entertain the people, but to guarantee the continuity of an economic order: the one that is challenged with every strike.

Words don’t last, actions remain.

Photo copyright: Supermouche Productions – J. Rescigno