February 16, 2021
Jackie Raynal, the French director, editor, and former programmer of New York’s Bleecker Street and Carnegie Hall cinemas, first became involved in film when, riding through Paris on a Vespa in 1958 at the age of eighteen, she was stopped and asked to be an extra in Otto Preminger’s Bonjour Tristesse. Six years later, she was the youngest head editor in France. She later became a key member of the storied Zanzibar Group, whose films anticipated and then mourned the events of May 1968. Deux Fois, Raynal’s stark, elegant 1968 directorial debut, is made under its sign. This work, and her later New York films, are streaming at Metrograph through February 17; New York Story and Hotel New York are available on-demand February 17–24.
WE HAD ENOUGH MONEY to do whatever we wanted. We didn’t have to write screenplays or justify our creative decisions. The group was sponsored by Sylvina Boissonnas. She would sit at La Coupole, hear people’s ideas, and hand out cash. The atmosphere at the time was extremely fecund. The Zanzibar Group wasn’t a political project like Chris Marker’s or Godard’s. We wanted to excise a single author, to work in a collective mode. There were filmmakers, musicians, painters, writers mixing together and inspiring each other. The name came from an Arthur Rimbaud letter to his sister: “I will go to Zanzibar, where there is gold.” The word was a talisman.
I was born in the south of France. My father ran a ciné-club, so I grew up with movies. He was a syndicalist and Communist, and so there were often communists from Spain coming through the house, meetings being set up, a lot of political discussions. Of course in some ways you’re always rebelling against your family, and I wanted to know a different kind of society than this one.
I became a film editor when I was twenty. I never went to school. I learned through instinct and with practice. I would go to the movies every night. It was cheap and you could see lots of different films. Watching a lot of movies was its own education.
My boyfriend when I was young was a cameraman and photographer, and together we went to Mexico, in the Yucatán, to photograph one of the first guidebooks in Marker’s Petite Planète series. That was my introduction to this world. Much later, in 1966, I met with an assistant director on Last Year at Marienbad who asked me if I’d like to be an editor, and I said, “I don’t know what it is.” Soon after I met Eric Rohmer and began working on the first Moral Tales.
When I was a child, we weren’t poor, but I would knit and sew the extra clothes I wanted. Editing is similar to making clothes. It’s artisan work. It was easy for me to manipulate the film stock. It’s a question of sensitivity and speed, and facility with the medium itself was a great thing.
Film was largely a man’s world. But in France, because of World War II, women became film editors. It wasn’t the same in America. There, women were costume designers, makeup artists, screenplay writers. All the editors were male.
All the Zanzibar Group films were made in 1968, regardless of their date. I cut Serge Bard’s Détruisez-vous, which had been financed by Sylvina’s brother, and then she and I met at the screening and she asked, “Why don’t you make a film? I’ll give you all the money you need.” From this came Deux Fois. We were influenced by Andy Warhol, and we were closer in spirit to the Factory than to the French New Wave. We thought of ourselves as the New New Wave. We were questioning the rules: of having great actors play in films, of plot, of the relationship between image and words.
Everything stopped in May ’68. Industry came to a halt. We were in the streets, shooting ciné-tracts, recording events in real time, and showing them in factories, at the Sorbonne, wherever there were political meetings. I sold my apartment in Paris and spent two years in America. In 1968 I moved to San Francisco with my boyfriend. I was a hippie. I lived in between different communal houses there and in New Mexico. I was very successful because I knew how to bake bread.
We ran out of money. I went back to France, but couldn’t get work with any interesting directors so I was cutting short films and spaghetti westerns. I moved back to New York in 1974, and, at a screening of Deux Fois at MoMA, I met Sid Geffen, my future husband. We had lunch, he asked me if I would be interested in doing programming, and complained about the Carnegie Hall cinemas he had just bought, saying “It’s terrible, I have only one screen.” I said, “Why don’t you buy Bleeker Street Cinema?” and he found a way. The first film we showed was Three Lives by Kate Millet. Then I did a New Wave Film Festival, putting the ’60s New Wave, Rouch, Truffaut, etc., next to films made by Renoir and Dreyer. It was well-received by critics, and the theater could start in earnest.
The late 1970s in New York was similar to the France I knew in the ’60s. There was a lot of music, a lot of artists and filmmakers mixing. We used to go to the Mudd Club or CBGB. That’s where I met Gary Indiana, who helped write the screenplays for my New York movies. The city was bankrupt and that was its hope.
— As told to Janique Vigier