‘If the system doesn’t change, the people will change’

Written By: Rita Di Santo
Published: February 17, 2018 Last modified: February 17, 2018

‘If the system doesn’t change, the people will change’


‘Relocation’ is hitting new levels Filmmaker Lech Kowalski spoke to Rita Di Santo at the recent Filmmaker Film Festival in Milan



This story is not happening in Iran, Russia or China. It is happening in Europe to Lech Kowalski. Born in the UK to Polish parents and now resident in France, Kowalski was filming a sit-in staged by GM&S employees at the prefect’s office in Guéret on 20 September. Four gendarmes forcibly removed him from the building and took him to the local police station, where he was detained. 

Meeting Lech Kowalski at the Filmmaker Film Festival in Milan, I asked about this incident and how it was possible for a filmmaker to be arrested in France and for us to hear so little about it.


I don’t have anything against the UK, because I am British. The UK is like America. It is an Anglo-Saxon reality and isolates itself. When we read The Guardian, there are so many articles about America, and we never see so many articles about the English in an American journal, so seems like that English are very tied into American’s media and America’s reality is very insulated. When I go to America for 10 days and read the papers there I forget about the rest of the world. America is very isolated and nothing else is important at all to them. It doesn’t surprise me that the UK media have not talked about what I have been gone through.


What is your story about?

It is about a factory in the middle of France in Guéret, the Texas of France. This factory was run by one of the most private employers in the region, called GM&S. It makes parts for Renault and Peugeot. There is a plan to close the factory. Many workers are facing a critical reality, some have received letters to be relocated in other countries, for ridiculous amounts of money. Factories that I have filmed some years ago had similar problems, where people received letters to relocate to Morocco at a salary of 110 euros per month. This is an incredible arrogance and not taking people seriously. French workers don’t earn a fortune but they make enough money to survive, as they have a system in France that takes care of certain needs. But to be reallocated in another country where they don’t speak the language, it’s incredible.

This is shows also a new phenomenon, we have had capitalism, socialism, and now kind of a new model for private enterprise and governments working together.

My story was happening at the same time as the election was taking place with Macron or Le Pen. People were panicking about Le Pen because she is right win. Macron, this young guy, that he was like, portraying himself as the Obama-like hero for the French, and he is in fact a new liberal. This was all happening at the same time, all these juicy situations for my documentary.

As I was filming this for six months, I felt there was antagonism between myself and the authorities. I was filming things that journalists normally don’t film. During the shoot, I was confronted many times by policemen, and they told me not to film in there, and it became a kind of a game.

On 20 September, the workers decided to occupy a federal building. On that day 50 huge vehicles of the military police force arrived, against these people who were not dangerous to the public, they were just protecting the factory from being destroyed. I was with them, by this point lots of media were also attending. The head of the police officer told me that I had to leave, and I said; “Why? I asked again “Why have I to leave?” when I said “Why” the other journalists said “why”, and suddenly I took the position with the workers to film that. It is a film of the police from their point of view.

The police officer gave me two warnings to leave. The workers were holding me, at that point the police started to take me out. Physically pulled me up while I was filming, I was very angry, because one of the police officer broke the microphone. I said to the gendarme “fascist”. I am a product of a system that knows what I am saying. My mother has spent time in the gulag in Siberia. I am not just saying fascists. I understand that word. My parents met because Germany and Russia wanted to exterminate the Polish. When I was away from everybody, the police came at me in a group of four, and they put me in the police car. There was a cameraman that was trying to film thiseand the gendarme yelled at him.


Why can’t they film you being arrested?

I have that footage where the worker confronted the gendarme and said: ‘Why can’t he film? Where do we live? in a fascist time?’ They took me to the police station, and I spent the night in jail.


What were you thinking at that point?

It was an incredible experience. The younger policemen researched my name on the internet and said: “Oh man, you are a film director”. It was surreal. In the cell, I was alone, the walls were covered with dirt and blood, there was a surveillance camera. It was kind strange of spending a night in jail for this, at my age, because I have never been arrested in this kind of situations before. I always had problems with the police but not to take me into jail. Even when I was shooting in LA, I come across with the American police officer, but not to the point of being arrested.


Your concept of democracy changed?

I have an accumulation of experiences that I have witnessed, filming for six months, I noticed that the police were always protecting the big factories and never protecting the people, the poorest or the ones who are suffering. The system is afraid, the governmental is no longer independent, it is very dependent on the multinational corporations. They provide the living, “the sharks”.

While I was in jail, I thought this is the new world and I actually redefined what democracy it is all about. We have to get away from all the cliché of Marxism and all that kind of stuff. The fight is not with the government; the fight is with multinational corporations. There is no logical reason to take jobs out of France, but the only reasons are the stockholders want to make more profits.


What were the charges?

It is called “rebellion”, that means not listening to orders. This is what in France police uses many times when they don’t know what to charge you with. They charge me for “violence, contempt and obstruction,” which is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of 35,000 euros. I got two lawyers, workers, media people journalists and JWB all supported me. They asked me if I am guilty of “rebellion” and I said no, the public prosecutor asked me a very abstract question, so I repeated “no” I am not guilty, I am just guilty for making films. A few weeks later they dropped the charges completely. Outside the court house was crowded with protesters and this put pressure on them.

The mainstream media made a few reports, but never mentioned Peugeot or Renoir, because the biggest advertising on television are car companies. I am an independent filmmaker, I don’t have a press card, they are a little bit worried when I am around. When I got there in the morning and the military was already surrounding the place. The secret service man was there and he told me: “Get your fucking camera out of here”.


How do we deal with this?

It is a very complicated problem, but we have to start looking at. If they don’t want to be filmed I will always be there. When I was younger, the Vietnam War was going on, and anyone that was against it was called “communist”. If you were against something you were a communist.

We have to deconstruct facts in order to figure out how society works. The powerful are the corporate system. The corporate system wants people to consume. They don’t care how thinks are made as long as they are cheap and they make profits, nothing else matters, including the life of 280 workers.


Did you go back to the factory, how are the workers?

If you are a 50-year-old, have a mortgage to pay, and you have a family, and you are forced to find work, but also you are confronted with who you are in society: what did you do that was wrong? Why is this happening? And why have you been manipulated by forces that are much bigger then you?

One of the workers told me that the fight has changed him, he started to understand who he is, and he will never be the same. People are thinking about suicide, and they started a hunger strike. Something is changing in people. If the system doesn’t change, the people will change. If more people change, the system will change.