The Monopoly of Violence begins with what is now a familiar sighting: Shaky cellphone footage that captures a clash between police officers in riot gear and protesters, some of whom are wearing yellow vests. A police officer shoots in the direction of the protesters. One of them is hit in the face; blood is everywhere as fellow protesters try to help him. As the scene plays out in real-time, the focus switches from the cellphone footage to Gwendal Leroy, the forklift operator who was shot on-camera by police, as he later watched the footage. You soon see that he’s wearing an eyepatch over the eye he lost as a result of that night.
“I remember trying to get up,” Leroy said. “When I saw this, I realized that I wasn’t trying to get up.”
DIRECTOR: David Dufresne
The moral quandary about whether the state has the authority to enact violence on its own citizens is at the forefront of this timely documentary. While the primary focus iss on France’s Yellow Vest movement, it’s practically impossible not to notice the similarities to U.S. protests in recent months.
It’s far from the only gruesome and disturbing scene in The Monopoly of Violence, director and journalist David Dufresne’s prescient documentary on police violence and the question over whether (and how) a government can justify brutalizing its own citizens. It’s centered around the gilet jaunes movement (or the Yellow Vests movement) and the ethical, moral, and lawful debates about the use of violence can often feel dense. Its focus never leaves France, yet, between its the contrast of its images amid debates about the state of democracy itself, it’s nearly impossible to ignore just how much it also echoes what's happening in the U.S. right now.
The question of who has that power is at the very center of The Monopoly of Violence, which gets its title from the German socialist Max Weber, who claimed that “A state is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory.” Throughout, Dufresne interviewed sociologists, historians, writers, lawyers, a journalist, a few police officers, and several protesters, who were all shown many of those viral videos that are later juxtapositioned with footage of an empty street. Several of the viral videos, which are extremely violent and graphic, are downright damning.
Philosophers and theorists such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Hannah Arendt, and Guy Debord are namedropped as Dufresne’s many subjects ponder and debate how much authority the state (or a democratic government) should have in enacting violence against its citizens in order for a state to exist; it’s a social contract if you will. The Monopoly of Violence can't unravel that subject within the frame of a single documentary, but what it does cover is troubling. And because Dufresne doesn’t identify any of his subjects during the documentary itself by name or occupation until the very end, you’re left with just their words or their justifications. (But it’s not hard to figure where at least some of them fall, as indicated by their role in a viral video, hints about what they do, or the near-fervent defense of the police.)
At times, Dufresne has two people with differing views or ideals voice their opinions to each other to create a dialogue, which sometimes became contentious. At one point, a journalist confronts a police officer about how he could justify other cops beating him with batons for doing his job after they watched a video of that confrontation play out. In another heated debate, a police officer is asked if the excessive force from police in a different video is justifiable; the protesters in the video are unarmed and nonviolent. The officer refuses to give a direct yes or no answer; he repeatedly relays a kind of blanket statement about waiting for an investigation to take place. We see police officers watching protest footage from afar who encourage their colleagues to beat up protesters; we hear them talk to those they’ve arrested and treat as less than human or make them keep their arms above their heads for hours at a time seemingly because they could. Medics and journalists alike aren’t immune to that violence, either.
The subjects convey arguments about legitimacy; about the many, many acts of violence that the state committed against its own people that have nothing to do with beatdowns such as policies that harm them or the targeting of poorer neighborhoods. People are frustrated with preconceived notions about each other and, despite how a government may have initially been designed, how little it actually works for its people nowadays.
And while there are some differences between the Yellow Vest movement in France and the Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S., many of the reactions from the state are almost exactly the same. Police officers have been captured on film beating up peaceful protesters, gassing them, and shooting them point-blank with so-called rubber bullets, far more harmful than the name suggests, and baton rounds that have caused massive damage without fear of repercussion; several people have lost their lives or their eyes. As United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst argued in the case of France (but just as easily applies elsewhere), it’s a slippery slope toward authoritarianism for a democratic country to deny how it treats its citizens, which then gives other authoritarian countries committing similar atrocities the leeway to similarly deny it.
Throughout the documentary, Dufrense used footage from protests taking place across 13 French cities between December 2018 and February 2020. During that timeframe, there were two deaths, five amputations, and 27 eyes lost as a result of the protests and demonstrations within the videos. The Monopoly of Violence might not come to any easily digestible conclusion about who should have that authority or what we can do about it, but it does plenty to indicate that the way it is right now isn’t working. All you need to do is watch the videos; they speak for themselves.
The Monopoly of Violence is screening virtually at the New York Film Festival until Sept. 23.