France 1: “CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER” (1961): Anthropology of Parisians

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Chronicle of a Summer is one of those few films that have modified, by themselves, the concept and possibilities of documentary genre (the others being Nanook by Robert Flaherty, Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris, and, maybe, the still recent The Act of Killing by Joshua Oppenheimer). Social scientist  Edgar Morin and anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch decided to make an ethnographic study, not on some distant primitive tribe, as it is usual in anthropological cinema, but on the near Parisian tribe, their own fellow citizens. They wanted to find out how Parisians were, what they thought and felt, instead of taking it for granted. The result is a fantastic, mesmerizing film, that can be seen many times without becoming tiresome.

Rouch had already made many good films on his African friends (Moi, un noir, Jaguar, Les maîtres fous…), and had reflected on the basis of the understanding and representation of the Other, not only in cinematographic but also in philosophic terms. He refused to show the Other from the outside, as an insect under observation. He had looked for new ways of allowing his films’ subjects  to show themselves in all their truth and authenticity. He didn’t want to prevail as a controlling director, who decides what happens, and he didn’t think that anybody could record reality in an objective way, without the filmmaker’s presence modifying what was being recorded, as if it were invisible to the participants.

Social scientist Edgar Morin and anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch decided to make an ethnographic study, not on some distant primitive tribe, as it is usual in anthropological cinema, but on the near Parisian tribe, their own fellow citizens.

In Rouch (as in all conscious filmmakers), aesthetics are based on ethic and moral views. His aim to allow and force people to show themselves as they really are (even despite of themselves) originated a revolutionary film method. It consisted in making absolutely explicit the presence of the director, in making the subjects completely aware of the fact that they were being recorded just when they were speaking their minds. He didn’t impose any script, nor any guideline to tell them how to act. Rouch was convinced that, in this way, the subject pulled out a truth deeper than the standard representation about him- or herself. It was a sort of cinematographic psychoanalysis without Freudian conceptual structure. Paradoxically, it obliged participants to be more themselves than usually.

Rouch and Morin know very well what they are doing in the exam of personality which is Chronicle of a Summer. They call they experiment cinema vérité, a name that has become a brand for their new kind of cinema of reality.

Rouch had already reflected not only on the cinematographic but also on the philosophical basis of the understanding and representation of the Other.

In the film we see many Parisians in the summer of 1960. The first, a woman in her forties who talks to Morin and Rouch about her own reactions in front of the camera, about the truthfulness of people when they know they are being recorded and examined. That same woman -Marceline- walks around Paris asking many people a question that, then as today, is too outrageous to be replied by some: “Are you happy?”.

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(From left to right) Jean Rouch, Marceline and Edgar Morin talk about the degree of truthfulness that can be achieved through cinéma vérite.

There’s a revealing conversation among three workers, who hate their occupation but can’t see any chance of surviving outside labour exploitation (one of them says that even sleeping is to work: he says that sleeping serves to recover from the effort and to get ready to do it again the day after). This worker becomes one of the main participants: we follow him to the factory of car components where he wears himself out, we see how he travels by bus to his small house in the outskirts of Paris, his activities in the scarce free time he has.

This same worker -Angelo- appears in a staircase talking to a black young man -Laundry- a student from Ivory Coast. Laundry tells how it feels to be a black person in Paris, to experience the effects of racism and colonization, and the cultural shock. He doesn’t understand why people is keen to work all day long in a factory, he finds it awful. Angelo tells him that people want to show off, that even the poorest workers buy a car and smart clothes to feign status at the expense of the most necessary things…

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Angelo and Laundry talk about French mentality and society.

Laundry becomes the anthropologist that examines French society, reversing the usual roles according to which it is the white who studies the black. His new look, free from the principles of Western education, sees the contradictions of capitalist system, people’s unhappiness, the lie of consumerism.

Chronicle of a Summer has many hard moments, of anguish not staged but experienced in front of the camera. As when Marceline  walks alone in Place de la Concorde having an imaginary conversation with her dead father, when they were in a concentration camp (where he was killed): she remembers the moment when a Nazi soldier hit her before him and how her father protested helplessness: “She is my daughter, she is my daughter…”. Marceline herself talks to a much younger man with whom she had an ill-fated relationship: they try to understand why they couldn’t be happy together. Another woman, an Italian from a well-being family who is living in squalor in Paris, all by herself, trying to find out who she is while working in a factory, renting a waterless, heatingless apartment, drinking hard and having casual sex with too much men. She is deeply depressed and so she appears in the film, talking twice to Morin. There’s a moment when she becomes speechless when trying to explain what she wants in life, a long silence between cigarette puffs that we see as a defeat (we’ve all been there, haven’t we?). Afterwards, we see the girl recovered and happy, walking around Paris streets with the man she has fallen in love…

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Marceline walking around in Paris and talking to her dead father back in the concentration camp.

Rouch and Morin finish the film with another cinematographic-philosophical experiment. They show the final film -after the editing- to the participants, and ask them what they think about it. There are different opinions: some say there is overacting, some complain about exhibitionism (specially by the Italian girl and Marceline). Marceline says she was acting, boasts of being a good actress. Ultimately, there’s an intense debate on the possibility of appearing as one really is, of achieving the psychodrama Morin wanted to record.

In a last conversation with Morin, Rouch says it was a good attempt at approaching concrete people from their own tribe, even if it was only in a sympathetic way (he has a lyrical conception of reality). Morin, of a scientific, psychoanalytic mentality, has a rational look and can’t see many results. The conversation is open, and the spectator must ask him- or herself if the cinéma vérité allows to really understand the Other (or if there are other ways to manage it).

Chronicle of a Summer is, in a very serious sense, and ethical film. It tries to get closer to the Other. It uses a new method to enter other’s consciousness: not through spying but, on the contrary, provoking the reaction in front of the inquisitive camera. The many people taking part in the film create a complex, polyphonic mosaic: we see many ways of being. This same diversity prevents the film from becoming a closed study; it remains open to the intelligent look of the observer willing to approach his real, concrete fellow.


Directors: Jean Rouch, Edgar Morin
Country: France
Original language: French
Length: 85 minutes

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