2018 Film Essays

Vague Visages Is Filmstruck: Evan Amaral on Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s ‘Chronicle of a Summer’

In the 1960s, people took to the streets to start a revolution. Now, we take to the streets to defend progress. In the summer of 2018, temperatures run hot, tensions are high and the stakes are even higher. At the center of it are questions of truth — of who is authentic and who is performative, of where truth can be found in representation. Fifty-seven years after its theatrical release, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s revolutionary documentary Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été)still has a lot to tell us about the world we live in, precisely because it asked these same questions.

The film opens with a simple thesis: “This film was made without actors, but lived by men and women who devoted some of their time to a novel experiment of cinéma vérité.” Rouch and Morin explain this to their friend Marceline, who they employ to conduct random street interviews. In the film’s first section, she asks a number of ordinary Parisians “Are you happy?,” which gives way to a long series of structured discussions. Most of the participants in these interviews are acquaintances of the directors (especially Morin) or people who agreed to be in the film, ranging from psychosociologist Marceline to factory worker Angelo to college students Landry and Nadine. Rouch and Morin also shoot sequences of wordless action, such as Angelo’s daily routine at work, and moments of deeply intimate reflection, such as Marceline’s memories of a Nazi concentration camp.

Shortly before Chronicle of a Summer was shot, Rouch and Morin met at a documentary film festival. As French intellectuals who were thoroughly entrenched in the politics of the day, the two naturally hit it off and decided to embark on a project together. Morin had previously coined the term “cinéma vérité” to describe a type of film that existed as pure truth. He was obsessed with making a film, in his own words, “without celebrities.” Rouch had made several anthropological films with his African friends, among them The Mad Masters and Moi, Un Noir, pioneering his technique of “shared ethnography,” which stressed the participatory nature of filmmaking and the re-circulation of films back into their original communities. Chronicle of a Summer would prove to be the nexus of their two creative pathways, even if their individual visions for the film didn’t always add up.

When viewing Chronicle of a Summer, it quickly becomes apparent which director was at the helm of a given scene. Morin’s sections have a rigid austerity to them, in both form and content. His camera is often still, and he always steers the conversation into either didactic or philosophical realms. He exerts a control over interviews that Rouch does not, often acting as an armchair psychotherapist rather than an observer. Rouch, on the other hand, takes a profound interest in play, always capturing the movements and joys of everyday life with his roving camera. It’s in keeping with his later ethnofictions, such as Jaguar and Little by Little, which take the ethnographic documentary for an entertaining spin with their playful tones and lightness of touch. Late in the film, the directors and their subjects take a vacation to the beach. Rouch shoots wavesurfing and rock climbing with a lively eye, while Morin lectures his own children on why life isn’t fun (calling out his co-director in the process).

Rouch and Morin are often on-camera with their subjects, but each plays a different role in the group dynamic. In one scene, the two directors interview a racially-diverse group of students over lunch. When the topic moves naturally into interracial relationships, Rouch jokes with everyone and provides a few thoughtful prods to his participants. He’s always framed within the group, at the center but flanked by everyone else in the foreground. When Morin senses the conversation’s flow, he stops it dead in its tracks to pose questions about Patrice Lumumba’s revolution in the Congo. Everyone is caught off guard at first, but the conversation eventually ends up where it was going. Morin is usually framed by himself, either in profile or a frontal interview angle, and often by himself. Essentially, Rouch was interested in people, and Morin was interested in ideas. Both of these interests informed their approaches to directorial control, but the combination of the two is what raises the film’s most crucial questions.

Somehow, the film manages to take so many disparate parts and create something broad yet specific — a tapestry of a time and place, the people that lived in it and the sociopolitical struggles that plagued it. Rouch and Morin’s own approaches contrast each other in illuminating ways, playing off of each others own strengths and weaknesses. Morin may have had the focus of vision that Rouch did not, but Rouch possessed the organic energy necessary to capture everyday life in its purest state. In the end, though, truth is still a question mark. Chronicle of a Summer makes for a fitting starting point for the cinéma vérité movement precisely because it raises this question of truth. Rouch’s own style of radical participation is often seen in diametric opposition to subsequent developments in observational filmmaking, but both are cinema at its most truthful, even though that goal is a loaded one at heart. This is because they are all about what’s onscreen, the image and not any kind of text. In cinema, text is manipulation, an obstruction of the image. Documentaries use text in a number of ways — omniscient narration, archival footage, reenactments — but the twin pillars of cinema verite (being participatory and observational cinema) possess none of these things in their purest states. Chronicle of a Summer takes this very approach to cinematic truth. There is no archival footage, no reenactments of events described and voiceover is only used as a diegetic bridge from one scene to another. But there’s one crucial aspect of filmmaking that this theory neglects to mention — performance — and it is Rouch and Morin’s achilles’ heel.

At the end, the two directors gather all of their participants in a screening room. After showing them the film, Rouch and Morin’s hopes for a unanimously religious experience are immediately shattered. The room is deeply divided, with some accusing others of acting in the presence of the camera, and others claiming that their costars were too personal. When the two directors leave the museum after the screening, they realize that they have created a beast of a question that is to be reckoned with, one ready-made for polarization. Morin says, in a line that has been translated and re-translated many times: “we’re in trouble.” But, something’s off about this exchange, which, itself, feels performed. Rouch and Morin knew exactly that this would be the case, that their film would complicate viewers’ notions of truth. It’s a red herring of an ending, especially for a documentary that often spoke directly about its quest to capture truth.

Rouch himself believed that people were there most authentic selves in moments of performance and ritual, and that extends to cinema and our own world. It’s something that we’re afraid of. We’re deeply concerned with just how authentic we are. And, just like art, we’re the sum of all our influences, a living, breathing pastiche that, if we achieve our goal, comes across as something unique. But, as Rouch knew, we’re only ourselves when we acknowledge and celebrate those things that make us who we are, and we do that when we perform on our own terms. At our current moment, the situation couldn’t be more dire. Authoritarianism is on the rise, setting the stage for a regression of rights with far-reaching consequences. These politicians reached power by playing up people’s anxieties about truth, insisting that a definite truth exists that we all must conform to — and that it’s being manipulated.

If cinema and the internet age have taught us anything, it’s that an explicit truth does not exist. We all perform for a number of lenses, whether they be a film camera or a Twitter account. In a lot of ways, these performances reflect our inner struggles of identity and authenticity, and authoritarianism — at its core — seeks to control them, to direct them. It’s an ambiguous zone that’s simply a part of modern life, but it’s nothing to be alienated about. It can be wielded for good, to foster a conversation about the conditions we live in and how to improve them, to truly empathize with and celebrate each other. Rouch and Morin did this with their chronicle of the 1960 summer, and few have achieved it since. To avoid an overused platitude, Chronicle of a Summer is not “the film we need right now.” Rather, it is the film that shows us how we got here.

Watch ‘Chronicle of a Summer’ at FilmStruck.

Evan Amaral (@evandamaral) is a student of film, media studies and anthropology at Emory University. His writing can be found at the Emory Wheel, where he is the senior film critic. He also edits the journal Anthropos and works with the Emory Cinematheque.