Monday, January 20, 2014

“J’ai Témoigné en Images” : René Vautier and his Militant Cinema

The thesis of this essay will be the question of politics and aesthetics in René Vautier’s anti-colonial documentary Afrique 50. To examine this I will do a formal analysis of Afrique 50 by examining what the film presents and how it presents it. I will argue that Afrique 50 is a significant contribution to the Classic Documentary movement by building upon Joris Iven’s The Spanish Earth. I will do a historical analysis of Afrique 50 by examining what is its social context. In regards to its social context, topics that will be addressed include French colonialism and film censorship. Vautier’s background and career will also be explored. Finally what makes Afrique 50 so valuable is how by being made outside of the traditional production methods it could have been as critical as it is.

In her article Inscribing the historical: film texts in context, one of the few English texts to discuss Vautier, Rosemarie Scullion describes the importance of a historical analysis, “film studies scholars have begun to consider the ways in which historical processes shape the meanings films generate and the contexts in which they are received." This is important to do justice to the historical complexities of the period. As well as to better understand the representation of the past and the culture that contributed to it. Scullion writes:

Films can display their historicity by capturing and conveying the sensibility of a particular age. Created in conditions that are, consciously or unconsciously, shaped by their own historical moment, the work of interpreting such films involves describing dominant conditions and apprehending the prevailing mind-set of the era while also examining how films engage that particular setting.

Scullion examines the defined absence of the French film industry, namely that of government censorship of films. This is particularly important in discussing the work of Vautier who has gone up against French censorship numerous times over his career. The political censorship of films was done by the French government agency of the Commission de controle des films cinematographiques (Film Oversight Board). Scullion describes its history and role as:

Although parity between government and industry representatives was restored in 1952, struggles continues over the constitution of a body that, in principle, held absolute authority over all fiction and documentary films made in France. In exercising its powers, the board had a range of restrictive measures at its disposal. The July 1945 decree, in conjunction with a more stringent order issued in 1961, allowed the board to restrict access to films deemed unsuitable for certain age groups, to issue warnings concerning content, to demand modifications and cuts, to ban films entirely, and to withhold the permit required for their foreign export.

Roland Barthes in Mythologies provides an example of the “official” portrait of French colonialism in his description of a young African soldier on the cover of a copy of Paris-Match. Barthes writes,

But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.

It is against this public image of France that Vautier would be reacting to in Afrique 50 and throughout his career as a filmmaker. The government censorship institutions will also make it difficult for him to do so whether by confiscating his prints, prohibiting their screenings or by jailing him.

Afrique 50: History
Vautier describes his life story and the impetus for Afrique 50 in his autobiography Caméra citoyenne. In the chapter on Afrique 50, which was re-printed in Mémoire Populaire, Vautier describes how the project began in its original form. Vautier was twenty-one years old at the time. In 1949, the Ligue de l’Enseignement (French Educational Bureau) proposed to him that he makes a film for French students that would “show how the villagers in French West Africa live.” There was nothing revolutionary about the project. He was just supposed to go there, document the sights with his 16mm camera, and then to edit them. It sounds like what they wanted was something equivalent to a Gaumont-Pathé travelogue newsreel.
But once he arrived in French West Africa, with a group of peers that had similar diplomatic projects, the guide from the domestic government insisted Vautier to film the pineapples in the garden of the Niger offices… Instead, Vautier wanted to film the local dam workers that he thought better reflected the quotidian reality of the African landscape. Vautier asked an engineer about the worker’s harsh working conditions, and the engineer answered that it was cheaper to pay Africans to maintain and run the dam then it would be to set it up electrically (this anecdote would make it into Afrique 50). Vautier asked why they didn’t unionize, and the engineer answered that the previous men who tried to unionize were (wrongfully) arrested for three years. Agitated by what he was hearing, Vautier fought with this engineer. This led to him being kicked out of his group and wanted by the authorities.
Vautier’s desire to provide a testimony about this colonial exploitation motivated his journey through French West Africa. He had to travel with precaution, and was lucky to get help from some sympathizers, because the authorities wanted to arrest him since what he was doing was illegal. During his voyage he would film the dehumanizing realities of the Africans by French colonialism. Vautier’s hope was to eventually show this footage to reveal to his fellow countrymen what was happening abroad in the name of France. It was a lot of work and dangerous for Vautier to bring the footage back to France, edit it, and then project it for an audience. For example, a lot of the film stock was at first confiscated (Vautier only got a small portion of it back), to get it developed the film stock was attached to film-reels of pornography to avoid it getting caught by the censors, and it never got a projection visa so it had to always be projected illegally.
In 1950 in France there were voices of dissent about Colonialism in Africa, but these voices were not popular to express, and were at times suppressed. There was no anti-colonialism in French cinema before Afrique 50. The film historians attribute this lack of anti-colonialism in French cinema due to the previously mentioned hardship and censorship that was in place in order to prevent it. As well as to the fact that cinema’s methods of production demands more work, organization and collaboration (e.g. travel, processing, projections visas etc.) than say a personal speech or article. Though in recent documentaries about French colonialism there is now evidence that there had been some critical newsreels. For example, in one newsreel there are French soldiers going around shooting Africans.

Afrique 50: Film Form
The following is a description of Afrique 50’s formal qualities. Afrique 50 is around 18 minutes (there was more footage, which was confiscated by the authorities). Afrique 50 was filmed on 16mm film stock, it’s in black-and-white, and the shots aren’t long. It consists of many quick shots, edited together, in a rhythmic fashion. Its music is by Keita Fodeba and Vautier himself reads the voice over.
Its documentary formal qualities are in the John Grierson tradition of the classic documentary, like Industrial Britain or Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon, following the mantra of  “a creative treatment of actuality.” So it is similar in that respect but it would be unfair to compare Afrique 50 to these other works, as it would not be taking into account its militant and interventional qualities. The cited British documentaries begin with certificates acknowledging that they have been “Passed for Universal Exhibition” by the British Board of Film Censors. Song of Ceylon, which is about the Sinhalese people in Sri Lanka, never departs from being a cinema of attraction travelogue and presents its subjects, as would a good ethnographer, by just documenting them from an exterior perspective, presenting their ritualized customs as spectacle. This is very far from what Vautier was doing.
To better understand Afrique 50, it is also valuable to contrast it with Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous. Vautier has publicly argued about French censorship (“We talk about censorship – when we talk about it – only when it hits, cuts and destroys”) with Rouch, who, as Vautier as argued, with his films didn’t go against, therefore, maintained the colonial order. Where in something like Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous, which was made 5 years after Afrique 50 in 1955, there is the strong impression of forethought and pre-planning, which reflects its authorial perspective. One of Afrique 50 main attributes is its roughness. The filming conditions were hostile and this shows in the quality of the image. For Vautier there is an immediacy and urgency to his images. Where Rouch captures the Africans dramatizing their folkloric rituals, Vautier’s cinema does not allow for this theatricality and captures images that represent the site of crisis of colonial oppression.
            Vautier is actually closer to someone like Joris Ivens, a filmmaker who Kees Baker describes as “one of the most important documentary filmmakers of the twentieth century,” and in particular the documentary form of Afrique 50 owes a lot to The Spanish Earth. It is worth bringing up the scholarship around Ivens to better understand the documentary forms that Vautier, by way of Ivens, is working with. It is also interesting to note how both filmmakers have written autobiographies Caméra citoyenne for the latter and The Camera and I for the former, which illustrates how with these engaged filmmakers that their lives, practice and work are very much intertwined and that the process of filmmaking can be, and is, just as interesting as the final product itself.
José Manuel Costa, in his essay, Joris Ivens and the Documentary Project, writes about the creation and rise of the documentary in the Twenties and Thirties,

It is a way of seeking the renewal of the language of film, by coming out of the limitations of the studio, opening a new film practice, using reality – and the opposing resistance of reality – in order to achieve a genuinely new creative mood, one that is not overburdened by industrial conventions. In this sense, it uses the road opened by the genius of Flaherty, but it does so with its own new program, which includes confronting contemporary social reality and contradictions, the analysis of our present world.

Costa distinguishes between the key figures that contributed to the invention of the documentary form, during the transition to sound cinema,

All those three matrices (Ivens, Grierson, and Lorentz) were responsible for a common pattern of artistic search and social concern that has been definitely associated with the genre (the latter being what we could call a pattern of social productivity). But neither the Grierson public education approach nor the lyric Rooseveltian approach of Lorentz identified as clearly as did Joris Ivens with the very boundaries of that process and with the process itself – that is, the assumption of the avant-garde spirit and its progressive assimilation into a social, political, and historical intervention.

Costa situates Ivens work within the avant-garde tradition as well as with the political intervention. In particular Costa analyzes Ivens’ The Spanish Earth and his later Le 17e Parallèle and its engagement with war. Costa sees in The Spanish Earth one of the first cinematic documentaries where an artist (Ivens, but also Ernest Hemingway) goes to a war-zone, in this case the Spanish Civil War, and constructs itself, its narrative form, as the war is unfolding. Even though Vautier’s formation is different and even though Afrique 50 isn’t a war documentary, Ivens tradition of political engagement is the same lineage that Vautier is building upon when he makes Afrique 50.
While Georges Sadoul, a communist film historian, in his essay un maître du cinéma vérité puts Ivens in the tradition of vérité long before the popularization of the term. For Sadoul, “Vertov, Flaherty, Joris Ivens, these three major creators are the three “grands patrons” of cinéma vérité.” For Sadoul, by way of Ivens, vérité literally means truth. This is different then how the term is now traditionally known for where it applies more to the movement in the Sixties and Seventies sparked by more light and mobile cameras of the capturing of people on the fly in the immediacy of lived experiences. Sadoul quotes a text by Ivens from Les Lettres francaises in 1963 that elaborates on their definition of cinéma vérité,

In certain cases, cinéma vérité forces the creation of militant films. In this situations there are brutal forces that intervene to extinguish the truth through diverse forms: censorship, police etc. Also in a period where truth isn’t always easy to say, it is instructive and comforting to re-read Bertolt Brecht discussing the “five obstacles towards saying the truth,” it is this truth that would escape us if we didn’t have the liberty to express ourselves through screens, to share with a public our researches about the truth.

It is this militant film tradition, in the name of “truth,” that Vautier builds upon from Ivens. There is also another connection between Vautier and Ivens. In 1950 in Varsovie at the Festival Mondial de la Jeunesse the jury that was presided by Joris Ivens gave Afrique 50 the Mondial de Jeunes Realisateurs prize for the best documentary.

Afrique 50: Content
Afrique 50 opens on a positive tone: perhaps to not totally shock its potential audience at the time with the awfulness it will be critiquing by the end, or perhaps as a way to avoid censorship just by showing the start of it to people (though it would have already been censored), or perhaps to follow through with the original pedagogical goals of the project. But the tone of Afrique 50 at the beginning is positive. Children are looking at the camera and smiling and putting out their tongues. Women are grinding millets. Women are bathing. On top of this footage there is the discussion of natural resources. There are scenes of rope making. There are scenes of women with pretty hair braids and others of women cutting men’s hair. The voice-over is comforting as the speaker reassuringly guides the spectator through this community. There are fishermen, just like the ones in Brittany (where Vautier is from, a region in the northwest of France), who are making fishing nets. There are boating scenes. There are children that are playing and they go swimming in the Niger River.
Then, after six minutes of footage, the music gets faster and more intense, and the documentary starts to become critical. Vautier describes this community as being “very lucky in its misery, because it is peaceful.” He then contrasts it with another village, Fallaqa in the northern Ivory Coast. The city couldn’t pay the enforced taxes so the local forces, which are comprised of French officers, killed them. This is accompanied by footage of houses riddled with bullet holes. There are scenes of dying animals. Vautier says, “This is not the official image of the colonization.”
This critique of French colonialism becomes the direct subject of Afrique 50. Vautier compares French colonialism to that of vultures surrounding its dying prey. Vautier criticizes the exploits of these corporations who label their initiatives as representing “progress.” The accused’s are West African Commercial Company, the Companie Francaise de L’Afrique Occidentale, GABOME, The French African, the French Niger, The French Company of Ivory Coast, and Unilever.
The focus then shifts towards the Markala dam on the Niger River, which produces electricity for the French colonizers. The local Africans operate the dam manually because it is cheaper to pay them then it would be to set it up electrically. The Africans are made to work in dangerous situations. They are overworked and are underpaid. There is footage of the workers breaking rocks. They harvest and grind millet. They are out working in the cotton and peanut fields. It is not only the adult men that are working but also the women and children. They are shown working in plantations. The workers get paid fifty francs a day, and if they get killed on the job their widow are to receive five-hundred francs. All the while the profits at Unilever go up exponentially.
The narrator Vautier elaborates on how the French abolished slavery in 1946 but now charge taxes (and we’ve already seen what happens if they aren’t paid) so the locals are forced to work for these dehumanizing industrial companies. There is footage of the boats out on the coast waters that are ready to export the African natural resources.
            Following the intense footage of workers performing manual labor accompanied by an voice-over track critiquing French colonialism, Vautier ends Afrique 50 with inspiring footage of the people uniting, and protesting. There is perhaps the chance of a better future for them but the African people, with the help of the French, will need to protest and fight. The French population needs to see what is going on in French West Africa in their name. Vautier by making this film is doing his part. The people will need to be in solidarity with one another. Afrique 50’s conclusion is that of solidarity and activism. It has gone from idle observation to critical interrogation to unifying protest.

René Vautier
The classic story of Vautier is that he fought as a teenager during the occupation in the French resistance and when he was sent to Africa he fought there too. He was a communist then, and still is, and at the age of twenty-one years old in 1949 the Ligue de l’enseignement en Afrique sent him to make a pedagogical film about how people lived in the French African colonies. It was filmed in the Ivory Coast between 1949 and 1950 during the colonial repression. Vautier was angry at the hypocrisy that was ruling the African French colonies and the lack of information about it back in France. So he decided to fight back with a film camera. The filmmaking medium is a lot more cumbersome to work with especially for this kind of project. Some of the hardships Vautier experienced include how he had to film illegally in a foreign country where he had to put himself in danger and had to escape authorities. When he returned back to France with the footage (some of it was stolen), he still had to then process it (he did so by attaching the film stock to pornography, which wasn’t being checked by censors). And finally, after it was completed Vautier ended up getting a one-year prison sentence. 
Sadoul would hail Afrique 50 as the first anti-colonialist film and would speak highly of Vautier in his Dictionaire des Cineastes. The film did not get a theatrical release in a commercial cinema but instead played in political rallies, most notably by the communist, as well as in social meetings. Vautier speaks of the film being seen by a great number of people.
Afrique 50 was officially banned for fifty years. In 1996 Vautier, who thought the film to be lost, received a restored copy of the film from the French Ministery of Culture who wanted to show it in the French embassies in Africa as a sign that demonstrates that there was a pronounced anti-colonial tendency in France that goes as far back as 1950. The African film critic Paulin Soumanou Vieyra in Presence Africaine wrote about it, “The originality of the film is to be able to highlight the veritable causes of the African genocide.” 
Following the official (re-)release of Afrique 50 in 1996 there has been many new studies on Vautier’s cinema. There is an anecdote of Vautier who contacted the representatives of the Larousse Dictionary on Filmmakers asking them to be included in their volume and they turned him down. Their reason that they gave him was that he wasn’t a filmmaker but a militant. This has been for a long time the general perception on the subject of Vautier’s cinema. One of Vautier’s biggest supporters in this period of re-emergence has been the French film-critic Nicole Brenez who has famously said, "The most important film in the history of cinema is Afrique 50."
In this period Vautier also published his memoir Caméra citoyenne and Cahiers du Cinema also did a feature on him in their special issue on cinema’s relation to history. More recently L’association Mas O Menos restored his film Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès which played at the Venice Film Festival (and was positively featured in Film Comment) and Les Mutins de Pangée just published a new book on him. Many of Vautier’s short-films and documentaries about him are now also easily accessible on YouTube.

Vautier’s Films
It worth noting that Vautier was still a film student at the L'Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC) when he worked on Louis Daquin’s La Grande Lutte Des Mineurs, which is is about a mass protest at a mine by its workers. The Daquin film, similar to Robert Ménégoz’ Vivent les dockers, were part of a genre of agit-prop films of the period whose function was to document social injustices and to promote solidarity and revolutionary protest. The majority of them were done in the name of the communist party and they reflected a Marxist approach to social change and class differences. These cinematic forms would greatly contribute to Afrique 50’s aesthetic.
To cite some of Vautier’s other films there is Un homme est mort, Une nation l'Algérie, Algérie en flammes, J’ai huit ans, Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès and Techniquement si simple.
Algérie en flammes is an anti-colonial documentary. It’s more traditional in its reportage than Afrique 50. Vautier’s footage was used in Yann Le Masson and Olga Baidar-Poliakoff’s J’ai huit ans, which goes from children drawings of African culture to harsh images of the war. In Techniquement si simple a gluttonous Frenchman talks about working at an oil field in Algiers and living with an Arab who he would come to despise for his poverty and life style.
Vautier’s most famous other film after Afrique 50 is Avoir 20 ans dans les Aurès, which is a full-length fictional film made from real testimonies by French soldiers during the Algerian war. It takes place in April 1961 in the Aurès where a group of French soldiers confronts another group of the Armée de libération nationale. After a fight they pick up some of their soldiers as prisoners. Then they reflect on their time there and how their views on the war have changed as they have become more skeptical. Vautier had to go on a hunger strike to get the censors to allow it to be shown at Cannes.
In 1962 Vautier would also live in Tunisia to set up a film cooperative, the Algerian Audio-Visual Center, where he gave cameras to the locals for them to make their own films. This is why he would come to be known as the father of Algerian cinema. He would also create his own production company l’Unité de production cinématographique Bretagne where he would make his own films more freely.
But Vautier isn’t alone even though he might have been one of the first to make an anti-colonial film. Some of Vautier’s peers who made anti-colonial cinema include: Phillippe de Broca made a war documentary Algerian War, Pierre Clément was an important cinematographer who contributed to making anti-colonial films, and there is Yann Le Masson and Olga Baidar-Poliakoff who worked with Vautier on J’ai huit ans. 

All of this goes to show that Vautier is really conscious of the political and aesthetic context that his images contribute to. Vautier builds upon a rich history of political documentaries both in terms of the Ivens vérité tradition and within a communist agit-prop tradition. Vautier’s body of work as a filmmaker has evolved and grew over his life. There is also a cinematic and poetic quality to his images that is never used to undermine the radical politics that they want to convey.
Brenez compares Vautier’s films to Karl Marx’s early poems. “Ce picturesque cache bien une grande misère,” writes Brenez, “Vautier represents the archetype of an engaged filmmaker ... for Vautier, images can create and argument that can lead to a real critique in the visual debates of the world and its horizon would be a state where the world would be more just.” The variety of films that Vautier made from experimental shorts, traditional and poetic documentaries, to feature films display his experimentation with cinematic forms. He has built his own repertoire of gestures, images, and stylistics that conveys his power of conviction.
If late in his life he is now interviewed a lot about his body of work, he is finally providing a reverse-shot of the person who built some of film historie's most powerful images. The person responsible for the camera that fought back French colonialism with Afrique 50 and his entire body of work is now more freely able to communicate his views. Vautier’s anecdotes on the conditions of when he created his films are fascinating. His experiences, motives and politics are a guiding example. By finally having Vautier’s films more easily accessible they can be better studied and discussed. The hope of all of this would be to inspire and raise the level of integrity of its spectators to acknowledge crimes against humanity and to fight these injustices. Afrique 50 describes a crime of the past but it would be naïve to think that there aren’t still crimes like this happening today. The power of Vautier’s conviction in the film camera and in the moving images that it creates still continues to inspire.

*This an essay that I wrote for my Classic Documentary class at York University where I'm doing my Masters in Cinema and Media Studies. - D.D.

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