Playback: Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's 'Chronicle of a Summer'
When I first started making documentaries in the ’60s, it was in the midst of the Direct Cinema revolution in America. Suddenly, it had become possible for two people to enter a dimly lit room with an Eclair and Nagra and record “life as it was happening” at 24 frames per second. The prevailing myth at the time was that if you hung around long enough, the “truth” would surely be revealed, and always while you had a full magazine of film to capture it. “Just pretend we’re not here,” we’d tell our subjects, as if those magic words would really make us invisible.
Then one day I saw Chronicle of a Summer and realized that you could use the same lightweight 16mm equipment in a completely different way. Instead of remaining passive observers, the filmmakers—anthropologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin—put themselves at the center of their film, focusing their camera on friends, students, intellectuals, foreigners and workers living in Paris in the summer of 1960. The result was like no documentary I had ever seen before.
Years later Morin described the film as “an experiment in cinematographic interrogation.” The question posed: “How do you live?” which meant, in practice, just about everything—love, work, leisure, politics, but particularly the attitudes people have toward themselves and to others.
The film begins with a series of amusing but superficial street interviews with a variety of Parisians who are asked if they are happy, then proceeds to more emotionally charged and revealing encounters with the film’s main characters. Several of Morin’s participants are clearly depressed and alienated, while Rouch seeks out more optimistic and cheerful subjects. The filmmakers then had the brilliant idea of introducing some of their diverse friends to each other. In one memorable scene Marceline, a French Jew who was deported to Auschwitz during the war, meets some African students from the Belgian Congo at a café. At one point Rouch asks the students if they know what the tattoo on Marceline’s arm represents. One of them wonders if it is her phone number. The gulf between their worlds is shatteringly revealed.
In the Direct Cinema movement, filmmakers were never supposed to interview their subjects or intervene in any way that could alter or inhibit their subjects’ behavior. Nonsense, said Morin and Rouch. The camera does alter people’s behavior. In fact, it can be a stimulant to provoke people to reveal more about themselves. Let’s use it as a tool for discovery.
In one of the film’s most dramatic scenes, Marceline walks through a deserted Les Halles talking into a tape recorder. Like a spectral train station in a nightmare, Las Halles makes Marceline recall the transport to Auschwitz and her parting from her father. The long tracking shot of the empty market and Marceline’s still raw memories vividly convey her sense of abandonment and loss. The scene would have been impossible without the intervention of the filmmaker and the collaboration of the participant.
At the end of the film, Rouch and Morin bring their subjects together to show them the film they’ve cut. Afterwards the lights go on and they record their subjects’ reactions. Predictably, no one agrees, and the subjects’ comments force viewers to reassess their own responses. In the final scene, Rouch and Morin walk through the Musée de l’Homme wondering what they’ve wrought.
Chronicle of a Summer opened up for me a whole new way of using the camera—an approach to documentary that moved beyond surfaces to a more probing, complex, and, finally, authentic examination of the world.
Mark Jonathan Harris wrote and directed last year's Academy Award-winning documentary Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport.