I keep thinking of an exchange in Chronicle of a Summer, Jean Rouch's classic collaboration with Edgar Morin. In the movie, Rouch and Morin walk through Paris in the summer of 1961 looking for truth about daily life. They're not simply observing; the act of filming is a conscious part of the movie and rather than ignore the effect that the camera has on its subjects, the filmmakers acknowledge and explore it.
Adopting something like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle that we learned about in high school, Rouch and Morin see the effects of the camera not as errors, necessarily, but as a phenomenon that can perhaps be exploited for truth.
We've all been filmed so much by now that it's almost quaint to see an attempt to capture everyday life with handheld cameras that was made when the idea was in its infancy. It's like watching Eisenstein or Vertov as they tinker with the juxtaposition of shots and discover things that most of our current TV and film directors seem to have forgotten.
So the entire movie is fascinating as both a cinematic experiment and a slice of early-60's life, but it's one exchange in the middle of the movie that I keep replaying in my head. It goes like this:
Rouch and Morin have gathered their subjects around a table to discuss the war in Algeria and the Congo, which is on the front page of the newspaper. One of the film's subjects is an African who muses about Parisian life from an outsider's perspective, and someone asks him if he, being an African, feels any personal connection to the violence in the news.
Yes, he says, every nation in Africa was a colony at some point and so when Africans hear about white-on-black conflict, they have at the very least a sense of recognition, of familiarity.
A French woman at the table hesitantly says that she feels something similar when she hears about anti-Semitism, although she bookends her remarks by saying that it's not the same, it's not the same.
Rouch then asks the African if he knows what the number is that's tattooed on the woman's hand. Too big to be a phone number, he says, laughing. She explains that, well, during the war she was deported from France, and the tattoo is her concentration camp identification.
The group falls silent, and Rouch asks if the man knows what a concentration camp is. Yes, he saw it in a film once. Was it [Alain Resnais's] Night and Fog, Rouch asks. Yes, Night and Fog.
Much has been written about the presence of the camera in Chronicle of a Summer and its immediate effect on the people featured, and it's fascinating stuff. But what strikes me about this exchange isn't so much the presence of the camera but the way specific, distant, foreign events are personalized by people and the way cinema, as a form of human expression, can help to complete the circle.
Resnais's powerful short Night and Fog documents in detail the most horrendous acts of the Nazis. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the Congo, and Rouch's film, in which his cohorts go around town asking Parisians, "Are you happy?" has seemingly nothing to do with either. And yet they're all connected because particular human experiences, as communicated through conversations or movies, including this one, are just carriers for basic human emotions that are shared by us all.
Night and Fog and Chronicle of a Summer also have nothing to do with Chantal Akerman, and yet it was this week — after reading about someone's experience at a screening of Toute Une Nuit and remembering that I still haven't written about the Akerman movies that I saw earlier this year — that I thought of this exchange, particularly as I thought about Akerman's American Stories which tells the tales of Polish Jews who immigrated to America. Maybe it was the Jewish connection that made me free-associate back to Chronicle of a Summer, but what amazes me about American Stories is how tightly woven the idea of performance is with the characters' lives. It seems perfectly natural that someone should stand in front of a camera and relate her experience of immigration.
And why? Because as a form of communication, it connects us, which seems somehow vital. An article in the Atlantic Monthly this month (via GreenCine Daily) asks this intriguing question: "If France makes movies for the French, and America makes movies for the world, who's left to make movies for America?"
Are movies really so particular that we can't appreciate details from another culture? Or that no one can appreciate details from our own? Can we not learn about the other's days and struggles, fortunes and politics, while finding ways to relate them to our own lives, if not literally then merely by valuing the greater understanding we have of people we will undoubtedly interact with in the future, somewhere, someday, on this shrinking globe?