Cinematic Experiments and Ethical Transformations

From the Series: Book Forum: Violence’s Fabled Experiment

Photo by PublicDomainArchive.

In their 1961 film Chronicle of a Summer, the ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and the sociologist Edgar Morin show a group of young people gathered outside around a table. In the scene the young people talk about race, decolonization, and solidarity against the backdrop of a historical moment of African Independence movements and the Algerian War. At the table, some are from the ex-colonies of Africa, while others are white Europeans. At a certain point, the conversation shifts from a discussion of pan-African anticolonial solidarity to international Jewish solidarity against anti-Semitism. Rouch, who is also sitting at the table, turns to Landry, an exchange student from Africa, and asks if he has noticed the number on the arm of the woman sitting across from him.

Rouch: Landry, have you noticed the number on Marceline’s arm?

Landry: Yes.

Rouch: What is it?

Landry: I have no idea.

Rouch: You have no idea. How about you, Raymond?

Raymond: I know sailors wear tattooed numbers, but she’s no sailor. I don’t know what it means.

Rouch: Why a number?

Other Woman: A heart would look better.

Raymond: It’s not a phone number, too long.

[Cut to numbers on Marceline’s arm, with a symbol beneath them.]

Marceline: First of all, it’s not a V, it’s a triangle. Half of the Jewish star. The Jewish symbol is the six-pointed star. On the other hand, it isn’t my phone number. I was sent to a concentration camp because I’m a Jew. This is the number I was given in the camp.

[Cut to Landry’s face, expressionless, looking down, silent.]

Woman [to Raymond]: Do you know what a camp is?

Raymond: Yes, yes, I’ve seen a film about them. Night and Fog.

[Scene ends]

What kinds of truths—about cinema, the human, the world—are conveyed through this uncomfortable cinematic experiment? Chronicle of a Summer is considered to be a defining example of cinéma verité, in which film is used to provoke truth through its own experimentation. It is clear that Joshua Oppenheimer’s “human experimentation,” which Richard Baxstrom and Todd Meyers identify as central to his unsettling films The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, can be located within this tradition. Yet the cinematic experiments of Chronicle of a Summer have different outcomes. For as colonial violence in Africa is juxtaposed to the violence of concentration camps, the viewer comes away with a sense that these forms of violence are not only comparable, but prefiguring Achille Mbembe’s (2003) necropolitics, directly connected. This is not the Africanist Rouch who fixes “a reality without seeing evolution,” as Ousmane Sembene, the father of African cinema, has charged. It instead the Parisian Rouch, working at home, for whom history, politics, and the possibility of radical social change are constantly held within the frame.

Yet there is also, I would argue, a feeling that Landry has fallen into a carefully laid trap.

In the last moments of the scene, Raymond cites another documentary, Night and Fog (1955), Alain Resnais’s 1955 highly reflexive Holocaust film. Night and Fog also happens to be an important point of reference for Oppenheimer, who, in an interview about Resnais’s film, described nonfiction filmmaking as “a series of occasions that we create together, collaboratively, via the intervention of filmmaking, where everybody is pushed beyond their comfort zone. . . . If you’re pushing people beyond their comfort zone, you will be transforming them and you will be transforming yourself in the journey.”

As an example, Oppenheimer cites Resnais’s chilling “landscape” shot of a pile of human hair and then his sudden cut to rolls of fabric in which, despite the lack of explanation, it becomes possible to discern small hairs emerging from the neat rolls. Oppenheimer explains:

We are suddenly left to imagine if there is somewhere in our house where this object has been used, where if we look closely we might see a strand of hair. These are the questions that haunt the film. Where are we in our blindness, where are we in this . . . because we don’t know if there is cloth in our house made from human hair . . . because we don’t know the conditions in which every article of clothing touching our body is made . . . where are we in this?

If, following Oppenheimer by way of Resnais and Rouch, nonfiction cinema can be a site for experimentation and ethical transformation, then Baxstrom and Meyers’ insightful set of essays inspire us to ask who and what is ultimately transformed, and according to which concepts of truth, knowledge, justice, and history.


Mbembe, Achille. 2003. “Necropolitics.” Translated by Libby Meintjes. Public Culture 15, no. 1: 11–40.