Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Afrique 50 by René Vautier

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René Vautier was a part of Chris Marker’s Groupe Medvedkine and a famous/infamous director whose film Afrique 50 prefigured in some ways Marker and Resnais’ Les Statues meurent aussi, and offered a convex mirror in other ways to the work of Jean Rouch.

Vautier just passed away. This film was banned for many years, many of its reels held by customs and Vautier even sentenced to a year of prison for violations against the state for its depiction of colonialism.

I learned of his passing via a post to the Facebook Chris Marker group by another great filmmaker, John Burgan, earlier today.

I know very little of Vautier and am kicking myself for that (how can this happen!), but I’ll let this film speak for itself, with a little help from a wonderful article Burgan points us to by Sara Thelle: News from Paris: René Vautier 1928-2015, published by filmkommentaren.dk.

Grand old man and enfant terrible of French militant cinema René Vautier died Sunday January 4th in his home in Cancale, Brittany, at the age of 86. Originally from Brittany, René Vautier fought the Germans as a very young member of the French Resistance during the Second World War, at 16 he was decorated with the Croix de Guerre and honoured by de Gaulle. After the war he wanted to pursue the combat but not with arms and his friends then encourage him to take up a new weapon: the camera. His battle was to last a life long.

Vautier graduated in 1948 from the film school IDHEC in Paris. In 1949 he gets a command to make a film for the Ligue de l’enseignement about the benefits of the French educational mission in the West African colonies. The result, Afrique 50, became, on the contrary, a violent critique of the French colonial system. Vautier’s first film was also the first anticolonial film ever to be made in France and the reaction was violent in return: Vautier was faced with 13 charges and sentenced to one year of prison!

The film has an incredible story. To escape the limitations of the 1934 decree of the Minister of the Colonies Pierre Laval (forbidding any filming in the colonies without the presence of a an administration official) Vautier went on to film in secret. He almost got his film rolls confiscated for destruction in Africa but managed to get his work back to France where he finally had to illegally retrieve the reels kept under seizure by the board of censors (he got 17 of 50 reels). The film was finished in secret and stayed censured in France for over 40 years though it was awarded as one of the best documentaries of the year at the World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw in 1955 (with Joris Ivens as president of the jury). In 1996, a copy of the film was finally handed over to Vautier by the Foreign Ministry during the first official screening in France and only in 2003 the film was broadcasted on French television. The Cinémathèque française has recently made new copies of the film as part of their effort to safeguard the entire oeuvre of René Vautier initiated in 2007.

Afrique 50 is a short powerful outburst, a rhythmic pamphlet, swiftly edited with an attacking voice-over. Playing with the genre of educational state propaganda documentary but turning it against the government, the film pinpoints, with humour and great seriousness, the link between capitalism and racism. Film historian Nicole Brenez, specialist of avant-garde cinema at la Cinémathèque française, has called it the greatest film in the history of cinema. Go see it, it’s on YouTube!
Sara Thelle, filmkommentaren.dk

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Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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