ND/NF Docs in the Shadow of “Summer”

Posted by Eugene Hernandez on 4.1.2013


Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle of a Summer (1961)

Have you seen Chronicle of a Summer?

Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's 1961 documentary came to mind as this year’s New Directors/New Films festival wrapped. The landmark French film opens with anthropologist-filmmaker Rouch and sociologist Morin pondering how to capture authentic human interactions on camera. They begin by filming the answers to a simple question posed to passersby on Paris streets in the summer of 1960: “Are you happy?”

Technological developments at the time—portable cameras and sync sound equipment—freed filmmakers to make handheld movies. The birth of the cinema vérité and direct cinema movements saw filmmakers (and many television journalists) finding more immersive ways to explore stories that were rooted in reality. Rouch and Morin pointed their camera and microphone at everyday Parisians—office and factory workers, as well as students—aiming to capture reality even as they struggled to understand the impact the act of filming had on that reality. Some subjects seem stunned by the documentarians and their equipment, while others chose to avoid the filmmakers altogether. The movie ends with an on-screen debate about the truthfulness of what we (and the subjects themselves) just witnessed.

"Rouch’s work, and Chronicle of a Summer in particular, occupies an important position in debates about the nature of documentary and the relationship between camera and object," wrote Barbara Bruni in a 2002 essay for Senses of Cinema. "His cinema explored possibilities that had not yet been considered, and presented a very different response to the newly introduced technological advancements in comparison to his contemporaries."

Rouch and Morin's self-proclaimed experiment in cinema vérité (or cinematic truth), Chronicle of a Summer (Chronique d’un été) revealed contemporary filmmaking tactics that continue to be refined and re-imagined in nonfiction films (and reality television) today.

I first saw Chronicle of a Summer 15 years ago at the late New York City nonfiction festival DocFest. The screening and accompanying conversations between Rouch and filmmakers such as Albert Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker were eye-opening. DocFest presented the film in NYC at a moment when technological developments—namely handheld prosumer cameras—had ignited a wave of documentary filmmaking that continues to this day.


Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki’s People’s Park

On Saturday at the Walter Reade Theater, I vividly recalled Chronicle of a Summer while watching Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki’s People’s Park (ND/NF '13). Filmed in one continuous, 75-minute take on a hot summer day in Chengdu, China, People’s Park captures locals gathering to walk, talk, sing and dance in a crowded urban park at the center of a city that the filmmakers say is known for its playfulness. To shoot the movie, Cohn sat in a wheelchair holding a small camera and wearing a microphone on her head as Sniadecki pushed her through the crowded park to record it in real time.

In People’s Park, the film's subjects look directly at the camera as it moves among them. Some smile, others grimace. Many wave. Subjects don't elaborate on their lives, but the audience is invited to wonder about them. This is not fly-on-the-wall filmmaking; the camera’s presence is embraced by the filmmaker's rather than masked. Just as in Chronicle of a Summer, the presence of the filmmakers seems crucial to the experiment, as it also forces the subjects to react to them.

“We were offering ourselves up as a spectacle to be observed, as much as the people performing in the park," Sniadecki told Dennis Lim in a recent New York Times article.

Rouch and Morin explored the daily routines of Parisians in Chronicle of a Summer, while Cohn and Sniadecki offered brief moments as snapshots of Chinese residents in People’s Park. On Saturday, the filmmakers acknowledged the ethnographic value of recording the expressions and experiences that they captured on that hot summer day in the park. They said plainly that they were not shying away from the return of the gaze from their subjects.


Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing

The shadow of Chronicle of Summer can also be seen in another New Directors/New Films documentary, The Act of Killing, in which filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer enlists the purveyors of atrocities—Indonesian death squad leaders—to make their own films depicting the anti-Communist genocide they lead in that country in the 1960s. Capturing that process could offer a window into the imagination of murderers, many of whom are still celebrated as heroic figures.

Oppenheimer sought participation from more than 40 aging Indonesian killers who were proud of their participation in the genocide and seemed to want to share their stories by recreating the atrocities for the camera. In the film, Oppenheimer focuses on Anwar Congo, a high-ranking and celebrated death squad leader. The result of their collaboration is stunning.

"The celebration of genocide is a symptom of their humanity," Oppenheimer told FilmLinc Daily last week. "If allowed to justify it, they will. If they're not forced to say that they were wrong, they won't. If you have the opportunity to say you're right, you'll do it."

As in Chronicle of a Summer, the film ends with central subjects watching their own footage and coming to terms with its surprising impact.


Sarah Polley's Stories We Tell

Sarah Polley considered doing the same thing with her documentary about her family, Stories We Tell. An early concept for the film involved having her entire family sit together to watch the various versions of their life story play out on screen, and letting the audience judge for themselves which version was true.

Instead, Polley eventually took a more nuanced approach—using both documentary and dramatic techniques—to examine a secret from her past that altered her relationship with her dad and challenged how she viewed her own mom. She said that making a movie would not only allow her to share a personal story, but also provoke an audience.

“This film is about memory and the way we tell the story of our lives,” Polley explained when she debuted the film back at the Telluride Film Festival last fall. As it unfolds on screen, it becomes a broader look at families and even storytelling in general.

More than 50 years after Chronicle of a Summer, these New Directors/New Films filmmakers seem to be reveling in the very challenges that Rouch and Morin discovered when they first turned cameras on their contemporaries. Rouch and Morin wondered how they could capture lives on film in as "truthful" a manner as possible, while these filmmakers—Libbie Dina Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki, Joshua Oppenheimer and Sarah Polley—are embracing the impact that can be felt by the presence of their cameras.

Chronicle of a Summer is available now on Criterion and via Hulu Plus. It is essential viewing at a time when many people carry high def cameras in their pockets and our own lives are frequently being recorded from various angles. The impact of a camera can still be profound and confusing even when experiences are recorded with increasingly small and unobtrusive devices. The film offers a vital reference point for audiences and filmmakers alike.

How you interpret the actions of those captured in Chronicle of a Summer just may inform how you process every other nonfiction film you watch after it.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Thank You to Our Sponsors