wed 20/03/2019

DVD: Chronicle of a Summer | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Chronicle of a Summer

DVD: Chronicle of a Summer

BFI reissue of the mother of all vérité docs

Angelo, the worker and Landry, the African find common ground

“Chronicle of a Summer” (“Chronique d’un été”) is one of the great documentaries of all time – and a work that could only have been made in France, home of the immensely influential Cahiers du cinéma and the constant ferment of speculation on the nature of film. The BFI’s release of the 1960 classic by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin couldn't be more timely: documentary flourishes today as at no other time in the history of cinema and attracts some of the world's best film-makers.

The realm of non-fiction cinema, first explored by the Russian avant-garde pioneer Dziga Vertov in the 1920s, is free from the constraints of linear narrative or the tropes of theatre. This is an area that favours daring experiment – Folman’s Waltz for Bashir and Barnard’s The Arbor come to mind. Jean Rouch, known for his groundbreaking ethnographic films about Africa and the colonial experience, and the sociologist Edgar Morin owe a great deal to Vertov’s idea of Kino Pravda – the cinema of truth. Their take on cinema vérité is all about seeking authentic human experience in everyday life, in a much more reflective way than in the fly-on-the-wall films of Pennebaker, the Maysles or Fred Wiseman. This is a philosophical essay about the nature of "truth" on film, as much as a film driven by content. It is not just thought-provoking but also deeply moving.

The film remains a must for anyone interested in the art of documentaryShot over the summer months of 1960, with a cast of real people rather than actors, who talk about their lives in an open-ended way, the film covers a great deal of ground, from the Holocaust to post-colonialism, and from the boredom and alienation of factory work to the superficiality of a star’s life in St Tropez. At the end of the film, Morin and Rouch reflect, along with the participants, on the extent to which the film has been true to the people who appear in it. Have they acted or been authentic? As one of them says, “ it is more real than reality because we were acting,” revealing the complex relationship between the camera and its object, and the paradoxical mirroring of truth and fiction.

The BFI has, as usual, done a classy job in presenting the film within its context, including brief and illuminating essays, a documentary about the making of the film, and an audio recording of a 1978 lecture by Rouch at the NFT. Chronicle of a Summer is a product of the lively discussions about film theory and practice that fed into the French New Wave, not least the work of Godard. The film’s influence has continued to spread ever since and it remains a must for anyone interested in the art of documentary – and indeed in any aspect of the art of cinema.

This is a philosophical essay about the nature of ‘truth’ on film, as much as a film driven by content

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