He cleansed the feature film through a documentary
When people talk about the French New Wave, they usually remember five names who formed it: Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Eric Rohmer, Claude Chabrol, and Jacques Rivette - who were the essence of it; Cahiers du Cinema. It was basically a movement which challenged the limits of cinematic art. It researched for new dimensions of cinema. But who started it? Many people see Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) as the very first French New Wave but some feel that Jean Luc Godard's Breathless (1960) was the first. I personally couldn't agree more on the former statement but it is interesting to watch French films before the New Wave. Films that weren't really 'Nouvelle Vague'. When doing this many might come across with filmmakers such as: Louis Malle, Georges Franju and Jean Rouch. Jean Rouch was a wild documentarist whose most controversial film might just be Les maîtres fous (1955, The Mad Masters). It studied the dimensions of cinema and especially Jean Luc Godard has named it as one of his biggest influences. It was a short documentary about an African Hauka-cult with its brutalities without any embellishment.
This short introduction leads us to another documentary by Jean Rouch which also had a tremendous influence on Godard: Moi un noir (1958) which means: I, a black man. It follows the basic philosophy of documentary but it researches for new dimensions, new ways for narrative, cinematography and provoking. Moi, un noir builds around a young man living in Treichville, Ivory coast. The film deals with the change in the place, through the experiences and fantasies of young men. The basic idea of documentary is to question it all: "Is this all a set-up?" and Moi un noir does not differ in this. Of course some of it is made up but through that Jean Rouch achieves to tell us the truth, to touch us and create a reality of his own; where his characters build their own illusionary world. He researched new dimensions of cinema and through this he cleansed the feature film, through a documentary. Moi, un noir was Rouch's first attempt to combine reality and fiction - a challenge which he continued in 1961 with La pyramide humaine - a sociological documentary. In the course of time he took this challenge to a new level with Chronique d'un été Paris (1961) which is today seen as the very first Cinéma vérité "truthful cinema" film. La pyramide humaine was also Cinéma vérité but one can really see the roots of that style he already developed in Moi, un noir.
In the film we see the ordinary young men of Treichville who have made double personalities for themselves: Lemmy Caution, Tarzan and Eddie Constantine. Through this Rouch manages to show the western mythological characters we've brought to their land for their enjoyment. But in the end mockery hits us who have repressed their culture. Moi, un noir shows the era of colonial possessions. In the film sometimes we cannot be sure of who is talking. Is it a random guy in the street or is it a mythical side person, who knows.
Moi un noir brilliantly manages to show, not only the harsh life of the people, but the inequality that lies there. The rich people live in high two floor houses - close to God. When the others sleep on the ground and live in poverty. It is a very important documentary just as it i, but it is also very interesting from historical point of view. It could easily be seen as the very first French New Wave film but I think it just opened the door for others - which is no insult. Jean Rouch showed the way for Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Rivette and Chabrol. He searched for new dimensions of cinema, modernized philosophy of film and cleansed the feature film.
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