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French Colonial Documentary

French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies of Humanitarianism

Peter J. Bloom
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    French Colonial Documentary
    Book Description:

    Tracing the visual rhetoric of French colonial humanitarianism, Peter J. Bloom’s unexpected analysis reveals how the project of remaking the colonies in the image of France was integral to its national identity. Bloom focuses on the promotion of French education efforts, hygienic reform, and new agricultural techniques in the colonies as a means of renegotiating the social contract between citizens and the state on an international scale.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5646-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction: French Colonial Documentary
    (pp. vii-xiv)

    Several themes present in this book crystallized unexpectedly when I attended a March 2006 lecture by Nicolas Torrenté, the U.S. executive director of Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF), at the University of California–Santa Barbara, where I currently teach. Torrenté presented a survey of humanitarian actions that MSF—winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize and international humanitarian organization par excellence—undertakes in various regions of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Asia, the Middle East, and beyond. A primary argument justifying the work of MSF is the need for a narrow humanitarianism that involves assisting communities in...

  4. 1. Tupi or Not Tupi: Natural Man and the Ideology of French Colonial Documentary
    (pp. 1-34)

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of a carefree, healthy, and happy “natural man” in opposition to a degenerate “civilized man” is deeply etched into the Western imagination. While Rousseau’s well-knownDe l’inégalité parmi les hommes(Discourse on the Origin of Inequality,1755) argues that civilization creates more ills than it can remedy, successive generations of nineteenth-century French hygienic reformers claimed that “civilization” improves health conditions and the general quality of life.

    In this chapter I trace successive representations of “natural man” as they pertain to the legacy of ideology and the origins of French colonial documentary cinema. As an emergent mode of...

  5. 2. Mythologies of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais: Cinema, Shell Shock, and French Colonial Psychiatry
    (pp. 35-64)

    The figure of the Tirailleur sénégalais, or the Senegalese Sharpshooter,¹ is perhaps the ultimate cipher of France’s colonial legacy. Portrayed as the infinitely obedient soldier who served France on European battlefields during World War I, the Senegalese Sharpshooter was etched into the collective French imagination as the “sentinel” of France’s colonial empire. In Morocco, Algeria, Indochina, Madagascar, and beyond, he served as a symbolic agent of French political and territorial ambitions, functioning as a powerful threat in the international racial and sexual unconscious.

    I examine the Senegalese Sharpshooter as one of a series of fragmented images embodying a projected colonial...

  6. 3. The Trans-Saharan Crossing Films: Colonial Cinematic Projections of the French Automobile
    (pp. 65-94)

    From traversing space to mapping it, the French colonial crossing films of the interwar period embody a classificatory gaze, projecting geographic itineraries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The automobile served as a mobile platform of geographic mastery, traveling along a network of carefully plotted coordinates that territorialized human difference. From this point of origin ethnic and cultural stereotypes were represented in the omniscient realism of cinema.

    The major French automobile manufacturers (Peugeot, Renault, and Citroën) began sponsoring film expeditions across the Sahara during the interwar period in the context of an emerging tourist economy. These expeditions served as...

  7. 4. Diagnosing Invisible Agents: Between the Microbiological and the Geographic
    (pp. 95-124)

    These sentences openConte de la mille et une nuits(Tale of a thousand and one nights, 1929), a ten-minute animated film illustrated by Albert Mourlan. This film, produced by Jean Benoît-Lévy (one of the best known and most prolific French educational filmmakers of the interwar period), was part of a vast archive of short-subject educational films incorporated into a vision of hygienic reform based on the reterritorialization of microbiological and geographic space in France and its colonies.

    Conte de la mille et une nuitsopposes Mohamed’s natural, healthful state (emphasized with animated drawings of a lion, a greyhound, and...

  8. 5. Infiltrate the Crowd with an Idea! Colonial Educational Cinema and the Threat of Imitative Contagion
    (pp. 125-152)

    The opening sequence of a 1931 French colonial educational film begins with a young man pacing in his asphyxiating cell-like room, opening and closing the window and unable to focus his energy.¹ As he sits down and begins to look through a picture book about the French colonies, the pictures are progressively enlarged into moving images of street scenes from Indochina and the Saharan desert punctuated by the turning of a page. These moving images represent the young man’s imagination, which is making the still images move and inspiring him to sign up at the recruiting office for service in...

  9. 6. Humanitarian Visions and Colonial Imperatives: Félix-Louis Regnault, Albert Kahn, and Henri Bergson as Semiophore-Men
    (pp. 153-182)

    In the cause of promoting an international humanitarian image of France, interrelated educational film and photographic archives provided a realist foundation for evolutionary theories of difference. The pairing of hygienic reform and geographic consciousness recast the colonial subject as an avatar of French national consciousness. The new technologies of audiovision produced images that functioned as “material ideograms,” providing the basis for French colonial interventionism.¹ A series of chronophotographs depicting an unnamed Senegalese Wolof woman potter illustrates the relationship between the colonial evolutionary paradigm and a civilizational hierarchy of humankind.²

    Fatimah Tobing Rony describes Félix-Louis Regnault’s chronophotographic series of the Wolof...

  10. Conclusion. The French Colonial Media Apparatus: Natural Man and the Dialectics of Americanization
    (pp. 183-198)

    A geography of difference was fundamental to the origins and development of French colonial documentary cinema. It reinforced a time-based evolutionary framework and served as the basis for colonial humanitarian interventionism. Just as the study of bones, bodies, and gestures defined human difference within an evolutionary gradient, colonial documentary film used the rhetoric of photographic realism as a form of time travel to administer a remedy along a geographic continuum from the European present back into the colonial past. As a visual machine of wonder capable of bringing back moving images of civilizations lost in time and history, the cinematographic...

  11. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 199-202)
  12. Appendix: Archives and Film and Media References
    (pp. 203-216)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 217-256)
  14. Index
    (pp. 257-265)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 266-266)