Is it possible to capture reality on camera? Or does the camera’s presence change the behavior of its subjects? This seems to be the question that Edgar Morin (a sociologist) and Jean Rouch’s (an ethnographer) 1960 documentary Chronicle of a Summer revolves around. Happiness, work, politics, and identity are all themes that make their way into this analytical piece on human nature. Giving real people the chance to share their experiences, to confess their regrets, or to expose their ignorance makes for a film that is not only entertaining, but that also engages the viewer to think about the camera as a character. Morin and Rouch manage to question their own methods by providing a skeptical perspective on the act of filming reality while also engaging on an immediate level with the people onscreen.
Two directors with two different visions of the world go out to find real people with real stories. A factory worker, various students, a holocaust survivor, an Italian immigrant, an artist living his life as a bureaucratic slave, an African from the Cote d’Ivoire integrated into French Society, and other random pedestrians on the street populate the film, answering questions like “Are you happy?” or “What do you do every day?”. The cheekily optimistic Rouch takes a film crew to Saint Tropez and starts a conversation with a Brigitte Bardot look-a-like. We learn about how she earns her money standing in the sun all day, posing in pictures for people. Morin, on the other hand, chooses to film people like his friend Regis, a man chained to his nine-to-five cubicle job that he finds to be a complete waste of time, which only brings him money so that he can live his “true” life as an artist. Rouch’s playful curiosity and Morin’s piercing, questioning attitude towards the role of the individual in society combine to create a panoramic view of French society in the 1960’s.
The filmmakers sometimes play a bigger role than the actual characters. They lead the interviews, and often make comments about the film itself. In the last ten minutes of the film the characters actually watch themselves on screen. Some criticize the vagueness of the film, others are moved by its “realness”. During the last scene a camera stands behind the two directors as they pace up and down a hallway judging whether their project was successful or not. This film is considered one of the first major works of “Cinema Verité” or Cinema of the Real. Although many of Chronicle’s scenarios were created artificially – these people were asked to come in and speak on camera – the filmmakers try their best to give a genuine representation of reality.
In investigating that reality, Rouch and Morin find value in an unlikely place: Banality. A subject that should be explored more often, banality is too often shoved aside as something that we are so familiar with that we don’t want to hear anything about. On the contrary, our familiarity with triviality blinds us to the richness of everyday experience. Although the camera cannot capture the truth of the world that we commonly occupy and experience day to day, its presence creates a new reality. This new reality is a space in which the filmmaker can express an original idea, or expose a new perspective. Therefore, the camera does not capture reality; it animates the everyday and allows us to shape it into new realities.
Chronicle of a Summer is now streaming on Hulu Plus.