- French Colonial Documentary: Mythologies of Humanism
Peter J. Bloom’s volume focuses on the networks of meaning surrounding one of the key colonial media apparatuses—documentary cinema—which Bloom understands as “at once a machine that produces meaning and an over-determined political and social context that forms the basis for ideology” (p. ix). The study centres on visual technologies and the construction of orders of knowledge in French intellectual circles, both amateur and professional, that upheld a view of colonialism as humanitarian action, from the Franco-Prussian War until the Second World War.
Bloom argues that from its beginnings, colonial discourse was structured by Rousseau’s perception of the fundamental difference between ‘natural man’ and ‘civilised man,’ with a swift inversion of these terms’ positive and negative status from the early nineteenth century onwards. Moving through a collage of sources foregrounding the body, Bloom charts in this first chapter [End Page 135] France’s late nineteenth-century fear that civilised masculinity was degenerate and needed to be re-invigorated by the “physical attributes of natural man” (p. 31), yet without suggesting how French colonial mythology reconciled projecting the image of the “savage” as the unevolved ethnographic exhibit whilst also seeking to import the virility of ‘natural man’ into French nationalist discourse and practice. The book’s second chapter considers the myth of the Tirailleurs sénégalais in the light of emergent movements in psychiatry and psychoanalysis at the time of the First World War. Chapter three explores the inter-war Sahara crossing films, where humanitarianism, masculinity, and a new kind of adventure tourism are rehearsed together. The fourth chapter considers how emergent discourses of hygienic education in visual culture metaphorized social relations and the geography of the French colonies. Chapter five reflects on the performance of the French colonial consciousness in documentary films screened in the interwar period, while chapter six considers, through Khan’s Archives de la planète, the intersections between ethnographic film practices, educational film and the emerging discipline of human geography. The final chapter returns to the body, assessing divergent French responses to African American boxers and the black French colonial boxer, Battling Siki.
Despite the volume’s overall emphasis on meticulously documenting vectors of transference and penetration, there is a tendency throughout for the highly modulated close readings to be capped off with brusquely-drawn conclusions, such that more developed arguments seem in places to have been squeezed out by the very breadth and depth of the media brought together for analysis. Yet Bloom’s scope and range are highly impressive, his close readings of the archives detailed and broadly persuasive. The volume’s archival foundations make it a useful source book for further study, particularly in view of its up-to-date annotated appendix of “Archives and Film and Media References.” Overall, Bloom’s aim of extending the understanding of the imbrications of French colonial documentary and discourses of humanitarianism in the interwar period is successfully achieved in this richly detailed study. [End Page 136]