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  • Making Waves: René Vautier's Afrique 50 and the Emergence of Anti-Colonial Cinema
  • Steven Ungar

My preferred of the French filmmakers in their eighties is René Vautier. Now there's someone whose work I'd like to get to know better.

—John Gianvito

A measure of evolving approaches to French colonial cinema over the past quarter-century came to me recently in the form of Pierre Boulanger's 1975 monograph, Le Cinéma colonial, which was one of the first books on the topic I read some twenty years ago. Looking at the book again, I realized the extent to which Boulanger's industrial-commercial perspective on mainstream features from Jacques Feyder's L'Atlantide (1919) to David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) had fashioned colonial cinema into a set of what Graham Greene used to refer to as entertainments. While this emphasis may have been viable for the films Boulanger took into account, the corpus from which he drew precluded serious or sustained engagement with the politics of colonization during the period in question. 1 As a result, no mention was made of state-funded short subjects produced in support of colonial policies ranging from education and public health to recruitment of soldiers for the French military among local populations in occupied territories.

Equally notable was exclusion of a small but influential set of documentaries whose critiques of the policies noted above promoted the consolidation of anti-colonial sentiments during the period from 1945 through the March 1962 Évian agreements that granted political autonomy to Algeria following 132 years of colonial rule. Even if this exclusion resulted from a decision to study only feature films rather than from a reluctance to contend with the politics of colonization, the invisibility of anti-colonial films in Boulanger's account is significant and questionable. My purpose in what follows is to contribute to ongoing reassessments of French colonial cinema by considering René Vautier's 1950 documentary short, Afrique 50, a type of film whose absence in Boulanger's monograph I take to be significant. At the same time, I mean to situate Vautier's film among models of engaged and militant filmmaking over a somewhat longer duration referred to by film scholars of the past decade as a golden age of the short subject and documentary in France. 2 [End Page 34]

My interest in Afrique 50 concerns its place within French colonial film considered over a longer duration, from late nineteenth-century works by Jules-Étienne Marey and the Lumière brothers to post-independence documentaries and fiction features by Gillo Pontecorvo (La Bataille d'Alger, 1966), Claire Denis (Chocolat, 1988), Moufida Tlatli (Les Silences du palais, 1995), and Philippe Faucon (La Trahison, 2005). At the same time, I mean to demonstrate that a significant measure of Afrique 50's oppositional stance concerning colonial policies can be marked by the censorship and criminal condemnation to which it was subjected. Additional measures include its remove from foundational assumptions concerning colonization to be found in listings of interwar features inflected by melodrama (La Maison du Maltais, dir. Pierre Chenal, 1938) and romantic adventure (Pépé le Moko, dir. Julien Duvivier, 1937), as well as newsreels and propagandistic documentaries such as La France est un empire (dirs. Emmanuel Bourcier and Jean d'Argaves, 1939). 3 Ongoing reassessments of the past twenty years also contend with the transition from colonial and post-colonial periods. While this transition—some think of it instead as a break—is often marked by France's withdrawal from Algeria following the March 1962 Évian accords, the role of Afrique 50 within the phenomenon of decolonization between 1945 and 1962 remains to be explored in full.

Those who cite Afrique 50 as the first anti-colonial film in France could take their cue from Vautier, who makes the claim in his 1998 memoir, Caméra citoyenne, before adding that he was not thinking along such lines when he undertook the film. 4 The claim is consistent with the persona of renegade or rogue filmmaker (cinéaste à contre-courant) that Vautier (1928-) has cultivated while completing more than twenty films on topics ranging from colonial Africa, the Algerian struggle for...


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