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  • Critical Mass: Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave by Steven Ungar
  • Patrick Lyons
Critical Mass: Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave. By Steven Ungar. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 320 pp.

Steven Ungar traces the history of ‘social documentary’ — a flexible, hybrid genre mixing elements of avant-garde experimentation and non-fiction filmmaking — in the first half of the twentieth century in France. Approaching a vast corpus reaching from avant-garde circles of the inter-war period, to post-war studies in the early 1960s, Ungar skilfully balances formal exegesis and historiography, maintaining the uniqueness of the films he studies while teasing out communities of shared influence among them, to portray ‘social documentary’ in its longue durée development. Each of the book’s five chapters identifies a stage in the evolution of ‘social documentary’, accompanied by three historical ‘transitions’ which allow Ungar to frame his analyses with elements of a larger historical narrative. Chapter 1 examines early efforts in documentary to map the city of Paris (and its margins), with particular attention paid to Georges Lacombe’s La Zone (1928) and Boris Kaufman’s Les Halles centrales (1927). The formal and experimental innovations in these urban works are highlighted to demonstrate early negotiations between documentary realism and avant-gardist sympathies. Chapter 2 expands the scope of the inter-war cinematic exploration of Paris, most notably through André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928) and Marcel Carné’s Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche (1929). Ungar uses Sauvage’s proximity to surrealist circles to cast elements of his work as imprints of avant-gardist tendencies, while Carné’s study of the Sunday outings of the Parisian working classes combines impressionistic techniques and character studies in a way that prefigures Jean Vigo’s style in À propos de Nice (1930). Chapter 3 is the book’s anchoring point, with Vigo at its centre. His À propos de Nice and its accompanying lecture ‘Vers un cinema sociale’ constitute a watershed moment in the maturation process of ‘social documentary’, crystallizing both its avant-garde tendencies and its social engagement in the vocabulary of a manifesto. Eli Lotar’s slaughterhouse photography and Aubervilliers (1946) continue to develop this tradition after the war, exploring the misery and precariousness of the neighbourhood’s forgotten inhabitants. The spirit of Lotar’s efforts to grant visibility to social suffering at the city’s margins is continued in Chapter 4, in works criticizing France’s colonial practices in Africa. Works by René Vautier, Jean Rouch, Alain Resnais, and Chris Marker are considered for their use of experimental documentary to engage critically (yet not always unproblematically, in the case of Rouch) with France’s colonial presence in Africa. Of particular interest is Ungar’s account of Oumarou Ganda’s Cabascabo (1968), a response-film to Rouch’s Moi, un Noir (1958) in which Ganda himself starred. Chapter 5 circles back to post-war Paris with a careful reading of Resnais’s Toute la mémoire du monde (1957) and Marker’s Le Joli Mai (1963), claiming the former as a supplement to Resnais’s Nuit et brouillard (1956), and the latter as an overlooked but pivotal moment in Marker’s transition to socially engaged documentary. In sum, Ungar’s book is a rigorous, careful, and rich volume, indispensable for scholars interested in French documentary and its earlier histories. [End Page 495]

Patrick Lyons
University of California, Berkeley


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