Under Western Eyes

Cinema has long fed our fascination with other cultures, and appears to be just one facet of what is a fundamentally visual fascination. One of the most elaborate manifestations of this was the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale, held in Paris to celebrate ‘la France des 5 continents’. This exhibition sought to represent to the people of France their colonial world by reordering and reconstructing it into scenes or tableaux of everyday indigenous life. This entailed shipping over scores of indigènes and forcing them to act out the gestures of their ‘everyday lives’ under the eyes of 1930’s Parisian society. A slightly less elaborate, although equally controversial at the time, visual representation of The Other was one of the first film documentaries to be made which sought to represent the lives of a colonised people, Marc Allégret’s Voyage au Congo.

Marc travelled through what was French Equatorial Africa (‘the Congo’) with André Gide whose obsession with the African continent had led to the writing of L’Immoraliste. Marc was to act as secretary to André, documenting details of interest to the writer during their year-long journey which stretched from July 1925 to May 1926. Greatly influenced by the seminal documentary film made in 1922, Robert J Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (a film which explored the lives of the Eskimo people) Marc decided to create a cinematic document of his journey with André Gide. Impeded by the heat and the weight of his equipment, however, he soon found himself frustrated in his efforts to give an objective picture of African life. As André put it in his travel journal also entitled Voyage au Congo, just as the cameras would stop filming, an act of spontaneity would occur that film could not capture.

One of the most frustrating events for Marc is also recounted by André, who describes attempts to film ‘documentary’ scenes as producing ‘nothing of note’. Marc was aiming to obtain footage of people of the village of Yakoua, men and women, swimming together. Impossible. The people of Yakoua considered it indecent for men and women to swim together, and as the men waited on the shore they put their under-garments back on. Marc explained to André that the men would undress as they entered the water, and he hoped for a certain effect to come from this. Yet, as André puts it, their modesty before the cameras was too great; the men preferred to soak their clothes, which would soon dry out under the sun. The women were equally shy, demanding that all the men, all spectators except the film-makers, left the ‘scene’. All of which resulted in a pathetic spectacle, according to André.

Such limitations meant that Marc became more and more obsessed with the staging of his film, so much so that film expert Daniel Durosay has described Voyage au Congo as a film-chimère – half-documentary, half-fiction. Voyage au Congo suppressed all evidence of a journey and instead became an abstracted cinéma du corps (cinema of the body) presenting an idealised vision of native Africa divorced from time and space. In his attempts to justify this, Marc described the film as providing a pedagogy of the Western gaze which would teach the Western eye to see the African’s beauty. Instead it became a film of clichés, living up to Edward Said’s observation that in order to survey a different world one must ‘see every detail through a device of a set of reductive categories.’

After the completion of Voyage au Congo, and particularly after World War I, ‘reportage’ film equipment was highly improved and the possibilities of capturing the everyday life of other cultures increased. Yet a question André put to himself remains pressing: ‘My imaginary representation of this country was so lively (I mean, I had imagined it so vividly) that I wonder whether in the future this false image will not be stronger than my memory of the reality and whether I shall see Bangui, for instance, in my mind’s eye as it really is, or as I first of all imagined it would be.’

Voyage au Congo can be seen in extracts at Tate Modern or in full at the National Film and TV Archive, London.

by Nemonie Roderick and Dylan Lowthian

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