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Almost 60 years ago, an unorthodox film tackled race and racism in the classroom

La Pyramide Humaine (Photo: Unidentified Author/Alinari Archives, Florence/Alinari via Getty Images)
La Pyramide Humaine (Photo: Unidentified Author/Alinari Archives, Florence/Alinari via Getty Images)

In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.

“I want the racists to talk like racists. For a film on robbery, I’d ask someone to steal. But even if it’s a fake theft, I’d be an accomplice, even if I’m filming.”
—Jean Rouch, La Pyramide Humaine

How many white filmmakers have actually addressed the nitty-gritty, insidious social constructions of race and racism? France has produced two important ones. The one who is better known now is Claire Denis, who grew up in Africa in the 1950s and 1960s as the daughter of a French civil servant, moving around present-day Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Somalia, and Djibouti. (I wrote about No Fear, No Die, her excellent existentialist noir about two black immigrants who go to work for a cockfighting ring in a drab Paris suburb, in this column last year.) However, Denis’ films are evocative and indirect. But before Denis, there was Jean Rouch, a key artist in the history of non-fiction film whose work—apart from the 1961 documentary Chronicle Of A Summer, co-directed with Edgar Morin—remains little-seen in America outside of academic circles. This is a shame, really, because Rouch, the so-called father of the ethnographic movie, is anything but dry. His unorthodox techniques had their biggest influence on the experimentation of the French New Wave, the upstart generation of filmmakers whose stylish and highly personal movies had such an effect on the language and culture of film.

Shot sporadically over the summer and fall of 1959, La Pyramide Humaine is the New Wave-iest of Rouch’s early features. It isn’t a documentary in any strict sense—rather, a fiction film that Rouch produced with the participation of a group of black and white teenagers (identified only by their first names) from Abidjan, the largest city in Ivory Coast. The plot is perhaps intentionally flimsy and naïve. Nadine (Nadine Ballot, who would go on to appear in several Rouch films, most notably as the on-camera interviewer in Chronicle Of A Summer) is a white student, newly arrived from France. Her class at the lycée—basically the equivalent of a high school in the classic French system—is about evenly split between black and white students, who don’t socialize outside of class. The simplistic, after-school-special summary of La Pyramide Humaine is that Nadine’s arrival brings the two groups together. But it’s more complicated than that, somewhere between a Richard Linklater-esque hangout movie and a high-pressure debate club that touches on everything from religious justifications for slavery in America to expressions of implicit racism unique to the grammar of French and other languages with separate polite and familiar second-person pronouns.

Screenshots: La Pyramide Humaine

In overviews of his career, Rouch would sometimes point to the making of Battle On The Great River, his 1951 documentary about Sorko tribesmen hunting a hippopotamus on the Niger River, as a turning point. The scene seems to come straight from a biting satire of white, Eurocentric anthropology. Having completed a rough cut of the film, Rouch decided to show it to the tribesmen, who had never seen a movie, in the naïve belief that they would be amazed to see themselves on screen—only to be met with immediate, critical feedback about his music choices. Hippos, as the hunters pointed out, have superb hearing, and must be crept up on in silence; by adding rousing Western music, Rouch missed the silence in which lay the true tension and drama of a hippo hunt. From this point on, Rouch would develop an idiosyncratic, participatory approach, the best example of which would come in his 1958 film Moi, Un Noir. Set in Treichville, a neighborhood of Abidjan that is also extensively portrayed in La Pyramide Humaine, it explored the lives of migrants from Niger (identified by self-chosen movie star nicknames: Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Constantine, Tarzan) through a combination of staged and documentary scenes, narrated by the subjects after the fact.

But to understand Rouch, I think it’s necessary to recognize the artifice concealed in his films. La Pyramide Humaine—which opens with a pre-credits sequence in which Rouch explains the premise and his hopes for the film to the students—appears to unfold organically, as though we were watching the movie come together scene by scene. But this is an illusion. The film’s non-professional stars had already graduated school by the time Rouch started production, and though you can’t really tell, many key indoor scenes were actually shot in Paris. Rouch rarely started filming with a plan, which apparently caused some tension with Pierre Braunberger, his producer. Braunberger was an important but under-discussed behind-the-scenes figure in the French arthouse cinema of the time. In addition to working with Rouch on several films, he also produced classic documentary shorts by François Reichenbach (another non-fiction filmmaker much admired by the New Wave) and Alain Resnais; early short fiction films by Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Rivette, Eric Rohmer, and the post-New Wave director Maurice Pialat; and such bona fide French New Wave classics as François Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player and Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie.

Screenshots: La Pyramide Humaine

It’s said that it was Braunberger who pushed Rouch to shape La Pyramide Humaine into something closer to drama, but the way in which the film circumvents the requirements and conventions of fiction film is what makes it special. In one marvelously self-reflexive moment that comes late in the film, Rouch narrates his decision to arbitrarily kill off one of the characters in order to introduce some dramatic tension. His camerawork is rough—often handheld, occasionally out-of-focus—but very intelligent, in that it seems to understand the complexities of unspoken social rules on a hormonal level. The first thing one notices is the way Rouch’s haphazard compositions capture looks—characters looking at each other or glancing off-camera. This is, after all, a movie about how a group of people who see each other every day regard one another. But there is a key element of physical intimacy, which the movie implicitly posits as being more important than the candor of a quote-unquote “honest discussion.” For what makes Nadine a disruptive figure in the social microcosm of the classroom is the fact that she flirts with both her white and black classmates.

The stuff of teenhood seems to have more of an effect on changing the characters’ perceptions than rational argument: goofing around on the beach, making out, dancing. In the film’s chaotic energy, one can see the spirit of the New Wave, and the influence (both aesthetic and philosophical) on the 1960s films of Jean-Luc Godard is fairly obvious. (For what it’s worth, the Franco-Swiss iconoclast named La Pyramide Humaine as the second best French film released between 1945 and 1965 in the film magazine Cahiers Du Cinema.) The student debates, the almost innocent boasts of romantic conquest, the moment when Nadine flips her long brown hair over her face—as if by accident, La Pyramide Humaine created a template for how a film could conduct a complex internal dialogue using only the terms of its own fascination with beauty, romance, and young bodies. The difference is that it created it to explore a subject that few of the films that followed in its footsteps were ready to address.