Here’s a documentary called Chronicle of a Summer. Which summer? Why, the summer of 1960, in Paris, when fag-end colonial struggles were burning away in Algeria and other parts of Africa. And how is it chronicled? An anthropologist and a sociologist, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, put cameras on the streets and ask questions of the people they find. Who are you? Are you happy? The usual French existential stuff.
The results are gripping, even from a distance of more than 50 years. Rouch and Morin focus on the personal; the everyday lives of factory workers, artists, immigrants, models and students. But when France’s present and recent past break into shot, it’s as dramatic as could be. At one point, the camera swoops to take in the numbers imprinted on a woman’s forearm — she survived a Nazi concentration camp.
Then the clever part: the film’s subjects are gathered in a cinema, shown footage of their interviews, and urged to discuss it. Some sympathise with their fellow interviewees, but others get rather snippy. ‘It’s all unnatural, it’s completely phony.’ It’s not only a preview of reality television, decades before reality television had a name, but a dissection of it, too.
No wonder film-makers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Roberto Rossellini were so taken with the film. It has pretty much everything: humour, tragedy, love, sex, realism, contrivance. A reminder, now as then, that there’s nowt so interesting as folk.