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Sam Di Iorio reviews Critical Mass

Steven Ungar, Critical Mass: Social Documentary in France from the Silent Era to the New Wave. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 384 pp.

Review by Sam Di Iorio

21 August 2019

“Here is a form that seems to accommodate the two sides of that divide at the same time, that can navigate from documentary to fiction and back, creating other polarities in the process between which it can operate.” It’s 2007, and Jean-Pierre Gorin is moving Georges Méliès and the Lumière Brothers around to make space for the essay film. These lines are from “Proposal for a Tussle,” his prescient and pugnacious defense of this genre, and I had them on my mind while reading Steven Ungar’s latest book. Despite differences of purpose and scope, each writer takes a similar risk, abandoning the dialectical tensions and chronological frames we know in order to recast film history around novel ideas that they follow over time.

In Ungar’s case the idea is called "social documentary," and the five chapters of his book lend this slightly nondescript term a particular meaning. It has been used in other ways in the past. “Every film is a social documentary,” wrote André Bazin in 1947, stressing cinema’s capacity to tap into the ideologies and drives animating its audience. Critical Mass has something more specific in mind. Through close reading and cultural history, Ungar establishes common ground among a set of French films made between the late 1920s and the early 1960s, revealing a current of engaged filmmaking that connects interwar to postwar and prepares the militant collectives of 1968. The constellation he sketches includes Jean Epstein, Nicole Vedrès, Luis Buñuel, Jacques-Bernard Brunius, Joris Ivens, and Agnès Varda, but his primary focus is on a smaller, geographically anchored corpus, notably Georges Lacombe’s La Zone (1928), André Sauvage’s Études sur Paris (1928), Eli Lotar’s Aubervilliers (1946), René Vautier’s Afrique 50 (1950), and early shorts and features by Chris Marker and Alain Resnais. 

Often censored, sometimes abandoned, occasionally disassembled, most of the work in question was barely recognizable as cinema when it was made, and little of it sat willingly within a single genre. While Critical Mass crosses paths with a variety of documentary modes—city symphonies, newsreels, poetic agitprop, and, indeed, the essay film—its argument takes shape around “Towards a Social Cinema,” a talk by Jean Vigo which is equally concerned with the power of fiction. Underscoring connections between his corpus and the 1920s avant-gardes, Ungar suggests that the films function as documentaries by reaching beyond themselves, towards parallel forms of experimental practice in literature, painting, and photography. They were equally invested in the central issues of their times: inequality, colonialism, antifascism, the mass death of the Second World War and the American/Soviet brinksmanship that followed. And yet, the social engagements of this work were also distinct from those of more conventionally militant films by the French Communist Party (PCF), and even Afrique 50, the film that’s closest to the PCF here, was made in spite of its vacillating colonial policy. 

The real value of the expression "social documentary," then, lies in its uneasy relationship to the terms it brings together. In focusing on films which are neither typically "social" nor conventionally documentaries, Ungar gives us a productive way to think about a broad field of politically conscious work made outside the generic codes and militant structures of this period. Sometimes the choice to stray from precedent was made with an eye towards commercial distribution, sometimes from a desire for independence, and sometimes because institutional structures were unable or unwilling to provide the necessary support. In all cases, the results had a significant impact: by bringing militant and commercial concerns together outside strictly partisan frames, the social documentaries Ungar discusses lay the groundwork for a non-aligned political cinema which emerges as his book draws to a close. He cites the collective project Far From Vietnam (1967) as a pivotal point in this trajectory, and earlier examples would certainly include theparallel and marginal cinemas made towards the end of the Algerian War by Yann Le Masson, Olga Poliakoff, and Guy Chalon’s fittingly named Groupe Jean Vigo. From there, the cascade of leftist projects we know from the late sixties is only a stone’s throw away. 

The distinctions Ungar sets up within the broad field of "political" cinema in France are eminently productive, as is the methodological choice to define his central concept by folding together genres, media, and historical periods. If anything, I wish the book would have put an even finer point on the nature of social documentary and its relationship to other forms of cinematic practice. There is more work to be done around the articulation of aesthetics and politics in these years, and it’s in this sense as well that, like Gorin’s text, this book is as much a proposal for a tussle as it is a rich and detailed reading of a significant set of films. Immediately accessible and beautifully written, Critical Mass is an ideal point of entry to this moment in film history.