Thursday, July 16, 2015 at 7:30pm
André Gide and Marc Allégret's Voyage au Congo

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Voyage au Congo, André Gide and Marc Allégret, 1927, digital projection, 101 mins
Introduced by Hilton Als

In 1926, André Gide set sail from Bordeaux to French Equatorial Africa and the Belgian Congo with Marc Allégret, his 25-year-old former student and lover of nearly a decade, who was brought on the trip officially as Gide’s “secretary.” Gide had been inspired to visit Africa by reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and planned his itinerary with Allégret as something of a recapitulation of Conrad’s fictional expedition. Travelling for thousands of miles by railway, river, and foot, through areas that today comprise the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon, the pair spent time with colonial agents and indigenous communities. Both Gide and Allégret produced important records of their epic journey. Gide kept diaries that he quickly published in two volumes, Voyage au Congo (1927) and Le Retour du Tchad (1928), while Allégret took some seven hundred photographs and shot the film Voyage au Congo: Scènes de la Vie Indigène en Afrique Équatoriale, one of the first feature-length ethnographic documentaries to be made on the continent.

Though Gide and Allégret’s accounts of their peregrinations are undoubtedly guilty of exoticizing the people and landscapes they would encounter, they also provide early and significant critiques of the French colonial project. In his journals, Gide lovingly details his fascination with African flora and fauna—noting as well, in asides, the muscular pulchritude of certain native men—but elsewhere veers between racist disdain for the Africans he meets and disgust for their inhuman treatment by European authorities. “The less intelligent a white man is,” Gide famously remarked, “the dumber he perceives the Blacks to be,” and in fact the starvation, crushing labor conditions, and lack of medical care reported by Gide prompted a national debate in France, leading the government to enact a series of reforms. “I have come to feel a whole race of suffering humanity,” Gide states in Le Retour du Tchad, “whose beauty, whose worth, we have failed to understand.”

Allégret arrived in Africa with no formal training in either photography or cinematography, aside from some brief technical instruction from Man Ray, yet the images he produced there evince a careful and precise artistry. Much of his film Voyage au Congo lingers on the costumed and intricately choreographed dances and athletic contests of the various societies he and Gide visited, as well as the distinctive vernacular architecture of their towns. The misery chronicled by Gide is largely absent, and life in the more traditional villages is pictured as idyllic. (Though the film would be attributed to both Allégret and Gide, the latter’s involvement appears to be limited to the writing of its intertitles.) Today, it’s clear that Allégret’s vision was naively romantic, though his desire to portray his subjects in such a sensual fashion can be understood as an attempt to counter contemporary conceptions of the region. The film’s travelog format, structured episodically, resisted the influence of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), which imposed a single, scripted story on its protagonist; Allégret chose instead to strive for what he considered to be an objective view of individual moments, using, for example, long-range lenses to capture shots with minimal interference. This telephoto view from the distance further allowed him to explore a painterly composition of figures in the landscape: one scene depicting Gbaya men burning fields of grass to clear them for cultivation proves especially dramatic, as the open sky fills with vast plumes of smoke.

Not stated in either man’s account was the fact that both had sexual encounters with Africans in the course of their expedition: Gide with at least one young man, and Allégret with a number of young women. In Allégret’s film we rarely even see Europeans and Africans interacting; each are grouped in discrete sequences, and the operations of Allégret and Gide’s tour are essentially left out of the movie. Allégret would reveal these liaisons only decades later, with the publication of his own Carnets du Congo (1987). In the notebooks, Allégret describes how the events of his sojourn confirmed his heterosexuality, as well as, somewhat paradoxically, his deep love and admiration for Gide. The couple would end their romantic relationship upon their return to France, but the film that emerged from their voyage stands as a singular account, through its images and their subtext, of the complex and uneasy power dynamics inherent in erotic exchange, between men and women, the young and the old, the photographer and the subject, the colonizer and the colonized.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.