Few films have had as sweeping an impact as Jean Rouch's 1958 portrait of three Nigerien migrants in Treichville, a bustling neighborhood in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. As an ethnographic film, Mai, un noir was both politically and aesthetically revolutionary through its attempt to address the problem of the ethnographer (nearly always a white man) filming subjects (nearly atways people of color) objectified and stripped of agency by the filmmaking process. Here, Rouch began by filming his friend Oumarou Ganda (later to become a pioneer of African cinema) and two other young men seeking their fortune in Abidjan, inviting them to improvise scenes as they worked the docks by day and dreamed of a better life by night. He then asked Oumarou Ganda to add his own voiceover commentary to the images of himself and his friends. And so, the documentary became a shared project, in which the people on screen actively participated in their representation and revealed not only the surface of their daily lives, but the stuff of their dreams. This vibrant, rough-hewn film had a determining influence on the French New Wave and the cinema verite movement of the sixties. It remains a touchstone for today's documentary/fiction hybrids.
In The Workshop, acclaimed writer-director Laurent Cantet takes an illuminating approach to a variety of key issues haunting contemporary France. Olivia, a successful Parisian novelist, has been hired to spend the summer in La Ciotat, a beautiful but economically battered town on the Mediterranean, teaching a writing workshop for a diverse group of young people whose only common denominator, as is so often the case among twentysomethings in the French provinces, is that they are unemployed. Among them are an emancipated but religious Muslim woman, students proud of their region's strong but declining history of labor movements, recent immigrants, some hedonists focused on the next party, and Antoine, a strikingly intelligent, confrontational young man with affiliations to extreme right-wing groups. Through class discussions and the conflicts that ensue, Cantet presents an unflinching look at the delicate integration of conflicting religious and cultural beliefs in a period plagued by the threat of terrorism. And as Olivia attempts to understand what brought Antoine to embrace a reprehensible ideology, The Workshop builds into a breathtaking thriller that deftly avoids formulaic answers to provide startling insight into a situation that applies far beyond France.