Notes for the Cultural Historian of Film
An act of social historiography which addresses cinema aims to calculate the importance of films within a world larger than film. Since the 1980′s film historians’ confidence in a unified (and teleological) story of the development of film art has eroded under pressures from Formalist attacks on symptomatic interpretations as well as from interdisciplinary fertilization with sociology, economics, cultural studies and anthropology, thus highlighting film’s participation in broader systems of signification.
As Dudley Andrew has suggested, “Culture can be said to surround a film like an atmosphere comprised of numerous layers or spheres . . . One may identify these as though they successively encompass one another moving from the center (the individual film) out towards the stratosphere of national and international politics and events (183).” This conception has redefined the object of film historical analysis to the ‘intertext’‚ the network of discourses, social institutions, and historical conditions surrounding a film text or series of texts. The task then becomes about revealing the intimate impact of discursive and social situations on cinematic meaning through navigating multiple layers of adjacent intertextual fields such as the industrial constraints on production, traditions of genre, biographical information on the filmmaker and the film’s personnel, the film’s relationship to other arts and technologies, the multiple ideologies of society at the time of production, etc.
While such a comprehensive materialist project might seem utopian, it does make possible a more thick representation of the traffic amongst these spheres of ‘intertext’, thereby addressing the multiple and competing voices surrounding a film’s public signification. As Barbara Klinger has suggested in regards to total histories, “we can acknowledge both the unattainability of such history and the benefits of its pursuit (108).” Such a practice disavows neither the interpretive element in all historical writing nor the limitations of the historical records/fragments it utilizes.
Every film historian needs to identify the most pertinent spheres of context in reconstructing the way a particular film is produced and received, and these evaluations are based both on the researcher’s proclivities and the topic under scrutiny. Thus, the cultural film historian is bound to both reading and weighing culture in texts and texts in culture, creating an open-ended dialogue between the two. Historical interpretation, if it is to be driven by the treatment of film, must take the middle ground between “hard-line” formalist and sociological approaches, studying film style in historical context and studying style to understand history. As Robert Stam has urged, it is relevant to keep in mind Bakhtin and Medvedev’s notion of historical poetics as not only an examination of the “local, institutional determinations of film style, but also the back-and-forth reverberations between history and style, the interplay of historic and artistic chronotopes, without reducing one to a mere backdrop for the other (197).”
ATTEMPTING A CULTURAL HISTORY OF FILM
I. Historical Contextualization
Keeping in mind such necessary evaluations, I turn my attention to the historical and cultural analysis of one of the most well-known ethnographic films like Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres Fous (1955). Despite Jean Rouch’s long immersion in Africa (thirteen years before he began Les Maîtres Fous) and his rigorous attempts at ethnodialogue and participatory filmmaking, he remains a controversial figure to both Western anthropology and to African scholars alike. The former find his film work unscientific, while the latter finds his vision colonial.
While on a surface level the film recounts an African possession ritual which critically burlesques colonialism, many viewers found it to have a colonialist persepective, exoticising “primitive” practices and reinforcing negative stereotypes. To understand the complex reactions to this work and its multiple significations in the realm of both anthropology and film studies, it is necessary to explore the spheres of ‘intertext’ surrounding the film. The ‘intertexts’, which seem most pertinent in this instance include, not only the influences of French anthropology, specifically that of Rouch’s mentor Marcel Griaule, but also the social and artistic trends in France that nurtured both the scientific and aesthetic interests of Rouch. In addition, Rouch’s specific synthesis of previous documentary styles and techniques is crucial to understanding his pivotal role in the development of documentary aesthetics. Furthermore, as the film was made towards the end of the colonial era in Africa, an analyses of the film’s ideological threads and the various responses it engendered must also take into account its indebtedness to and effects on the synchronous debates around colonialism’s psychological and socioeconomic effects.
To comprehend something of Jean Rouch’s ethnography, one must know something about the methods and orientation of his professor and mentor, Marcel Griaule, whose 1930′s work on the cosmolgy of the Dogon in Mali culminated in the first French doctoral dissertation in anthropology. Griaulian ethnography consists of three major components: long-term fieldwork, a penchant for intensive documentation in multiple mediums, and initiation, which implies dialogue with wise teacher/informants and a willingness to limit Eurocentric interpretation, highlighting local exegesis of ritual symbology, myth, and cosmology (Stoller, 21). In his fieldwork and writings, Jean Rouch did indeed adopt a Griaulian methodology, and as Grialue had suggested, Rouch used film as an ethnographic tool to describe the features of ritual. Using a wind-up Bell and Howell 16mm camera, Rouch completed (a term loosely used, as 16mm editing was still crudely done with a projector and hand splices, and the soundtracks were unwedded to the film) three short films in Niger from 1948-49: La Circoncision, Les Magiciens de Wanzerbe, and Initition a la danse des possédés, which were shown at the Festival of Biarritz.
During the screening, which included such directors as Clement and Cocteau, Rouch was pleasantly surprised to realize that the films held the fascination of such sophisticated viewers (Feld, 234). This positive response from venerable directors and film critics surely encouraged Rouch to continue his filmic endeavors, and perhaps influenced him to explore alternatives to the purely “descriptive” cinema espoused by ethnographers of the time. In the 1950′s Rouch returned to Niger, exploring the possibilities of early “portable” field sound recorders for pseudo-synchronous filming. Rouch’s continuing research on migrations led him to follow Songhay men from the Niger to Ghana in the Gold Coast, where he made Les Maîtres Fous (filmed in 1953-4) and began Jaguar (filmed in 1954, released several times before completion in 1967), two of his most famous works.
Les Maîtres Fous was his first venture into a more synthetic approach to filming ritual events. Having witnessed and filmed the ritual several times before, Rouch realized he could break down the crucial aspects of it and approach it as a theatrical narrative. He used montage to condense the event, to create dramatic juxtapositions, and to make the most of the 20- 25 second shots that his wind-up camera would allow. Furthermore, his interest in the Hauka ritual in particular was derived from its role as a transported and transformed ritual feature of the Songhay immigrants he was studying.
With Les Maîtres Fous we can find the beginnings of Rouch’s rejection of the idea of distant, objective, and general description of “typical” behavior in favor of and revelry in the dramatic power of the filmic medium and its ability to capture specific events and dynamic situations of cultural exchange, a move which stands in stark contrast (and opposition) to the majority of ethnographic films made up to that point. As Steven Feld has pointed out, while most anthropologist have used the formal devises of novels and other fictions to structure and reveal information in their writing, until recently most ethnographic filmmakers have been loathe to stray outside of the domain of descriptive realism into the possibilities of fiction and drama to yield truth (250). It is this, that Rouch pioneered, a sense of trying to get beyond description into signification and interpretation, but at the same time without encaging the ‘profilmic’ event with an excessive scaffolding of context or verbose explanations. It seems that he places a bold faith in the very story-telling capacities of the filmic image and the affective power of the event(s) being filmed to reveal something significant about reality, or rather how reality is constructed in a complex way by both subject and filmmaker.
II. Stylistic References
At this point it seems important to explore the actual strategies he utilizes in order to achieve the goals outlined above. Many writings, including those of Rouch himself, have emphasized his unique synthesis of the ideas of Flaherty and Vertov (see Feld, Yakir, or DeBouzek). From Flaherty, he took the idea of participatory filmmaking, which involves a mutual participation and close rapport between the subject and filmmaker, including the incorporation of feedback from filmic subjects themselves. From Vertov, he learnt that cinema truth is not the same as lived truth, and that realism is not to be equated with reality. In other words, the cinema provides a new way of seeing, a particular truth, one that evolves from the filmmaker’s structuring of events in a self-conscious way. Thus, the camera as apparatus, and the ethnographer himself as an extension, are not hidden or minimized as causes of (negative) distortion, but in fact play key roles in provoking, catalyzing, and bringing forth people’s responses and creating a space where meaning can be revealed.
The other influence that seems relevant to Rouch’s work is that of the Surrealism prevalent in the Paris of his youth. Rouch, the son of an explorer and a painter, was immersed in a Parisian world involved with photographs and sculptures from faraway places as well as with the work of avant-garde visual artists and poets. As Jeanette DeBouzek has traced out so well, Africa became a source of inspiration for many artists who were searching for an alternative to the narrow rationalism of the West (301). In fact Marcel Griaule, himself, organized the 1930 Expedition Dakar-Djibouti along with surrealist writer Michel Leiris and brought back fantastic pictures of Dogon masks published in Minotaure. Rouch cites these photographs as instilling him with a sense of curiosity about African rituals that would last his lifetime, and he made connections between them and the paintings of de Chirico and Dali, and the collages of Max Ernst (DeBouzek, 303). In 1937, the renegade Surrealists, Bataille, Leiris, and Callois, tired of Breton’s psychologism, formed the College de Sociologie. Additionally, in 1938, Rouch recounts visiting the International Surrealist Exhibition which he claims gave him “the keys” to realizing the importance of dreams and the nonpathological nature of “craziness” (Taylor, 1991).
Rouch also schooled himself in the entire repertoire of French film culture, joining the Cinematique Française (housed fortuitously at the newly founded Musée de l’Homme) in 1938 and regularly attending screenings of both fiction and documentary films. Hence, when Rouch began to make his own films, he chose to forego the positivist objectivism of Western rational science (including anthropology at that time) in order to demonstrate the relativity of Western concepts of “reality” and “truth” by exposing the inherent subjectivity of the ethnographer’s position and the constant interplay of the real and imaginary that is always present in the construction of ethnographic truth. It is important to note that the colonial endeavor was very tied to Western constructions of scientism and a sense of superior rationality, mapping the lack of such modes of thinking in Africa onto justifications for their exploitation. Consequently, we must weigh the risk of exoticization inherent in the surrealist “poaching” of African culture, with the fundamentally anti-colonialist component of surrealism’s positive valuation of African modes of thinking and believing.
III. Textual Analysis
Having described the influences and techniques that Rouch had acquired, we can now turn to the matter of looking at Les Maîtres Fous in more depth. The film records a Hauka possession ceremony outside of Accra, the colonial capital of the Gold Coast. Rouch begins by showing the hustle and bustle of the city with shots of street parades and traffic. Then he moves into exploring the various occupations that the Zabrama immigrants perform in the city, such as mining, sewer cleaning, and stevedoring. This modern and hectic environment is the one to which the rural northern migrants must adapt, and Rouch suggests that this confrontation between modern and traditional, this confluence of peoples from the North and the South spurred the growth of the Hauka cult. While these scenes provide some context for the ritual, they do not relate the Hauka cult to the larger religious practices of the immigrants. Rouch does not explain or prepare the viewer to read the images to come. He seems to want to maintain an aura of mystery and inscrutability around the ritual. The brief, anticipatory shot of a night ceremony in which a wide-eyed man, foaming at the mouth, illuminated only by a flashlight against the dark, seems to enhance that feeling of wonderment and terror.
The next day, the sect members drive to the compound of the high priest, Mounkaiba, outside the city. Here, the stage has been set for the ceremony; various pieces of patterned cloth representing union jacks fly overhead, a crude wooden likeness of the governor presides over the ceremony, replete with sword, sunglasses, and pith helmet, and a termite hill freshly painted black and white signifies the governor’s palace. After a new initiate has been nominated and the adepts perform penitence for their wrongdoings, a sacrifice of a chicken over a stone altar takes place. Perhaps these scenes do not succeed in showing how the Hauka cult relates to “normal” Songhay religious practices, but they do provide some elements of religion familiar to most audiences, such as initiation and confession. Consequently, we become aware that the possession ritual is grounded within the strict parameters of a religious and social order; it is not just a random outburst of psychotic energy, but a complex social event.
The film continues with the music of the monochord violin and drums playing the tune of Haukas, and the group dances in a circle, beckoning the spirits to come. The first Hauka arrives, “Kapral Gardi,” saluting the others, donning the red sashes that are his trademark, and collecting the dummy wooden guns. He holds a torch to himself to prove that he is no longer a human, but a spirit, able to withstand physical forces that mere humans could not. We see close-ups of other people becoming possessed: their limbs shaking, foam bubbling at their mouths, eyes rolling back into their heads. Soon the compound is filled with Hauka spirits, all figures of colonial authority, all with trademark costumes and gestures with which to recognize the figures. Mounkaiba breaks an egg on the governor’s head, and through crosscutting to a colonial parade, we see that it is meant to represent the yellow and white plumes worn on the governor’s helmet during ceremonial occasions.
It is this Vertovian juxtaposition to which many critics direct their praise of the film. In this moment, the camera itself becomes the means for our understanding that it is British military behavior that is in fact absurd and theatrical. All the saluting, processing, and military costuming of colonial administrators is nothing but an exaggerated form of social hierarchy, by which outward signs and gestures maintain social order. It is this moment, specifically, that angered the British authorities into banning the film in Ghana, for they realized that the film’s mimetic powers via montage amplify the Hauka’s insult. Thus, we are suddenly forced to realize that it is the colonial officers and not the foaming, jerking Haukas who are indeed mad. This revelation is further supported by the absurd “round table” meetings the mediums hold to decide whether or not to eat a dog raw or cooked. The uncanny result of shrouding the ridiculous content of their conversation in the rationality imputed by the form of a round table discussion makes apparent the way rationality has been conferred by the colonial powers to specific forms of discourse. Furthermore, it brings into question the very content espoused by that form, namely it makes a problem out of the claims of Western rationality as structured by the discourses of science.
After the dog has been sacrificed, the mediums all lick up the gushing blood. We get a close-up of one adept rolling the red blood around his tongue. Then, the possessed mediums plunge their hands unharmed into the boiling water and gnaw on the dog’s head and neck. The possession winds down afterwards, and we are left with images of the soiled altar, stained clothes, and the ever-waving union jacks as the light fades.
Many viewers object to these graphic scenes, calling them cruel in their directness and fearing that these images reinforce racist stereotypes. When Rouch screened the film (with spoken commentary, as the soundtrack was not finished) to a small, select audience at the Musée de l’Homme in 1954, Griaule suggested he destroy the film and many African scholars in the audience agreed with him. Though Rouch was disturbed by these criticisms, he still released it in 1955, conceding that it should not be distributed very widely (Stoller, 152). Thus, the film’s reception was marked by the censuring and (censoring) eye of both the colonial and anti-colonial representation politics of the time. Furthermore, Les Maîtres Fous was castigated by anthropologists for not providing enough context about Songhay religious practice for the proper reading of the brutal images. Some suggested that the film should be looked at only as a supplement to his written ethnographies (Muller, 1472). Others, meanwhile, claimed that it depicted only a limited aspect of colonial history, thereby not providing the proper historical frame from which to interpret it (Stoller, 156).
On the other hand, European critics widely acclaimed the film for its technical merit, compelling images, and its penetration of a world rarely seen by the West. By many accounts it was a very influential text not only for filmmakers of the New Wave, but for other artists as well. Jean Genet was inspired by the film to write Les Negres, and Peter Brooks used it to train actors for Marat/Sade. What merits were these artists seeing that anthropologists and African scholars did not foreground in their analyses? To answer this question, I believe we must return to the shocking images which troubled many spectators’ sensibilities. Obviously, Rouch was aware of their potential revulsive effects. But, are not the scenes of bloody sacrifice, superhuman strength, and ribald mockery the very scenes which plummet the viewer into a sense of embodied witnessing? Are not these the very images which utilize the sensuous, affective capability of film itself to ponder something not approachable with wordy locution and distanced observation? It is this affective excess, mimicking the excess of the Haukas’ mimicry itself, which allows the film to reach a place beyond which rational explanation and context alone provide answers. The scientifically unthinkable is exposed, yet still cloaked in all the mystery from which it derives its power. As Paul Stoller suggests, the film defies the arrogant claim to analytical mastery implicit in the Western gaze; the viewer is allowed to stare directly at this spectacle, but is not empowered to understand or control the objects of their vision (158).
Furthermore, the ritual is supposed to be dramatic, powerful, irreverent, confrontational, and sacrilegious. It is not merely a parody of European mastery, but represents an anthropophagic appropriation of the strength of the Europeans by its very lack of fear of that strength. In fact, the priests invited Rouch to film the ceremony specifically to go beyond what they had done before, and eating a dog was part of that desire to do something taboo, something more defiant.
In and interview with Marshall and Adams, Rouch said, “They [the Hauka priests] were ready to try a kind of experiment because they felt they could command any aspect of European-based technology, including cameras and films, and so it would have been a challenge,” (1009). Thus, they wanted to exhibit their fearlessness in front of European technology, to make a film that would carry the daring effrontery of mimetic excess far and wide, back to Europe itself. Rouch was summoned by the priests specifically as a “medium” between the Africans and Europeans, at once part of both worlds, able to act as mimetic mirror for both. Through this capability (via the camera), he is able to channel the revolutionary challenge of the Hauka to the very homebase of the colonial power itself.
The strength of Rouch’s film lies in its mimesis of the provocative qualities of the ritual itself. It is as if Rouch is “possessed” and uses the camera to mimic the experience of the ritual. Even his single-take voice-over commentary becomes suffused with the drama being witnessed, sometimes even slipping into the first person when conveying what a specific Hauka is saying. This is exactly where the “cine-trance” referred to by DeBouzek attains relevance (305). It is the willingness of Rouch to be used as a “medium” in this direct way, without tempering it with Western constrictions of proper “respect” and distance, that has been aggravating to European and African audiences alike. It is interesting to note that the Hauka themselves elicited similar reproachful reactions from Songhay possession priests when they first appeared (Stoller, 156). The obscene freakishness of these new spirits was subject to censorship, just as the film was subject to being banned. In both cases, however, suppression simply augmented the prestige and spread of Hauka practices.
The criticism of the film did not fall on the graphic nature of Rouch’s depiction alone, but also upon the ending of the film. Rouch returns to Accra the day after the ceremony to see how the Hauka mediums have reincorporated themselves into mainstream society. We see them all happily returned to work, their smiling faces beaming in close-ups. Finally, we see that the general staff of the previous day’s possession are digging a ditch in front of the Accra mental hospital, prompting Rouch to ask whether these African men have found a “panacea against mental illness”, whether they have found a way to absorb the tensions of colonial society. These final words sparked critics to ask why they should accommodate to endure colonialism at all. As one interviewer asked Rouch, “Is it not far better for anger to explode on the job than to be let off in some harmless religious rite? Is it not better if they were ‘bad’ workers who ‘accidentally’ broke their tools and were ‘lazy’?” (Georgakas et al, 20). While Rouch admits he no longer cares for such an ending, it’s important to think about why making the film three years before Ghanaian independence seemed necessary or effective.
Perhaps he wanted his audiences to realize that these Hauka mediums were not insane and to stress the creative nature of the way in which they negotiated forces much more powerful than themselves. While it is easy for people outside of the situation to suggest they rise up and fight, the Africans are the ones who must deal with the psychological tensions of their lives. Is it not then somewhat cruel and arrogant for Western intellectuals to trivialize the strategies which Africans have developed to live life with less pain? Doesn’t this particular criticism dehumanize the reality of African suffering and show how narrowly the West defines defiance itself, namely, in Marxist terms, the alienated “worker” refusing to obey? By choosing not to relegate Hauka practice strictly to the realm of political ideology, Rouch attempts to reclaim the African person as human psychological entity rather than abstract subject of history.
IV. Diachronic Reverberations
What gets obscured in the negative reaction outlined previously is the much larger aim of Rouch to use African understandings of possession and magic to challenge Western notions of rationality and resistance. This is what speaks to avant-garde artists and allows them to recuperate a Rabelaisian tradition of subversive comedy, presaging a Bhaktinian turn towards a grotesque realism of many Third Cinema theorists and practitioners. For example, films like Macunaima and How Tasty Was My Frenchman of the 1960′s Tropicalist Movement in Brazil used the comic vulgarities of the anthropophagic aesthetic to forge a liberating discourse. The Western world has often perceived identity as self-closed, severed from and dominant over a dead and non-spritualized nature.
Having equated mimesis to savagery and childishness as we can see in explorers’ deprecating accounts of the native cultures’ “aping” of their movements and patterns of speech (see Taussig’s version of Darwin’s encounter with the Fuegians, or in the realm of colonialist fiction, Daniel Defoe’s account of Robinson Crusoe encountering the savage, Man Friday), Western culture represses the definition of self through mimesis. It then replaces this process of interdividing wrought though mimesis with a self in relation to the world through work and differentiating itself from others through accumulation of wealth, property, influence, and data (Taussig, 97). It is not surprising that resistance in such a formulation gets defined in terms of a refusal to work and a reclaiming of accumulations which were wrongfully distributed.
How different is the African relationship between self and nature and self and other, in which both people and nature are endowed with mimetic doubles in the spirit world? In this conception, it is mimesis itself through which resistance is formulated. The self is more fluid and constructs its relation to others through the knowledge gained from being the other. There is nothing pathological or hysterical about being possessed in such a culture (Oughourlian, 100).
On the contrary, where possession is not simply seen as submission to another, but an appropriation and critique of the power of another, it has therapeutic value, not only for an individual, but for the larger society. The question of whether it would have been better for them to simply cease working seems so much more limited from this vantage point. How would that have posed any challenge to the colonial “rationality” which allowed for them to be exploited in the first place? The discomfort of watching the Hauka ritual, or rather its mimetic copy through Rouch’s film practice in Les Maîtres Fous, lies in the realization that a critique of a much deeper sort was being made. The radical power of the Hauka mediums’ resistance lay in the fact that they refused to play by the rules of the rationality they knew to be arbitrarily constructed by the West and that by exposing this construction, they were making the most effective critique of all.
At this point, we begin to realize that Rouch and the Hauka he filmed were grand accomplices in this critique, that their voices and concerns were intertwined within the space of the film, and therein lies the power of Rouch’s participatory ethnography. This shared cinema approach was then given new twists in each of his later ethnofiction films like Jaguar and Moi, Un Noir. While these films are not as viscerally disturbing as Les Maîtres Fous, they are no less critical of the oppositional couplets of reality/fiction, logic/myth, and objectivity/subjectivity. The dreamlike exploration of his African conspirators’ creative responses to late colonial and postcolonial cultural syncretism, continue and develop Rouch’s surrealist tendencies.
In 1988, Rouch spoke at a New York University retrospective of his films, where he claimed that some of the African colleagues who had at first denounced Les Maîtres Fous, now consider it the best depiction of African colonialism on film: “a kind of colonialism from below” (Stoller 159). From the perspective of the passage of nearly fifty years from the time of its creation, Les Maîtres Fous seems a rather different creature than when it was first released. In the meantime, post-colonialist criticism has moved beyond a defensive approbation of “negative” images of Africans, and more importantly, becomes increasingly hospitable to the kinds of hybrid identities and creative play that characterize Rouch’s films. Many African have since found Rouch’s documentaries to be cherished historical documents, enabling contemporary viewers to enact a spiritual communion with their ancestors and their traditional ways. Anthropologists have also found Rouch’s ideas of shared anthropology, ethnodialogue, and giving back to his subjects useful concepts in the development of their field methods. Finally, the diachronic dimension of any analysis of Les Maîtres Fous must take into account not just the changing socio-historical and theoretical climates of reception, but also the sheer quantity and quality of Rouch’s filmic oeuvre, which now includes more than 100 works. The fact that Rouch never settled on one style of narrative or aesthetic makes it much more difficult to insist on a definitive analyses of the significance of one work, especially an early film such as Les Maîtres Fous. Looking back, it is hard not to be astonished by the sensuous affect that Les Maîtres Fous still engenders and to see it as an example of Rouch’s continuing commitment to making vitality and experimentation central features of the ethnographic encounter.
Adams, John W. and John Marshall. Interview. “John Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams.” American Anthropologist. 80.4 (1978): 1005-1022.
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de Andade, Joaquim Pedro, dir. Macunaima. 1969.
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Dos Santos, Nelson, Pereira, dir. How Tasty was My Frenchman I. 1971.
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Georgakas, Dan, Udayan Gupta, and Judy Janda. Interview. “The Politics of Visual Anthropology: An Interview with Jean Rouch.” Cineaste. 8.4 (1978): 17-24.
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Oughourlian, Jean-Michel. The Puppet of Desire: The Psychology of Hysteria, Possession, and Hypnosis. Trans. Eugene Webb. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991.
Rouch, Jean, dir. Les Ma”tres Fous. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1955. Also available from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA.
__________ dir. Moi, un noir. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1959.
__________ dir. Jaguar. Paris: Films de la Pleiade, 1967. Also available from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA.
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