Travels in the Congo (Voyage au Congo, 1928), a long-eclipsed artifact of France’s colonial past in collision or collusion with its cinema history, emerges from the cultural tomb in a lovely digital restoration on Icarus Films with a modern score by Mauro Coceano. I’m only sorry it’s not on Blu-ray but I guess we can’t have everything.
There’s what’s in the film, what’s under the film, and what’s behind the film to consider. All these “what’s” are edifying and fascinating. The origins of this film go back long before the French colonization in 1910 of what it called French Equatorial Africa, today known as the countries of Chad, Gabon, the Central African Republic, and the Republic of the Congo.
According to the short unsourced biography of Marc Allégret at Wikipedia, and the more detailed entry on André Gide, the origins of this film must be traced back to the 19th-century, when Allégret’s father was hired as a tutor to young Gide, who’d go on to be one of France’s most controversial, outspoken, and sexually transgressive writers, eventually winning the Nobel Prize.
Gide remained a family friend of the Allégrets, and the former tutor served as best man at Gide’s wedding in 1895. That marriage to a cousin, which lasted until her death in 1938, remained unconsummated.
When Gide was 47, the 15-year-old Marc Allégret, the tutor’s eldest son, became Gide’s lover for a good ten or eleven years, during which period Gide sired a daughter by a mistress. The sexual relationship between Gide and Allégret ended when they came back from the Congo after finishing this film. According to Allégret’s memoirs of the trip, the 25-year-old began having sex with African women, liked it, and discovered or confirmed his heterosexuality. He and Gide remained good friends until the latter’s death. You probably can’t get more French than all this.
By the way, the 5th Edition of Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia (HarperCollins, 2003) doesn’t mention sex and refers to Allégret as Gide’s nephew. In his 4th Edition of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Little, Brown, 2003), film critic and historian David Thomson refers to Allégret as an “adopted nephew”. I don’t see how either can be accurate (how do you adopt a nephew?) but it’s true that Allégret called him “Uncle André”. Gide called Allégret his “secretary”. Perhaps it was some kind of wordplay.
Thomson doesn’t talk about sex directly either, but he quotes Gide’s declaration that he wrote his 1925 novel The Counterfeiters (Les faux-monnayeurs) for Allégret. If you’ve read that novel, your head must now be spinning, if it wasn’t already. If you haven’t read it, you probably should.
While one thing ended, another began. Another proclivity Allégret discovered to his taste was shooting this film, his debut as a photographer and filmmaker. The film is credited to both men, probably because Gide paid for the trip and wrote the intertitles and was the “name”. Travels in the Congo seems to be Allégret’s film in all other respects and launched his long career in French cinema that’s been largely absent in Region 1. Thomson also declares rather bitchily that Allégret never made a film as good as the novel he inspired. I’ll be surprised if Thomson has even seen most of them.
And that finally brings us to the documentary–or wait, not yet. The other important result of this Congo trip is that Gide was shocked and disgusted by French colonial practices, especially regarding the longtime disgrace of the rubber trade, which he described as simply slavery and murder. He discussed this in his two diaries of the trip, published in 1927 and 1928, and he was such a culturally important figure that it created controversy (like pretty much everything he wrote) and supposedly led to some reforms.
More importantly, this was an early shot fired by France’s anti-colonial intelligentsia, a movement that would take decades before the French public swallowed bitter defeat in Indochina (Vietnam) and Algeria. I’ve read that on the day Nazis marched into Paris, Simone Weil wrote in her diary the single sentence: “Today is a great day for the people of Indochina.”
The scandalous and at least intellectually elitist Gide may seem a paradoxical figure for striking such a blow, or perhaps not. He was a quixotic figure, bound to shock polite society. He seems equally capable of adopting its prejudices and throwing them in its face. His concern for “the people” was such that he flirted with communism and then, after visiting the Soviet Union in 1936, decisively rejected it because they dared to censor him.
The liner notes quote extensively from a 1925 letter by Allégret in which he discusses sad and terrible things they’ve learned. “The conversations with the chiefs were heartbreaking. We had tears in our eyes, and they did too. The villages are emptying out: those who can escape do; many die. I know this village where out of the 20 natives that were brought to prison, just five came back (the others died in prison).”
He continues on the conspiracy of silence: “What is frightening is that everyone has their mouth sewn shut. No one can speak … The Catholic missionaries have grants from large companies and declare that they cannot overstep their role, which requires them to stand back. That is why Uncle André’s trip is everywhere considered very dangerous–or very desirable. The Protestant missions are the only ones that, not having accepted bribes from the great King Leopold, have been able to speak of ‘red rubber’.”