Last week I attended one of the films screened by the French Department’s Tournées French Film Festival. “Petit à Petit” (1971) showcases everything director Jean Rouche was renowned for: his surrealism, ethnographic methods, and deep love for Francophone West Africa. A quick Google search pegs the film as a humorous account of the cross-cultural interactions that ensue when an ambitious Nigerien business man travels to Paris to get inspiration for a large building. However, a current of profound, dark questions flows beneath the surface of the simple plot. Rouche implores his viewers to consider exploitation, capitalism, prejudice, and development of the Global South, to name a few of the themes. He does so playfully; not once does a character ever mention the above terms in their dialogue (to my knowledge anyway- keep in mind I could not see the English subtitles well, and had to rely on my less-than-perfect French skills).
I am still unpacking the layers of this film and keep finding all the ways it dovetails with my current research. I chose to write about women in the West African country of Senegal because a) I knew next-to-nothing about Francophone countries in Africa and b) I thought it would be a good way to get my foot in the door for a future Fulbright or internship in the region. The clash of Western vs. traditional and capitalist vs. sustenance reappears not only in my current project, but also in this film. Processing these issues through this film, though, was a nice palette cleanser because it presents them in an honest and (sometimes) uncomfortable way. I find myself get kind of bogged down or complacent with each new academic article or edited volume. Around the 3rd or 4th source discussing the same concept, the material loses its edge, its urgency. I don’t like that– I procrastinate and forget why I love what I am doing. This film reinvigorated me.
It’s hard to capture what made the film so bizarre, funny, and memorable. One montage stands out, though. About halfway through the film, the protagonist, the boss-man, Damouré traverses the streets of Paris to find out what all the buzz really is about Parisians. Sometimes he speaks his observations about passing pedestrians out loud, other times he directly confronts them about their physical features (another note– Rouche had his amateur actors almost entirely improvising and did not use actors for all of the extras. Many of the confused Parisian strangers were exactly that). Standing outside a cafe, he exclaims that the faces of the chic women were lovely, but that their exposed legs and miniskirts made them of the devil. Another time, he convinces a young women that he is a dental student and needs measurements of her jaw and teeth for a study. His comments never come off as anything but innocent, though, and they elicit the same kind of uncomfortable humor as The Office.
There are plenty more funny cultural clashes and even some unexplained, clearly unplanned plot points (like a two-minute trip to America?). You will have to check them out for yourself, though. At the end of the film, Damouré and his business partner have returned back to their village in Niger, along with several Parisians to work at their company building and give it that Western “legitimacy” they desire. The multi-storied and stylishly out-of-place building causes them to seek greater profits and exploit those around them. Damouré soon embodies some of the critiques he had made of the dirty and bustling Paris. When he sees the Niger River, though, and returns to the herds of livestock he used to frequent, he abandons this new way of living and gives up the whole business. The final shot, like the first, features a Nigerien woman adorned in a traditional outfit playing a pensive tune on her flute. The sounds of the Niger River accompany her.