Chronicling a Summer in Cinéma Vérité

July 17, 2020

For Peter Galison, an influential moment was seeing a film made in 1961 by an anthropologist and a sociologist, featuring a series of estival interviews with people on the sidewalks of France. With its innovations in sound technology, Chronicle of a Summer opened Galison’s eyes to the possibilities of documentary film. The film illuminated the interplay between image and text, revealing how the humanities can “open up a world.”


Hi, I’m Peter Galison, I’m a professor at Harvard University and a Fellow at the National Humanities Center this semester. I’m interested in a combination—odd as it sounds—of filmmaking, physics, and the history of science.
A moment that really was hugely affecting for me in the humanities was seeing an old film, that was filmed in the summer of 1960, called Chronicle of a Summer. It was a French film made by a collaboration between a sociologist/philosopher, Edgar Morin, and a great filmmaker, might be called an anthropological filmmaker, Jean Rouch.

They combined to make this film in a moment just when it was possible to have portable sound-taking. They went onto the street and they asked people everything from, “Are you happy?” or “What are you doing?” In the course of what people say, you see a France that goes back even before the war, of horse-drawn carriages, but also cars. You meet a woman who had survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, lost her father there, and was now trying to navigate this post-war world. But 1960 is also the cusp of this opening up to another world of France. In a sense you see the beginnings of the unrest, the uneasiness with the received order of things, that culminates in May ’68 and the explosion of the student and worker revolt of that period.

For me, this film had a huge effect because it seemed to me to capture, in a moment in specificity, some really deep understanding of this transition point between the old order and the new order. It showed me that film could do something, a documentary film of a certain type—a certain exploratory, innovative type—could push beyond what text alone could do. I think, for me, the idea which I keep trying to figure out, is how do visual sources—especially the filmmaking that I’m doing and writing—combine to produce something whole that each part can’t quite do on its own.

With each bit of understanding, as people push what can be done with text, or text plus still images, or with film in innovative ways, I find it enriching and exciting and it opens up new possibilities for how I think about the kinds of problems that I want to work on. For me, the humanities at its best can do that, can take something specific and open up a world from it.