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American Independents, Documentary, Festivals and Conferences, French Cinema

BIFF 2011 #6: An American Journey (France/US 2009)

 

This image from the documentary shows a photo from 1955 of Robert Frank selecting negatives to crop direct from the roll – bypassing the need to make a contact sheet.

This documentary showed as the second half of a double bill with Disfarmer: A Portrait of America. You can see the logic of putting the two films together (both dealing with American photography from the 1950s) but I felt sorry for the French director Philippe Séclier who was present at the screening and briefly answered questions afterwards. It wasn’t that his film was ‘bad’, only that it rather suffered in comparison.

 

‘An American Journey’ refers to the period which the Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank spent on a Guggenheim foundation sponsored tour of the US in 1955. At the end of the tour Frank was obliged to publish something and he put together a collection of 83 images in the form of a book titled The Americans – first published in France in 1958 and then in the US in 1959 – by which time Frank had met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. The latter wrote some text for the book and helped popularise work which initially was not well received. French journalist Séclier (who in his introduction denied being a filmmaker as such) decided to visit some of the locations of the original photographs which he did over several years, interviewing some of the subjects and other photographers influenced by Frank as well as visiting archives and printers. During this period the original book was being re-printed in Germany and a major Frank exhibition was mounted in China.

Presumably Séclier didn’t have the budget to make the kind of documentary produced by Martin Lavut on Mike Disfarmer. It looks as if the footage of travels through America were sometimes shot on his phone, so indistinct are the low-res images. The interviews are more carefully shot, but the photographs themselves don’t get the same ‘big screen’ treatment as those in Disfarmer. According to the official website, the film was shot on ‘DVCAM’ and Séclier suggests that he tried to emulate Frank in using “only available light and no tripod”.

Overall, I did find the material in the documentary interesting, especially having seen Howl recently (in which Ginsberg’s photographs of the period appear). But while I enjoyed the content, I found the style of presentation was not as engaging as it might have been.

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