Returning the Colonial Gaze: Petit à Petit

This surrealist comedy was screened as part of the third instalment of The Barbican’s “Returning the Colonial Gaze” series of French and Francophone African films from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

“How long will it take to discover Paris?”

The question sounds ludicrous to western ears. It’s intentionally comical, the dissonance between the idea of “discovering” a place already inhabited enhanced by the expected time-frame imposed. And it calls into question every assumption behind the European disciplines of anthropology and ethnography at a time when Western scholars still spoke with authority on cultures they’d barely dipped their toes into. The man asking the question, Damouré, is a businessman from Niger. He’s in Paris to research the logistics of erecting a skyscraper that will establish his import-export company – the eponymous Petit à Petit – as the dominant corporation in Niger. Predictably, the venture ends in hilarious calamity, with Damouré and his partner Lam rejecting the capitalist world of commerce for good – but the surreal twists and turns the two businessmen inadvertently make on their way to this revelation illuminate some of the radical incongruities at the heart of a Eurocentric capitalist system.

One of the highlights of the film is the Borat-esque parody of ethnography that Damouré engages in. Asking Parisians “may I take your measurements?” and proceeding to measure their waists, heads and even teeth, he comes to the least-informed conclusions about the physical and social traits of Parisians. When a school troupe traipses past and the teachers ignore his greetings but the kids respond, he notes down “here the kids educate the teachers” on social etiquette. Anticipating reality TV and drawing on the emerging “mockumentary” genre, it calls into question an entire field of European study as being fundamentally blinded by its distance from the cultures it aims to analyse. Anthropology has a problematic history, tied in to eugenicist theories and colonial legacies, and in this film Rouch returns the colonial gaze with a mix of slapstick and sardonic humour that feels fresh and inspired nearly half a century later.

Key to Rouch’s radical reflection of (post)colonial French culture is the freedom he gave his actors. Most of the film was improvised and the centering of African and Black French actors’ agency in the narrative gives primacy to their own experiences over an imposed framework. And, given the opportunity, they shine.

Senegalese Safi Faye is captivating as the spoilt femme-fatale who accompanies Lam and Damouré to Niger along with her white friend Ariane Brunneton (who at one point innocently asks Damouré “does love exist in Africa?”). The two women arrive to discover that the skyscraper is ill-suited to the import-export business’ needs, and that they are similarly ill-suited to the climate and working conditions. “It’s the same here as in Paris – they exploit people,” they lament before leaving Petit à Petit, where trouble is brewing.

“We buy things cheap and sell them at a high price. That’s capitalism.” might sound like an honest explanation of how the business world works, but it doesn’t quell the anger of local people who accuse the import-export company of monopolising the industry and exploiting them. A nonsensical series of mishaps culminate in Damouré and Lam disavowing not only their company but the entire system on which it is based, and if returning to living off the land smacks of idealism it nevertheless fails to dispel the anxiety induced by the reality the viewer is conscious of – that it is extremely difficult in practice to extricate yourself from global capitalism. So long as the communal economy of bartering and trading for sustenance over profit is insulated, Damouré and Lam have indeed found a safe haven. So many years on from Rouch’s brilliant film, in a world more interconnected than ever, the likelihood of escape has all but disappeared.

Words by Amardeep Singh Dhillon

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