Can Jewish and Arab Israeli film students understand each other better if they watch a 50-year old French film about race relations in the Ivory Coast? Filipa César, a Portuguese artist, had the idea of showing a multi-cultural collection of film students in this country Jean Rouch’s Cinéma-vérité work The Human Pyramid and filming a subsequent discussion. The result is The Four Chambered Heart, screened at the Cinema South festival in Sderot.
Rouch’s film teeters on the fence between documentary and fiction. At the end of the 1950s, just before Côte d’Ivoire achieved independence, he took a group of black and white high school seniors in Abijan and asked them to improvise a story about race relations in their class. The film shows the students acting out the story, interspersed with voice-overs by the director and occasional interspliced scenes in which the teenagers are themselves and not their characters. The story follows the initiative of a new white girl, Nadine, who convinces the whites and blacks to socialize, and the disaster that follows as a result of her own inability to distinguish between displays of friendly affection and of romantic love.
One subtext of the film is that integration equals socialization—that if people belonging to two different racial, national, or cultural groups go to parties and have picnics together, harmonious relations will prevail. Another is that France is more advanced in the field of race relations than the Anglo-Saxon world—the students frequently refer to South African Apartheid and occasionally to segregation in the U.S. And, indeed, in 1959 the French were doing what was unthinkable in the U.S.—they had black and white kids in the same classrooms. On the other hand, as the film shows, the race barrier, while invisible, was still high, both inside and outside the classroom.
Rouch introduces complexity inasmuch as Nadine’s refusal to accept the race barrier is complemented by her own inability to maintain the kinds of distance that are essential in human relationships. By meeting them alone and permitting physical contact, she leads four of the boys, two white and two black, to believe that she loves them, and the resulting jealously eventually leads to a catastrophe and forces her to return to France.
César’s film stresses the silences in the discussion as much as the verbal exchanges. More often than not, she focuses her camera on a student who is not speaking—often, on students who do not speak at all throughout the film. Several of those who speak note that the presence of a filmmaker with a camera among them means that the resulting film will also straddle the border between reportage and fictional narrative.
The film students recognize the problematic nature of Rouch’s vision. The blacks and whites meet on the cultural terms of the French—speaking their language, accepting their social mores and culture. Tellingly, the final scene of The Human Pyramid shows some of the student-actors walking together as friends—in Paris, not in Abidjan. The parallel with Jewish-Arab relations in Israel is obvious to the film students. While they don’t mention it, the differences are, well, different. The blacks and whites in Rouch’s film share a culture, language, and religion, even if these were foreign imports for the blacks. The blacks in the film do not have large, strong, and devout native states just over the border. Israeli Arabs are segregated not by skin color but because they have a language, culture, and religions of their own that they value, and which are the dominant culture of the countries that surround Israel.
Rouch’s vision is ultimately that we are all human, and to be human is to be French. That won’t, and shouldn’t, work in Israel. Here the way to understanding and peaceful coexistence is the recognition of and respect for our differences.