A neglected masterwork recovered: Travels in the Congo and the French interwar African expedition film

Paul Henley

University of Manchester



Travels in the Congo, first released in France in 1927 as Voyage au Congo, is without doubt the masterwork of French ethnographic cinema in Africa prior to World War II. And yet, in the literature on ethnographic film and the history of documentary cinema more generally, it has been strangely neglected. It does not feature, for example, in the extensive UNESCO catalog, Films ethnographiques de l’Afrique noire, edited by Jean Rouch and published in 1967. Although Rouch alludes to it in a report, originally prepared in 1961 and reprinted in the Appendix of the catalog, this is no more than a passing reference, in which he essentially damns the film by faint praise.[1] In subsequent years, Travels in the Congo simply sank into oblivion. This is particularly surprising in view the celebrity of its directors, namely, the eminent writer André Gide and Marc Allégret, who was later to become a major feature film director, not to mention the film’s equally eminent producer, Pierre Braunberger, who would go on to produce the works of many of the most high-profile avant-garde directors of the twentieth century, including Luís Buñuel, the Nouvelle Vague group and Jean Rouch himself.

In large measure, the neglect of Travels in the Congo can be put down to the banal fact that it had become very difficult to see, even in France. It is therefore with particular enthusiasm that one should welcome the release in 2017 of a sparkling, digitally restored version produced by Les Films du Panthéon and the Centre national du cinema (CNC). This project was carried out in collaboration with Les Films du Jeudi, which is run by Braunberger’s daughter, Laurence. Since only the original negative was available in France, the digital restoration was carried out with reference to a print held by the British Film Institute in London. The original version was in black and white, and also silent, while this new digital version is accompanied by a subtle and sensitive musical score composed by the Franco-Italian jazz pianist Mauro Coceano. Icarus Films is to be congratulated in now making it available to English-speaking audiences in a subtitled DVD.

Travels in the Congo was but one of a large number of French expedition films shot in Africa in the interwar period, most of which enjoyed a great deal of public attention at the time of their release, but all of which, with one signal exception, are now almost entirely forgotten. The exception is La Croisière noire, first released in 1926, which has become the archetype of the French interwar African expedition film. This film is in black and white and, in its most widely available form, is 52 minutes long and accompanied by a soundtrack (though a mute version of almost four hours also exists.) It follows eight Citröen autochenilles— i.e. motor vehicles with caterpillar tracks instead of rear wheels—as they depart, in October 1924, from Colomb-Béchar, a colonial garrison close to the Algeria-Morocco border, and travel some 20,000 kms across the Sahara, then south and east through the Niger river basin and the French colonies of Central Africa and the Belgian Congo, before finally arriving at Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, some eight months later.[2]

Figure 1: La Croisière noire recorded the expeditionaries’ supposedly heroic endeavors (top row), but also, en route, Sara lip-plates (middle row), and the Dapka Banda initiation ceremony (bottom row), both of which would become recurrent tropes of the French interwar expedition film in Africa.

The director of La Croisière noire, Léon Poirier, and the cinematographer, Georges Specht, were both already well-established figures of French cinema and the technical quality of the film was remarkably high for the period: it even involved field sound recordings that were later incorporated into the soundtrack. It was released in March 1926 to great fanfare: the première was even attended by Gaston Doumergue, President of the Republic. An exhibition of objects brought back by the expedition ran for several months in a wing of the Louvre with, at its center, an autochenille surrounded by taxidermied animals.

As is typical of the genre, the main narrative thread of La Croisière noire is provided by the expedition itself and the various supposedly heroic endeavors of its members along the way (Figure 1). More or less fortuitously, as they pass by, the filmmakers record various phenomena of ethnographic interest, a number of which would become recurrent tropes of the genre. These include a visit to one of the small Islamic sultanates in the vicinity of Lake Chad, where the chainmail armor and elaborately decorated horse blankets reminded many an interwar French traveler of medieval Europe, and also, a particularly frequent recurring trope, a no-holds-barred sequence showing the disturbing women’s lip-plates of certain Sara groups living further to the south of lake. In one of the most impressive sequences, Poirier and Specht also filmed the ganza initiation ceremony of the Dakpa Banda close to Bambari, in what was then the colony of Oubangui-Chari and today is the Central African Republic.

The film as well as the expedition were paid for by the Citroën company, and at one level both could be read as no more than a publicity stunt intended to promote Citroën autochenilles as a more effective means of crossing the difficult terrains of the Sahara and Central Africa than either the three-axled wheeled vehicles promoted by the rival Renault company, or railways. (Ironically, in the end, it was the Renault vehicle that prevailed). But dedicated as it is in an opening title to “The Young People of France” and supported logistically in various ways by French colonial authorities, La Croisière noire can also be read as an attempt to reassert French imperial ambitions after the pyrrhic victory of the First World War.[3]

La Croisière noire continues to dominate accounts of filmmaking in French colonial Africa to this day. In the 1967 UNESCO catalog, while acknowledging the anachronistic colonialist tenor of the film and the fact that the filmmakers knew little about what they were filming since they were constantly on the move, Jean Rouch praised the directorial skill of Poirier, describing La Croisière noire as “the first true film” to be made in sub-Saharan Africa.[4] This is a view that has been routinely re-iterated many times since.

Figure 2: Travels in the Congo follows the journey of André Gide and Marc Allégret from the lower Congo river to Brazzaville, then north to Bangui, capital of the Oubangui-Chari colony, and Fort Archambault, a garrison in southern Chad. In the last stage, they turned to the southwest towards the Atlantic coast, finally arriving at Douala, the principal port of the French colony of Cameroun.

Travels in the Congo was shot less than a year after La Croisière noire and covers some of the same parts of Central Africa. Like La Croisière noire, it is structured by a journey narrative, following the trip taken by Gide and Allégret between July 1925 and February 1926. After a few rather disconnected scenes of life on board the ship carrying them to Africa, the film starts at the mouth of the Congo River on the Atlantic coast and then follows Gide and Allégret as they travel northwards by rail, road, canoe, litter and even by foot, first from Brazzaville along the course of the Congo river and its tributaries to Bangui, the capital of the colony of Oubangui-Chari, and then on to the colonial garrison at Fort Archambault (today known as Sarh) in southern Chad. Thereafter, the filmmakers turned to the southwest and returned to the Atlantic coast, finally arriving at Douala, the principal port of the French colony of Cameroun (Figure 2). After a rather awkward sequence of girls dressed in the Western manner playing games at the Douala Protestant mission school, the film then concludes, very much in line with the conventions of the genre, with a sequence of a ship leaving harbor and a sunset at sea as the coastline of Africa disappears beneath the horizon.

But although it might conform to expedition film genre conventions is certain regards, in most respects, Travels in the Congo is very different, not only from La Croisière noire but to the generality of French interwar expeditions films shot in Africa. There is, for a start, no attempt to celebrate the French imperial project. Whereas in La Croisière noire the expeditionaries are the ‘stars’ of their own film, appearing recurrently throughout, in Travels in the Congo, apart from a brief possible appearance of Gide on board ship at the beginning of the film, at no point do the filmmakers appear in shot. Other Europeans appear only very briefly: apart from the shipboard sequence, the only other major sequence showing Europeans occurs about a third of the way into the film and concerns a rather bizarre New Year sports event at Fort Archambault. In the early part of the film, there is some preoccupation with the logistics of the journey itself – shots from the train, the railway station and so on. But once Gide and Allégret reach Bangui, the principal focus of the film becomes rather the customary behavior of the various ethnic groups whom the filmmakers meet in the course of their journey, thereby justifying the subtitle of the film as a whole, i.e. “Scenes of Native Life in Equatorial Africa.” The ethnic groups whom they meet are listed in an intertitle as the Baya, Sara, Massa, Moundang and Foulbé.[5]

At 117 minutes, Travels in the Congo is a remarkably long film, twice the length of the sound version of La Croisière noire, and also longer than any of the other French interwar African expedition films. However, the equipment used to shoot it was not sophisticated and there was no recording of sound. It has become a commonplace to assign the direction of the film exclusively to Allégret  – as indeed the Icarus DVD does. But although Allégret appears to have done all the shooting and most of the editing—Gide appears to have done little more than compose the elegant intertitles—Gide’s name nevertheless comes first, nonalphabetically, in the credits at the beginning of the film itself and is, moreover, considerably larger. This is a reflection of the fact that the project was not only originally conceived by Gide (fulfilling an ambition that he had held for more than thirty years), but he was also very much the senior figure. At the time of their departure, Gide was 55 and already a very well-established literary personality in France, while Allégret was only 24 and as a filmmaker, a complete novice.[6]

If one discounts a probably apocryphal account of some informal tutoring that Allégret may have received in Paris from the leading Surrealist artist, Man Ray, it seems that prior to going to Africa, he had no experience whatsoever of making films. He was also working entirely on his own, without the support of technicians. Indeed, formally, Allégret’s primary role on this expedition with Gide was to act as the latter’s ‘secretary’ and both his filmmaking and the remarkable series of photographs that he also took on the same trip were understood by both of them to be merely part of this support function. (This role also included being responsible for the logistics of the expedition, i.e. for coordinating a group of some 60-80 people, including porters, cooks and interpreters). It is not surprising then that Gide’s name should have been placed first when the film was released in 1927. Given Gide’s already established reputation, this would not only have promoted the film itself but also the younger man’s career. In any case, this secondary accreditation certainly did nothing to prevent Allégret from building a highly successful directorial career on the back of this first experience.


Figure 3: In ethnographic terms, Travels in the Congo covered many standard topics, including modes of transportation, such as the pirogues on the Logone river, left, and architecture, as exemplified by the remarkable adobe clay houses of the Massa, right.

In ethnographic terms, Travels in the Congo covers many of the staple topics of expedition films of the era —ceremonies, subsistence activities, modes of transportation, architecture (Figure 3). A number of particular situations that appear in La Croisière noire or in other French interwar expedition films in Africa crop up here too, including the Dakpa Banda initiation ceremony and the ‘medieval’ horsemen of an Islamic sultanate close to the border between Chad and Cameroun (Figure 4). Significantly, however, the challenging Sara lip-plates – almost de rigueur in the French interwar expedition film in Africa – are not shown, although Gide and Allégret certainly passed through the region where the practice was common.

Figure 4: The Dapka Banda initiation ceremony and ‘medieval’ Islamic horsemen appear in Travels in the Congo, as in many other French interwar expeditions in Africa. Significantly, however, the challenging Sara lip-plates do not appear, though the filmmakers certainly passed through the region where they were customary.

This is all the more remarkable since another distinctive feature of Travels in the Congo is the strong emphasis on women’s lives. Prior to embarking on the expedition, Gide and Allégret had been in a homosexual relationship for some years, but during the course of the trip, Allégret discovered that his interests were, in fact, primarily heterosexual. This discovery no doubt explains why, at various points, the camera in Travels in the Congo lingers on minimally clothed young female bodies in a manner that may be uncomfortable for some present-day viewers. But whether this is a true reflection of the uninhibited celebration of the beauty of the female body in this region of Africa, particularly in dance, or merely an example of colonial fetishism remains moot.

What is particularly striking, however, is that whereas most interwar expedition films concerned themselves exclusively with the typically male subsistence practices of hunting and fishing, in Travels in the Congo this interest in women’s lives is also expressed in the form of substantial sequences concerning their everyday horticultural practices. These include a particularly lengthy sequence on the processing of manioc by women of the Baya ethnic group. This begins in the fields, as the women dig up the roots, follows them as they take the roots home and process them to produce flour. It then shows them making a sort of sticky paste by mixing this flour with boiling water before, finally, a young woman scrapes this out of the pot and holds up a substantial ball of dough. “The bread is cooked,” comments an intertitle. This following of a technical process from beginning to end, now of course a commonplace in ethnographic film, was highly unusual for the period (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Allégret’s camera focuses particularly on women, not only when they are dancing, as among the Sara and Moundang above, but also when engaged in everyday subsistence tasks, as in the lengthy sequence about the harvesting and processing of manioc among the Baya below.

However, by far the most original feature of Travels in the Congo is the fictionalized story that comes midway through the film and runs for some 25 minutes, i.e. almost a quarter of the total duration. This ethnofiction avant la lettre (the term appears to have been coined sometime in the 1980s, initially with reference to the works of Jean Rouch) concerns a young Sara woman, the beautiful Kadde, who by means of an innocent subterfuge attracts the attention of Djimta, a young man of her village. Enchanted by her beauty, Djimta goes to Kadde’s parents’ homestead where, through an intermediary, as is customary, he asks for permission to marry Kadde, only to find that her father is expecting too high a bridewealth payment (Figure 6, left).

Figure 6: Ethnofiction avant la lettre. Although the bridewealth negotations prove difficult, left, Djimta finally persuades Kadde’s parents and they approve the marriage. Afterwards, the couple are shown engaged in a coquettish conversation, shot with an intimate complicity that would not be seen again in French ethnographic film until the 1950s.

Kadde is disconsolate and, in a charming scene, is comforted by her sister. However, the story has a happy ending since Djimta persuades his own father to support him in making an enhanced bridewealth proposal, which is accepted. After a celebratory dance (which normally takes place at night but was performed during the day for the benefit of the camera), Djimta and Kadde are shown in close-up, engaged in a good humored, coquettish conversation, clearly very happy to be in one another’s company (Figure 6, right). This degree of informal intimacy was entirely unprecedented in African ethnographic film: indeed, it would only be in Rouch’s ethnofictions of the 1950s that such intimacy would be achieved again.

Given Allégret’s complete lack of previous experience, the quality of the cinematography in Travels in the Congo is truly remarkable. However, in the early part of the film, while individual shots are often well composed in a formal sense, they tend to consist of one-off shots that are reminiscent of Lumière vues in that they are extended and wide-angle long shots and, in being all of the same general kind, do not lend themselves to being assembled into complex sequences. Allégret clearly had some technical problems too as quite a number of the shots in the film suffer from vignetting. But as the film progresses, one can sense him developing his confidence and skills as he goes. The camerawork becomes more assured, with closer shots interspersed with wide shots as well as with some changes of angle, thereby allowing for the cutting of more elaborate sequences (Figure 7). This reaches its greatest development in the ethnofictional sequence and in some of the later dance sequences.

Figure 7: Allégret’s developing technique. Early in the film, many of the shots consist of wide-angle general views, as in this image of the Congo river, left. But as Allégret’s skills developed, he took more varied shots, such as this close-up of the crowd at the Fort Archambault New Year event, right. This allowed him to build up more complex sequences in the edit suite for the latter part of the film.

In referring briefly to Travels in the Congo in the Appendix to the UNESCO catalog, Jean Rouch extols the film for its “naïve and beautiful images” but complains that “the ethnological and social document often disappears behind aestheticism.”[7] Although it is true that the film abounds with beautiful images, this criticism seems somewhat unfair, given Allégret’s concern with the systematic documentation of everyday processes as well as set-piece ritual events. If Travels in the Congo can be criticized for allowing aesthetic considerations to override the faithful representation of social realities, this would be more justly related, in my view, to the editing out of all but the most fleeting reference to the French colonial presence in Central Africa.

In his textual accounts of this journey, Gide denounced in the most forceful terms the private companies involved in the extraction of forest products (wood, ivory and most of all, rubber) on account of their highly exploitative treatment of the African workforce. He also condemned the colonial authorities for doing very little to stop this abuse. But in Travels in the Congo there is not even the slightest hint of all this, let alone of the then highly controversial issue of the press-ganging by the colonial authorities themselves of men from as far away as Oubangui-Chari and Chad to work on the building of the infamous Congo–Océan railway running from Brazzaville on the lower Congo to Pointe Noire on the Atlantic Coast.[8]

Nor does the film reveal the complicity of Gide and Allégret themselves with the colonial regime. Their journey was in fact an official mission of the Ministry of Colonies, and they often stayed with French officials. They were on particularly good terms with Auguste Lamblin, the Governor of Oubangui-Chari, whose roadbuilding is commended in one of the early intertitles. Allégret’s personal diary, although never intended for publication, offers some particularly egregious examples of this complicity. These include the obliging of local people, under duress, to provide them with food or to work as their porters. Allégret was clearly uncomfortable with this, but he believed that if he and Gide were to continue their journey, they had no option but to oblige local people to work for them. The film is equally silent, of course, on Allégret’s dalliances with a number of local pre-pubescent girls, as is also described in his diaries.[9]

Yet whatever we might think of these contextual circumstances today, this does not detract from the unparalleled value of Travels in the Congo as a powerful testimony to the strength and beauty of traditional forms of indigenous culture and social life in French Equatorial Africa in the 1920s. Tragically, in the half century since Independence from French colonial rule, the regions that Gide and Allégret travelled through, particularly in what is now the Central African Republic, have been devastated by chronic political instability and economic dislocation associated with corruption on a truly epic scale, not to mention almost constant paramilitary activity, still on-going as this review goes to press. The cumulative effect has been to destroy not only much of the traditional culture of the region as represented in this film, but also the lives and livelihoods of many of its inhabitants. This gives the viewing of Travels in the Congo today a particularly acute and profound poignancy.

Marc Allégret, Director, Travels in the Congo, France, 1927, b/w, 117min, Icarus Films (2018)


  1. Jean Rouch, ” Situations et tendances du cinéma en Afrique,” in Jean Rouch, ed., Films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire (Paris: UNESCO, 1967), 378–379.
  2. On French interwar expedition films in Africa, see Paul Henley, “From Vues to Ethnofiction: French Ethnographic Filmmaking in Africa before Jean Rouch,” Visual Anthropology 33, no. 1 (February 2020), 32-80; and Peter J. Bloom. “Trans-Saharan Automotive Cinema. Citroën-, Renault-, and Peugeot-Sponsored Documentary Interwar Crossing Films,” in Jeffrey Ruoff, ed., Virtual Voyages: Cinema and Travel (Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press, 2006), 139–156. Specifically on La Croisière noire and its continuing prevalence as the dominant exemplar of the French colonial expedition film, see Alison Murray Levine, “Film and Colonial Memory: La Croisière noire 1924–2004, ” in Alec G. Hargreaves, ed., Memory, Empire, and Postcolonialism: Legacies of French colonialism (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, Rowman and Littlefield, 2005), 81–97.
  3. See Marc-Henri Piault, Anthropologie et Cinéma. Passage à l’image, passage par l’image (Paris: Nathan, 2000), 109-113.
  4. See Jean Rouch, ed., Films ethnographiques sur l’Afrique noire (Paris: UNESCO, 1967), 40-41, 376–377.
  5. Foulbé is another name for the pastoralist group also known in French as the Peul, and in English as the Fula or Fulani, whose territory extends right across the southern Sahara region, from Chad to Senegal.
  6. In describing the background to the making of this film, I draw freely on Daniel Durosay’s “Introduction” in Marc Allégret, Carnets du Congo: Voyage avec André Gide, 2nd edition (Paris: CNRS Éditions, 1993). On the specific matter of the directorial credits, see p. 53.
  7. Jean Rouch, op. cit., 379.
  8. Gide published two memoirs relating to the journey, one Voyage au Congo (1927) bearing the same name as the original film, and Le Retour du Tchad (1928). It was in the first of these texts that he denounced conditions in the French colonies, although he did not criticize the colonial project as such, and certainly did not call for it to end. The publication of the Voyage au Congo memoir provoked a scandal in metropolitan France and appears to have led to some improvements in the conditions of the Africans working for the extractive enterprises. See Daniel Durosay, op. cit., 27–28.
  9. The first edition of Carnets du Congo: Voyage avec André Gide was first published only in 1987, some fourteen years after Allégret’s death.  On the exploitation of local labor and Allégret’s sexual relationships with local girls, see the second edition cited above, 130–38 and passim;  see also Daniel Durosay, op.cit., particularly 38–40.
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