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January 29 – March 5, 2016

Young Oceans of Cinema - The Films of Jean Epstein

The Cinémathèque Française today holds more than 40,000 film prints, but Jean Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher of 1928 was the first. Given a little money to initiate his long-dreamt-of film museum, Henri Langlois procured Epstein’s silent masterwork straightaway—“not only the ultimate expression of ten years of experimentation,” Langlois observed, “but their justification.” For Epstein, however, it was only one in a long line of turning points. After channeling Poe, he repaired to Brittany’s remote islands to make a series of films that now seem positively prophetic in their fusion of ethnographic principles and avant-garde aesthetics. “It was and still is very important to set the camera free in the extreme,” Epstein wrote in 1930, and, indeed, he approached each new work as if the medium itself hung in the balance.

Like many great French auteurs, Epstein (1897-1953) was born outside France. Raised in Warsaw and Switzerland, he attended the University of Lyon to study medicine. The scientific method would continue to inform his experimental approach to filmmaking, but Epstein’s career aspirations were waylaid by his revelatory encounters with cinema and modernism. He struck up a correspondence with the poet and cineaste Blaise Cendrars, who in turn introduced him to a small coterie of impressionist filmmakers and impresarios. One of these, Paul Laffitte, published Epstein’s first books of poetics, La Poésie d’Aujourd’hui, un nouvel état d’intelligence and Bonjour Cinéma (both 1921). “Within five years we will write cinematographic poems: 150 meters of film with a string of 100 images that minds will follow,” he wrote. In the event, Epstein directed his first feature, a commissioned documentary on Louis Pasteur, the following year. His breakthrough came with The Faithful Heart, a dazzlingly hectic melodrama that burned through the full repertoire of impressionist effects. Heralded for his virtuosity, Epstein was characteristically quick to disavow the impressionist mantle: “1924 has already begun, and in a month four films using breakneck editing have already been shown,” he wrote that same year. “It’s too late; it’s no longer interesting; it’s a little ridiculous.”

By turns visionary and polemical, Epstein’s critical writings do not constitute a theory of film so much as the unflagging search for its essence—a mystical something most succinctly described as photogénie. Louis Deluc coined the term, but Epstein was its apostle. Musing on the added value that the film image confers upon reality, Epstein described photogénie in terms of animism: “On screen, nature is never inanimate. Objects take on airs. Trees gesticulate. Mountains…convey meanings. Every prop becomes a character.” His breathtaking use of superimpositions, slow motion and close-ups are rightly seen as underlining this elemental vitality, though Epstein was adamant that photogénie not be limited to a single set of techniques. Accordingly, where most of his contemporaries balked at the transition to sound, Epstein saw fresh territory. In his penultimate work, The Storm Tamer, he experimented with retarding sounds as yet another means of crashing the gates of observable reality. “In detailing and separating noises, creating a sort of close-up of sound, sonic deceleration may make it possible for all beings, all objects to speak,” he wrote after the film. “The mistranslation of Latin scholars, who had Lucretius say that things cry, will thus become an audible truth.”

Long known outside France primarily for The Fall of the House of Usher and The Three-Sided Mirror, Epstein’s richly varied career is finally receiving a fuller accounting in the United States thanks to new translations, critical studies, and the many restored prints included in this retrospective. “The essential generosity of the cinematographic instrument,” he wrote, “consists in enriching and renewing our conception of the universe, making its ways of being accessible to us, that looking and listening cannot directly perceive.” Watching the span of Epstein’s films, we see how much he took this task of revivification upon himself. Edifyingly, Epstein’s conception of cinema dissolves the boundaries between ethnography and surrealism, avant-garde provocation and documentary impulse, surging emotions and scientific observation. His dramas of the senses opened up a rich vein of film narrative later explored by French directors like Maurice Pialat, Claire Denis and Leos Carax, but one must be wary of placing too much emphasis on these lines of influence. For now as then, Epstein’s films and writings remain on the side of what’s still to come. – Max Goldberg, writer and frequent contributor to CinemaScope

This retrospective is presented in association with the Cultural Services of the French Embassy and the Institut Français.  

Special thanks: Emilie Cauquy—Cinémathèque Française; Agnès Bertola—Gaumont Pathé Archives; Kathy Geritz—Pacific Film Archive; Amélie Garin-Davet—Film Department, Cultural Services of the French Embassy, New York; Eric Jausseran, Emmanuelle Marchand—Consulate of France, Boston; Richard Suchenski—Bard College.

Film descriptions by Max Goldberg and David Pendleton.

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Introduction by Sarah Keller - Live Musical Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Friday January 29 at 7pm

6 ½ x 11 (Six et demi, onze)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Edmond Van Daële, Nino Constantini, René Ferté
France 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 83 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

A fascinating transitional work in Epstein’s career, 6 ½ x 11 situates the camera’s divining powers in an otherwise conventional melodrama. The title refers to the standard format of a Kodak camera, and indeed cameras play a pivotal role in the narrative’s many reversals. Two brothers fall in love with the same woman, consecutive cases of amour fou anticipating the nouvelle vague’s penchant for reflexive love triangles by some thirty years. “There was a time not long ago when hardly a single American drama was without a scene in which a revolver was slowly pulled out of a half-open drawer,” Epstein reflected in 1926. “I loved that revolver. It seemed the symbol of a thousand possibilities”—and the genesis of 6 ½ x 11. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

His Head (Sa tête)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With France Dhelia, Nino Constantini, Irma Perrot
France 1929, 35mm, b/w, silent, 32 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Made during Epstein’s productive period at the end of the 1920s, this short packs a tale of mistaken identity, about a Hitchcockian “wrong man” accused of murder, into half an hour. “The swift, deft filming and editing,” as scholar and historian Sarah Keller puts it, shows the filmmaker “at the height of his powers even when treating a slight subject.” Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Sarah Keller is Assistant Professor of Art and Cinema Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and co-editor of Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (University of Chicago Press 2012).

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Introduction by Sarah Keller - Live Musical Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Friday January 29 at 9:30pm

The Faithful Heart (Coeur fidèle)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Gina Manès, Léon Mathot, Edmond van Daële
France 1923, digital video, b/w, silent, 85 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

A fascinating transitional work in Epstein’s “You must see Cœur fidèle if you wish to be acquainted with the resources of the cinema today,” wrote René Clair in 1924, and indeed from its opening close-ups of a barmaid clearing a table and pouring drinks,The Faithful Heart announced the arrival of a bold visual imagination. A kind of modern-dress fairy tale of a young woman forced into an unwanted marriage,Epstein’s breakthrough also serves as a time capsule of the 1920s city: its bars and amusements, threadbare rooms and graffiti-strewn walls. A wildly careening carnival sequence is commonly cited as one of the pinnacles of French impressionist filmmaking. “The screen opens onto a new world, one vibrant with even more synesthetic responses than our own,” raved Clair. “There is no detail of reality which is not immediately extended here into the domain of the wondrous.”

Sarah Keller is Assistant Professor of Art and Cinema Studies at the University of Massachusetts-Boston and co-editor of Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (University of Chicago Press 2012).

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Friday February 5 at 9pm

The Builders (Les Bâtisseurs)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1938, 35mm, b/w, 54 min. French with English subtitles

Produced for the National Federation of Building Workers Ciné-Liberté, a Popular Front organization intended to counteract capitalist interests in the film industry, Epstein’s union documentary examines building policy from the perspective of ordinary workers and notable architects. In addition to touring the Cathedral of Chartres and the Paris Exposition of 1937, the film features rare interviews with Le Corbusier (at his drawing board, no less) and Auguste Perret. Print courtesy Centre National du Cinéma.

The Storm Tamer (Le Tempestaire)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1947, 35mm, b/w, 22 min. French with English subtitles

Anxious over her fisherman lover’s absence, a young Breton woman seeks the aid of an old tempestaire or “storm tamer.” The sorcerer’s magic ball becomes a figure for cinema’s incantatory power in this, Epstein’s most mysterious and sublime ode to the sea.Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

 

 

The Fires of the Sea (Les Feux de la mer)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1948, 35mm, b/w, 21 min. French with English subtitles

A fitting swan song to Epstein’s lifelong obsession with the sea, this poetic essay on the worldwide network of lighthouses marvels at the international coordination to maintain these structures, the fortitude of their keepers, and technological innovations to lenses and illumination. Even so, the sea remains implacable. Asked what motivated his maritime films, Epstein said it was his fear of the ocean—“[a] fear that demands we do what we fear to do.” Print courtesy Les Documents Cinematographiques.

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Saturday February 13 at 9pm

Jean Epstein, Young Oceans of Cinema

Directed by James Schneider
France 2011, DCP, color, 68 min. French with English subtitles

Epstein has always been better known in France than in the US, but only in the last decade has international interest in his filmmaking beyond The Fall of the House of Usher been revived. One important moment in the rediscovery of Epstein is this overview of his life and work by American filmmaker James Schneider, which was produced by the Cinémathèque Française. Schneider, using archival footage and interviews, focuses on Epstein the Breton filmmaker, returning to the coastal locations in Brittany of such films as Le tempestaire and Mor’vran. Schneider poignantly contrasts the lonely grandeur of these locations with Epstein’s own marginal position within the world of French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. DCP courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Sunday February 14 at 7pm

Gold of the Seas (L'Or des mers) 

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1932, 35mm, b/w, 70 min. French with English subtitles

A semi-documentary that compares favorably with Robert Flaherty’s work from the same period, Gold of the Seas renders its fairy-tale plot with a strident realism borne of weather-wracked cinematography and non-actors. An abusive tramp uncovers a box taken for treasure, unleashing paroxysms of conflict and greed amongst Hoëdic’s fishermen. Experimenting with a collaged soundtrack, Epstein undercuts dramatic realism to hew closer to the island’s essential hardships—not only its meager resources and vulnerability to the elements, but also its long-simmering animosities and rampant alcoholism. The finale reworks Griffith’s classic “race-to-the-rescue” formula to marvelous effect, with close-ups of a young girl sinking in quicksand evoking a landscape by turns beautiful and merciless. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Preceded by

Villanelle of the Ribbons (La Villanelle des rubans)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1932, 35mm, b/w, 6 min. In French

PPrint courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

The Cradles (Les berceaux)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1932, 35mm, b/w, 6 min. No dialogue

A delicate “filmed song” set to Gabriel Fauré’s popular tune, The Cradles finds a lyrical equivalent for the sailor’s homesickness in the gaps and rhymes of montage. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis
Sunday February 21 at 7pm

The Adventures of Robert Macaire (Les aventures de Robert Macaire)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Jean Angelo, Suzanne Blanchetti, Alex Allin
France 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 175 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

With his faithful companion Bertrand, Robert Macaire prowls the highways of 1820s France, robbing rich landowners and gullible farmers alike, but also finding time to rescue and woo a damsel in distress who turns out to be the daughter of a marquis. Thus begins the first of five adventures that span several years in the life of Epstein’s roguish antihero. The film, Epstein’s longest, stands as a salute to the serials of French cinema in the 1910s, especially those by Feuillade. Henri Langlois, legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française and a fervent champion of Epstein, regarded Robert Macaire as an overlooked masterpiece that captured the spirit of 19th-century romanticism. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Martin Marks
Friday February 26 at 7pm

The Fall of the House of Usher
(La chute de la maison usher)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Marguerite Gance, Jean Debucourt, Charles Lamy
France 1928, 35mm, b/w, 61 min

Long considered a masterpiece of French impressionist cinema, The Fall of the House of Usher’s uncanny camera effects now seem closer in spirit to the symbolist poets than the impressionist painters. Drawing upon the full raft of avant-garde strategies prescribed in his theoretical writings, Epstein evokes the frenzy of artistic obsession, the transcendental force of nature, and the inherently subjective nature of appearances. Poe’s motif of a painting so startlingly lifelike that it saps its real subject provides Epstein with an ideal vehicle for his ontological preoccupations with cinema itself. As Epstein would later reflect of the film’s mesmerizing use of slow motion, “The actor can usually perform anything: he comes in, sits down, opens a book, flips through the pages; only the camera gives him a profound gravity, burdens him with an inexplicable secret and makes him a fragment of tragedy through the simple reduction of the temporal ratio of this performance.” Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Preceded by

The Three-Sided Mirror
(La glace à trois faces) 

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Jeanne Helbling, Suzy Pierson, Olga Day
France 1927, 35mm, b/w, silent, 38 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

With its strikingly modernist approach to film narrative, The Three-Sided Mirror set the template for innumerable puzzle movies to come. Three women from distinct milieus narrate their failed romances with the same doomed lothario. The film’s gender politics are every bit as audacious as its fragmented narration and overlapping temporalities, with each undermining any notion of a stable personal identity. At a stylistic level, The Three-Sided Mirror is suffused with the kinds of kinetic thrills and visual detailing advocated in Epstein’s writings: an exquisitely rendered telephone call, a reckless drive through a parking garage and the integration of documentary material in a carnival sequence. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand & Susan Laurence
Friday February 26 at 9pm

The Lion of the Moguls
(Le Lion des mogols)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Ivan Mosjoukine, Nathalie Lissenko, Camille Bardou
France 1924, 35mm, b/w, silent, 100 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Epstein’s first feature for Films Albatros was a star vehicle for the Russian-born sensation, Ivan Mosjoukine, best known to film history as the human face of the Kuleshov experiment. In The Lion of the Moguls he plays a Tibetan prince who becomes a movie star in France. The film’s Tibetan prologue pays homage to Cecil B. DeMille’s spectaculars, but the subsequent backstage scenes suggest a more cutting assessment of the movie business. Epstein reserves his finest impressionist effects for the prince’s surrender to the lures of the city. The sequence in which he stands like a charioteer in a speeding taxi remains a classic depiction of the crack-up. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Introduction by Sarah Keller - Live Musical Accompaniment by Robert Humphreville
Saturday February 27 at 7pm

Mauprat 

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Sandra Milowanoff, Maurice Schutz, René Ferté
France 1926, 35mm, b/w, silent, 89 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

A lively adaptation of George Sand’s novel of a wayward nobleman’s education, Mauprat was also Epstein’s first film for his own production company. While the costume drama may appear relatively conventional, Epstein’s camera is set free as soon as the bored protagonist absconds from the castle for the unbounded pleasures of the countryside—an intimation of the boldly experimental films soon to follow from Jean Epstein Films. The film also proved auspicious for being Luis Buñuel’s first screen credit. “[It] was my first real experience behind the scenes at a shoot,” Buñuel recalled. “I did a little bit of everything; I operated a waterfall, and even played a gendarme…but what fascinated me even more was the camera itself.” Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Introduction by Sarah Keller
Saturday February 27 at 9pm

Beggar’s Heart (Coeur de gueux)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Madeleine Renaud, Ermete Zacconi, Violette Napierska
France 1935, 35mm, b/w, 72 min. French with English subtitles

When an innocent young woman finds herself abandoned by the proper young man whose child she’s had, she is taken in by a troupe of traveling performers. This film is one of several features that Epstein directed for money in the 1930s, in a bid for mainstream acceptance while he was in the midst of making his Breton films. Nevertheless, he brings his gift for emotion to Beggar’s Heart, which, in its celebration of bohemian life on the margins, recalls such other contemporary films as Hallelujah I’m a Bum, A Nous la Liberté and Boudu Saved From Drowning. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis
Sunday February 28 at 7pm

Double Love (Le double amour)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Camille Bardou, Pierre Batcheff
France 1925, 35mm, b/w, silent, 105 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

A melodrama about the senselessness of money, Double Love pivots on the spectacle of men destroying themselves at the casino. Moments of crisis fire Epstein’s stylistic imagination, with the narrative momentarily ceding to the camera’s illuminations of subjective dissolution. The film opens with Laure, played by Russian actress Nathalia Lissenko, singing for a charity ball while her lover plays baccarat. What she makes, he spends. In the second half, their son makes the same mistakes at the very same card table. The psychologically acute Art Deco sets were designed by Pierre Kefer, who would go on to set the stage for The Three-Sided Mirror and The Fall of the House of Usher. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Bertrand & Susan Laurence
Monday February 29 at 7pm

End of the World (Finis Terrae)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1929, DCP, b/w, silent, 82 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

A crossroad in Epstein’s still young career, End of the World was the first of several films made in the remote Ouessant archipelago. “Drawn by what I no longer know,” he later wrote, “I went to Brittany to seek the authentic elements for this film which became Finis Terrae.” Shooting with non-actors, Epstein fashions a psychologically charged drama from the kelp harvest. The central conflict is crystallized in a few brief images of a smashed wine bottle and a wounded finger left to fester. Refusing to make a simplistic opposition between documentary and fiction, Epstein renders both ethnographic facts and subjective hallucinations with the same degree of feverish intensity. The sea looms large as both a sublime physical fact and a driver of the narrative, simultaneously violent and beautiful; more than once the camera itself seems in danger of drowning. “Leaving the Ouessant archipelago,” Epstein wrote, “I felt I was taking with me not a film but a fact.” DCP courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Friday March 4 at 7pm

The Song of the Poplars (La chanson des peupliers)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1931, 35mm, b/w, 6 min. No dialogue

Rhapsodic shots of poplar trees form the image track for the title song in this “chanson filmée.”

Mor'Vran – The Sea of Crows (Mor’Vran – Les mer des corbeaux)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1930, 35mm, b/w, 25 min. French with English subtitles

One of Epstein’s earliest sound films, Mor’Vran tours Brittany’s far-flung islands, where even something as commonplace as the delivery of the mail constitutes a perilous contest with nature. “There is no month without mourning,” observes the narration, and indeed we see the city council’s innumerable records of shipwrecks. Attentive to the sea’s danger, Epstein’s camera is nonetheless entranced by the ocean’s roiling beauty. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

Song of Armor (Chanson d'ar-mor)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Yvon le Mar’hadour, Fanch Gourvil, François Viguier
France 1934, 35mm, b/w, 43 min. French with English subtitles

At first glance a simple ballad of ill-fated lovers, Song of Armor shows Epstein reaching for the culturally distinct forms of expression he thought uniquely available to the sound film (“The human voice possesses accents which have not yet been revealed; from these the cinema will produce its own style”). A fisherman and a rich man’s daughter fall helplessly in love, their romance distilled in a beautiful low-angle shot of the pair walking beneath a canopy of trees. Epstein uses cinema to delineate the interpenetration of reality and fantasy—and the heartbreak that comes of it. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Friday March 4 at 9pm

The Man with the Hispano Car
(L'Homme à l'Hispano)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Jean Murat, Marie Bell, George Grossmith
France 1933, 35mm, b/w, 95 min. French with English subtitles

The Man with the Hispano Car was a successful 1925 novel by Pierre Frondaie, with a screen adaptation directed by Julien Duvivier released the following year. It fell to Epstein to direct the sound remake, and the result is an unusual film indeed. It begins as a carefree, Lubitsch-esque comedy about a poor man who is loaned the luxury auto of the film's title by a rich friend. The plot unfolds in surprising ways from there to become an exploration of belief versus cynicism. Ultimately, The Man with the Hispano Car stands beside The Faithful Heart, Gold of the Seas and many others as an expression of a favorite Epstein theme: the necessity and impossibility of love. Print courtesy Cinémathèque Française.

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Live Musical Accompaniment by Jeff Rapsis
Saturday March 5 at 7pm

The Red Inn (L’auberge rouge)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Gina Manès, Marcelle Schmitt, Madame Delaunay
France 1923, 16mm, b/w, silent, 80 min. French intertitles with English subtitles

Epstein’s first feature film is adapted from the Balzac novelette of the same name, which tells the story of two young travelers who take shelter at a country inn where a rich merchant is also staying; in the morning, the merchant is dead and one of the travelers is missing. Epstein chose the Balzac story because it was fairly well known and because he thought its tale of crime and vengeance had widespread appeal. In addition, the novella afforded the filmmaker several possibilities for stylistic experimentation, with its nested narratives and use of recurrent imagery suggesting a nightmarish present haunted by a violent past. The film is shot through with an atmosphere of unease that prefigures The Fall of the House of Usher.

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Saturday March 5 at 9pm

The Woman from the End of the World
(La femme du bout du monde AKA L’Ile perdue)

Directed by Jean Epstein. With Charles Vanel, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Germaine Rouer
France 1937, 35mm, b/w, 87 min. IN FRENCH - NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES

The Woman from the End of the World begins as a Jules Verne-ish adventure tale, with two sailors exploring the Southern Ocean in search of mineral riches. They find radium on an island inhabited by the title character, her mad husband and their child. Misfortune ensues when every man from the expedition falls in love with her. This film, Epstein’s last feature (although he would continue making shorts and documentaries), is closer to his Breton films than his other “mainstream” work of the mid- to late 1930s.  The setting allows Epstein the opportunity to make poetic use of the convergence of wind, sea and a wild landscape. Print courtesy Centre National du Cinéma.

Brittany (La Bretagne)

Directed by Jean Epstein
France 1936, 35mm, b/w, 22 min. IN FRENCH - NO ENGLISH SUBTITLES

A more conventional documentary than Epstein’s other films set in the region, Brittany nevertheless brims with the director’s enthusiasm for France’s rugged northwest: its landscapes and workaday life, ship launches and open-air markets, church processions and folk dances. Print courtesy Centre National du Cinéma.

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