Travels in the Congo is a French documentary film, directed by Marc Allégret. It depicts his expedition in French Equatorial Africa.
The documentaries of the 1920s, such as Nanook of the North (1922) and La Croisière noire (1926), relied on adventure elements and exoticism to attract an audience. In contrast, Allégret set out to portray African cultures in an objective way. He deliberately excluded references to his manner of travel and the difficulties of the journey, to avoid focusing on “adventure”. He also excluded several “grotesque” aspects of African life.
The film depicts the daily lives of eight ethnic groups, focusing on their agriculture, hunting, and fishing practices. The architectural styles of their areas and a number of group rituals, athletic competitions, and dances are also covered. The primary interest of Allégret was ethnographic, and he was genuinely attempting to promote understanding of the cultures he depicted. His depictions managed to avoid the “sensationalism” and stereotyping of his contemporary newsreels.
In an attempt to minimize the “contaminating effect” of his presence, Allégret took to using a long-range telephoto lens for filming. When a scene was specifically staged for the camera, the director attempted to have the individuals involved acting as naturally as possible. He did so by getting them accustomed to the camera before starting to film.
His selection of human subjects was in part influenced by Primitivism. In an attempt to celebrate the “physical beauty, vitality, and moral purity” of Africans, the camera at times focuses on subjects suggesting eroticism. Brett Berliner notes that when the camera depicts “young nude women with firm breasts”, it suggests that Allégret’s vision of Africa was that of an Aestheticized and sensual Garden of Eden. A view that arguably derives from the idealization of the natural man by thinkers of the Age of Enlightenment. In the context of the 1920s, this would contrast Africa with the perceived decadence of Europe. Brett Bowles argues that Allegret’s “graceful” shots on the limbs, the backs, and the breasts of subjects dancing or competing in sports is borderline voyeurism and objectification. However, in the 1920s, this apparent fascination with the African body stood in contrast to wide-held European views that Black people were neither beautiful nor worthy of artistic depiction.
Allégret devotes 16 minutes of the Travels in the Congo to dramatizing the courtship and marriage customs of the Sara people. A fictional melodrama, concerning a young couple striving to win the approval of their respective families, introduces the audience to accurate sociological information of the courting culture of the Sara. The director personally managed all aspects of production of this segment, including the scouting of suitably scenic locations for filming and choosing the locals who portrayed the parts.