“Life is sacks,” says young Nigerien immigrant Oumarou Ganda in Jean Rouch’s most controversial scene from his 1958 ethnofiction film Moi, un noir. Oumarou — who is under his pseudonym Edward G. Robinson (an actor, Double Indemnity, The Ten Commandments) — tells us of his conquests with European women and his travels to exotic locations. Rouch then cuts to the truth: Oumarou unloading sacks from a cargo ship. Oumarou is consumed by a life of poverty and meaniality. He’s tired of carrying sacks. He has aspirations, and he has dreams, and with Moi, un noir, an improvised docu-fiction piece, he finds a way to live out his fantasy.
Through the blurred lines of truth and imagination, Oumarou and his immigrant peers act out improvised fantasies for director Jean Rouch, including Petit Tourè who presents himself as a womanizing FBI agent Lemmy Caution (the character who would become prominent in later French New Wave films, notably Godard’s Alphaville), and Oumarou himself who wishes to be Sugar Ray Robinson, a champion boxer. Jean Rouch — the early pioneer of the French New Wave, and inventor of cinéma vérité — puts his lightweight 16mm camera into the quietly tragic social and professional world of these characters, as they narrate, and act-out scenes through dubbing, creating a surreal depiction of reality.
The lines of truth become so blurred that shooting was delayed for three months, due to the arrest of Petit Tourè, who had become too invested in playing Lemmy Caution. However, this investment is precisely what allows these characters to reveal so much about themselves. By playing fiction, they find truth. Moi, un noir doesn’t so much become about ethnicity, as it does about universal behavior.
“Life is sacks,” says skilless immigrant Oumarou. But life is fine with sacks, as long as it has dreams. “Let’s go, none of it matters, it’s just life,” he says. He can be Billy Joe, parachute airman, cowboy chief. He can be a war veteran, and he can be a boxer; he can be whatever. Life isn’t sacks: it’s whatever he wants it to be.