Review: Cinema in the Stone Age or a film about the Stone Age?

Alessandra Cilio Affiliazione, alessandra.cilio@gmail.com
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Quand Homo Sapiens faisait son cinéma.Pascal Cuissot, Marc Azéma, English, French and Spanish, 2015, 104 min, ZED, DVD - €18,85, YouTube - French edition, Spanish edition.

Cilio, A. 2018. Cinema in the Stone Age or a film about the Stone Age? Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 171-174.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2018_7c

CC BY 4.0 © The author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

For over 150 years, we have known the world of the Upper Paleolithic through a profusion of paintings and engravings, mostly found in deep caves immersed in lush natural environments. Most of them portray a veritable bestiary of primitive fauna, including mammals like mammoths, bears, horses, bison and lions depicted in natural circumstances. However, the real meaning of these images is difficult for us to grasp.

The impressive decorations of places like the Chauvet, Lascaux, Niaux and Altamira caves have attracted the attention of many scholars. But these have focused mainly on motifs and symbolic interpretation, neglecting all the technical aspects concerning the way primitive authors represented movement, and the relation that scenes might have with each other, as part of a narrative sequence.

Marc Azéma’s research aims to fill this gap. He thinks that examining these aspects can help archaeologists interpret such subjects and open new perspectives on Paleolithic cave art and craft production.

The French prehistorian has spent over twenty years examining images from all the most important Upper Paleolithic sites in order to marshal evidence that primitive artists sought to represent a sequence of events, developing techniques to show the movement of characters by the superimposition or juxtaposition of successive images. By means of these two methods, prehistoric men prefigured one of the fundamental characteristics of visual perception, the persistence of vision, well ahead of the inventors of the first optical toys and cinematography during the 19th century.

This revolutionary interpretation, already made available in articles and academic publications by the author, is at the core of the documentary film Quand Homo Sapiens faisait son cinema, produced in 2015 by Arte France, in collaboration with Passé Simple and MC4. The film directors are Pascal Cuissot and Marc Azéma who, besides being an archaeologist, is also a good filmmaker.

The title is captivating and provocative by itself. It brings together two seemingly antipodal realities; on the one hand, we have the term ‘Homo sapiens’, which signifies in a nutshell the dawn of civilization, and on the other hand we have the term ‘cinema’, which clearly represents the modern world.

What bond exists between these two epochs? According to Cuissot and Azéma, the trait d’union consists of the need to describe the world in its true form, by means of an animated graphic narrative. The link, then, is an ‘aspiration for cinema’ recognizable in over 20,000 years of Paleolithic art. 

Homo sapiens was also ‘Homo cinematographicus’, then. He was able to invent tools for showing short animated stories and to depict narratives inside places that made multi-sensory experiences possible. Deep caves might have been used as immersive places, where the sequences were presented by the flickering light of torches, and rhythmic sounds echoed due to the caverns’ acoustic qualities:  a kind of pre-cinema, conceived by creative minds for a community, or better, an audience.

The film Quand Homo Sapiens faisait son cinéma belongs to the genre of docu-drama. The protagonist is the author of the study, Marc Azéma, who guides viewers step by step through his research. It is not the story of a sudden, sensational discovery; it is rather the narration of a progressive intellectual journey, composed of reflections, tensions and final goals. Archaeological research is often difficult, made up of intuitions and afterthoughts, and a cinematic narrative can help to show the audience the tensions within this process.

The documentary hits the nail on the head. Marc Azéma takes us on a journey to the most astonishing Paleolithic caves in France, Spain and Portugal; we see him working in his office or trying out 2D and 3D renderings; we join him in passionate debates with other people, not only enthusiastic colleagues, but also skeptical cinema historians.

The involvement of scholars from other fields of study clearly shows Azéma’s need to not remain trapped in his discipline, but to have a continuous debate with other experts. These are prehistorians such as Antonio Baptista and Jean Clottes; historians of cinema such as Dominique Willoughby and Laurent Mannoni; ethologists such as Craig Packer; musicologists such as Iègor Reknikoff, and experts in reconstructing prehistoric artifacts, like Gilles Tosello and Florent Rivère. Each one of them adds a piece to the archaeological jigsaw puzzle created by Azéma, stressing the importance of an inter-disciplinary investigation. Sometimes these specialists are interviewed; more often, they talk directly with the protagonist. The use of dialogue as a means to represent the process of building knowledge is very efficient in documentaries. It lets the audience clarify difficult concepts while giving variety to the story, since every participant has a different physicality, timbre and gestures.

Regarding the film’s direction, Cuissot and Azéma seem to observe the main rules of cinematic grammar. Long shots, close-ups and sequence shots appear pleasantly molded together by the editing process. Scenes have been shot with drones, steady cam and hand-held camera. Drone sequences fill the documentary with spectacular scenes, offering broad views of natural cave landscapes; we see pristine places, which still maintain the environmental characteristics that attracted the primitive communities there, more than 30,000 years ago. Steady cam is used for interviews and long shots, while the hand-held camera is preferred for rapid action and close-ups. When the experimental archaeologist Florènt Rivere builds the replica of a prehistorical artifact, the camera zooms in on details. Rivere’s hands, fingers and eyes, his actions as well, all fill the whole frame, highlighting the effort made by contemporary man to catch a glimpse of a 12,000 year old craft technique.  

Lights and music are also fundamental for increasing emotions and atmosphere. Inside the caves, real people become shadows. They are backlit when they speak, while painted lions, horses and bison emerge from the rock in all their majestic colors and movements, stressing the contrast between reality and imagination, between present and past. The original soundtrack, composed by Renauld Barbier, is an interesting medley of classical and tribal sounds. Piano, choirs and bass, as well as percussion and lithophones, have been mixed with natural sounds such as birds singing, rivers flowing, wind blowing through trees, echoes and the sound of water dripping inside the cave. Such effects intensify the magical atmosphere that these ancient places have always had for human beings.

Its peculiar subject, effective script and the technical care employed have all contributed to making the documentary a remarkable success. During 2016 and 2017 the docu-drama was screened at public events held in cinemas, museums and universities, and distributed via DVD, web and TV channels. It also competed in the most important archaeological film festivals in Europe and the United States, winning acclaim such as the ‘Città di Rovereto –Archeologia Viva’ and ‘CinemAMoRe’ awards at the XXVII Rassegna Internazionale del Cinema Archeologico in Rovereto (Italy), the Jury Special Award at the XIII Festival International du Film Archéologique in Nyon (Switzerland) and the Jury Award at the Festival du Film d’Archéologie d’Amiens (France).

The Stone Age in cinema, or cinema in the Stone Age, then? Maybe both. 

Judging from the success of this documentary, a prehistoric topic can be advantageously developed through a powerful cinematic plot. Prehistory has always attracted different types of people, because of its associated aura of mystery, which surrounds this era due to the lack of written sources. Nevertheless, we can easily imagine what that immersive experience in the womb of the earth was like. A kind of proto-cinema, when a graphic story was narrated to our prehistoric ancestors with visual frames, light and sound effects. We can feel their strongest emotions rise when they see in those drawings references to the circumstances of their own lives, represented allegorically by peaceful herbivores struggling for survival, as well as the ferocious predators with whom they shared the role of being hunters. Those primitive humans do not look so distant from us. They are maybe closer than we might expect – filled with fears, expectations and creativity, exactly like us. It just depends on which way we decide to point the camera.