Bresson was above all an individualist who created his own form of the cinema for himself rather than for audiences. He thus belonged not to the past, but to the present and future of cinema. The key New Wave figures – Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais, and others-revered him and would use his model of independence, along with their own theoretical writings for Cahiers du Cinéma, as the springboard for their films, creating a new cinematic language that would drastically modify conventional rules of film grammar and syntax.
One of the first New Wave directors was Agnès Varda. Still active as a filmmaker today, and now part of the twentieth-century digital vanguard starting with her film Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, 2000), Varda was born in Belgium in 1928. She initially intended to become a museum curator, but due to her interest in photography she became the official photographer for the Theater Festival of Avignon, France, in 1947.
In 1956, working with traditional 35 mm production equipment and relying solely on her experience as a still photographer, Varda successfully completed her first feature film, La Pointe Courte, several years before Godard, Resnais, or Truffaut made their feature debuts. Telling the tale of a young married couple in the fishing village of La Pointe Courte, France, the film was hailed for its freshness and its audacious film technique.
Indeed, future New Wave director Alain Resnais served as Varda’s editor on La Pointe Courte, and when advised of her editorial strategy for the film he almost walked off the project: perhaps he was unhappy that her “parallel” editing style of pursuing two imagistic or narrative strands simultaneously so closely anticipated techniques that he himself would use in his debut feature Hiroshima mon amour (Hiroshima, My Love 1959).
Jean Rouch was the foremost French documentary filmmaker of the era, most notably with Les Magiciens de Wanzerbé (The Magicians of Wanzerbé, 1948, co-directed with Marcel Griaule) and Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), which depict the rituals and lifestyle of the Soughay people of West Africa. His style of detached observation sets his work apart from more participatory documentarians, with a minimum of interaction between himself and his subjects. The author of more than seventy-five ethnographic films, he documented not only the indigenous culture of West Africa but also the deleterious effects of colonialism on those whose lives he records. He also ventured into the area of “staged documentaries,” such as Moi, un noir (I, a Black Man, 1958), which explores the consumerist fantasies of a group of West African citizens.
Acutely conscious of his position as an outsider, Rouch went to great pains to depict the racial divide inherently present as an underlying factor in all his work, as in La Pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961), in which a group of African and French teenagers are thrown into close contact with one another, exposing the racist assumptions behind all colonial cinema.
Alain Resnais also made his initial reputation as a documentarian with the searing short film Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), one of the most effective examinations of the Holocaust ever made. Mixing black-and-white atrocity footage of the concentration camps taken by the Nazis themselves with color images of the death camps standing idle and overgrown with grass and weeds, Resnais weaves a haunting tapestry of memory and disaster, seamlessly moving back and forth in time to show the Nazis’ mechanism of genocide in its full horror.