Pierre Gaisseau

by Susan Tobin

Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau (1923–1997), explorer and filmmaker, is best known now as a documentary filmmaker. His film, Le Ciel et la boue (The Sky Above, the Mud Below), an account of his 1959-60 expedition to Dutch New Guinea, won the first Oscar for a documentary in 1962. A longtime friend of Alan Lomax's, Gaisseau left in Lomax's research collection many unpublished films and sound recordings he had made on his expeditions to unknown and little known parts of the world. After Gaisseau's death, at his widow's request, these were sent to France to become part of the French National Archives. 

Born in Charleville-Mézières, France (near the Belgian border), in 1923, Pierre Gaisseau's education was interrupted by World War II. After the Germans invaded Charleville, in May, 1940, his father, director of an electricity company and a decorated former a cavalry officer in North Africa, gave the seventeen year-old Pierre his blessings and some money and sent him away to escape the coming chaos. After a thwarted attempt to join the French army, the boy made his way to the village of Montignac-sur-Vézère, in southwest France, where there was a family contact. His arrival more or less coincided with the spectacular discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings at nearby Lascaux by four teen-age boys and their dog on September 12, 1940. One of the boys, Marcel Ravidat, lived next door to Pierre and gave him an unauthorized tour of the caves. 

The following year, Gaisseau assisted Collège de France professor, l'Abbé Breuil, in his researches at the site. It was the formative experience of Gaisseau's life: the revelation of a prehistoric world sparked a lifelong interest in ethnography and man's origins that he would later explore more fully in Africa, South America, and New Guinea. Also, it was while working at Lascaux that he met the people who started him on his career as filmmaker. 

Gaisseau's wartime experiences proved an excellent preparation for his future adventurous life. He continued his education by attending the Institut Polytechnique de Grenoble (1941-42) and, after an abortive attempt to escape to Spain, returned there in 1943 for some months. In June of 1943, he joined the French underground forces, working with them in France and behind enemy lines, until, following Gestapo retaliation at the end of the year against his comrades, he was again alone. After some time spent in hiding at the French National Ski School he was able to make his way to friends in Paris. In August 1944 he joined the French Army for a short period during which he briefly trained as a parachutist. He served with distinction and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. A year later, in September 1945, he was demobilized at his own request. 

Two chance encounters—coincidentally, both on the Champs Elysées—started Gaisseau's post-war career. The first was with Maurice Thaon (godson of the l'Abbé Breuil) immediately after the war. After a night of celebration which left Gaisseau broke, Thaon invited him to join a group he was organizing to photograph historic monuments in Aix-en-Provence and Marseille. Some time later Thaon suggested that Gaisseau apply to join one of several expeditions to Africa then being organized. From August to December 1946, Gaisseau was a film cameraman in the expedition sponsored by the Musée de l'Homme to Ogooué-Congo, home of the Pygmies. Also on the expedition was Gilbert Rouget, Musicologist at the Musée de l'Homme, who became Gaisseau's lifelong friend and introduced him to ethnic music. The music of the Pygmies, recorded at that time, was a revelation much discussed in the ethnomusicological world that was to be of great importance to Rouget and Gaisseau's mutual friend, Alan Lomax, in the development of his Cantometrics theories.

Shortly after his return from Africa, Gaisseau ran into Bernard de Colmont, whom he had assisted in making a documentary film about the Lascaux caves in 1942. Colmont was at that time well-known for having kayaked with his wife, the first woman to do so, down the Colorado rapids in 1938. When they met on the Champs Elysées, Colmont was making rushed preparations for an immediate departure to the United States, where he was to make a documentary on American National Parks. On the spur of the moment he asked Gaisseau to join him. The last National Park of their 1947-48 U. S. tour was the Florida Everglades: at the invitation of some fishermen Gaisseau decided to stay in Florida, while de Colmont returned to France. In his autobiography Gaisseau commented that although their parting was a little upsetting, it was necessary sometimes to "provoke" adventure rather than just waiting for it to happen. 

During 1949 and 1950 Gaisseau spent eighteen months on an adventure-filled expedition to the Orinoco-Amazon region of South America, traveling in Venezuela, Colombia, and Manaus (Brazil), where for a time he lived among the Yanomami. In contrast to the Ogooué-Congo expedition, which had been sponsored by the Musée de l'Homme, this South American expedition started very informally in Paris, when Gaisseau and two new friends decided to go to Colombia to make a film on a coffee plantation owned by the family of one of the friends. When they arrived in Bogotá, then in the midst of a civil war, they decided to leave and travel towards Manaus. It was during this expedition that Gaisseau recorded the Piaroa and Pruinave music that is in Alan Lomax's collections. 

In 1951, Pierre Gaisseau was the first recipient of the Prize of the Société des Explorateurs et des Voyageurs français. That year he traveled to Guinea, Africa, where he spent time among the Nalou, the Bassari, and the Toma, whose secret initiation rites he was permitted to film, after himself submitting to a tribal initiation. The resulting documentary, Forêt sacrée (1952), narrated by Gerard Phillipe, won first prize at the 1953 Basle film festival. Gaisseau's book of the same name, Forêt sacrée: Magie et rites secrets des Toma (Albin Michel, 1953) was translated into eight languages with English editions issued in the United States by Knopf and by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in England.

A 1954 expedition to Papua New Guinea (the half of the island then under Australian control) brought Gaisseau into contact with previously uncontacted indigenous peoples whose culture had not changed since the Stone Age. His book about the experience, Visa pour la prehistoire: Shangrila, la vallee perdue de Nouvelle Guinee, was published in 1956 and translated into English by Irish novelist Constantine Fitzgibbon. The documentary film he made about this trip Survivants de la prehistoire won first prize at the 1956 Venice Film Festival.

In 1959 Gaisseau spent some time in Mali (Africa) and recorded rare ceremonial music of the Dogon, some of which is in the Alan Lomax Archive. 1959 also saw the release of the Hollywood film Green Mansions, set in a South American jungle and based on a 1904 best seller by the writer and naturalist, W. H. Hudson. It was directed by Mel Ferrer and starred Anthony Perkins and Audrey Hepburn as Rima the bird girl. The credits list "Primitive music courtesy of Pierre Gaisseau and Alan Lomax." 

In 1959-60 Gaisseau embarked on the New Guinea expedition documented in his most celebrated film, Le Ciel et la boue (The Sky Above and the Mud Below). Under his leadership a small team of French and Dutch explorers investigated and filmed in previously unexplored parts of what was then Dutch New Guinea, fighting leeches, building fourteen bridges, and climbing above 10,000 feet. They encountered villagers who invited them to live with them and observe their rites, or, in a few cases, fought them off. Andre Malraux called Le Ciel et la boueone of"the most important documents of our epoch." Bosley Crowther's June 20, 1962, New York Times review praised its "almost poetic narration" (based on Gaisseau's script) and described its contents as follows:

There are...arduous bridge-buildings and crossings of dangerous streams, difficult climbs up rain-washed mountains and vital provisioning from an airplane flying over them from Hollandia. Two or three critical episodes, such as meetings with tribes and gatherings, appear to have been staged or re-enacted, but that is all right and understandable. The film as a whole is authentic and overwhelmingly real.

Le Ciel et la boue was the recipient of a Golden Neptune Award at the 1961 Festival of Trento and the 1962 Academy Award winner for best documentary feature.

Gaisseau's next film, The Flame and the Fire (1963), a montage of footage of indigenous peoples in various parts of the world, was produced at the suggestion of the Walter Read Organization in the wake of the success of Le Ciel et la boue. It was not as well received as the latter, however. Two subsequent films focused on New York City. Produced by Embassy Pictures, Only One New York (1962-63), "a love poem about our city" (according to The New York Times), explored aspects of New York's many subcultures in the 1960s, including glimpses of a Gypsy wedding celebrated in Coney Island to music from a black R & B band; Japanese Buddhists on Riverside Drive; a Haitian voodoo ceremony in the Bronx; and Playboy bunnies playing tackle football in Central Park. Round Trip (1967), a drama scripted by William Duffy dealt with an interracial romance between a Frenchman and an African-American model. It featured music by Jimmie Raye (Mr. Soul Spectacular), performing live at the Purple Palace Café on 125th Street and was produced by the Walter Read Organization.

In 1966-67, Gaisseau embarked on the African adventure with the artist and jazz saxophonist Larry Rivers, which he documented in the film, Africa and I. Among the countries they visited were Ethiopia, Kenya, Burundi, Zaire, and Nigeria. In Nigeria, then in the throes of the Biafra war, they were mistaken for French spies and escaped execution only because of timely intervention by their governments. Africa and I was shown on NBC as part of a series called Experiment in Television on Sunday, April 28, 1968. As part of the same series, Gaisseau's 1968-69 film Bye Bye Butterfly was shown on NBC on April 13, 1969. According to a television listing in Time magazine, "Contemporary Madame Butterfly is the theme for 'Bye Bye Butterfly', a Japanese film followed through production stages with a special eye for changing (and contrasting) American and Japanese attitudes. Film Maker Pierre Gaisseau put it together in Tokyo."

In the seventies Gaisseau made several other films for major television networks. Man is my Name (NBC 1969-70) is an account Gaisseau's return to the half of the Island of New Guinea where he had filmed Le Ciel et la boue (then Dutch New Guinea), now (after 1969), under the control of Indonesia, called Irian. Inspired by the theories of Marshall McLuhan, Gaisseau was interested in documenting the response of "primitive" peoples to modern audiovisual media (coincidentally, anthropologist Edumund Carpenter was doing something very similar on the Australian half of the island). Because the governments of Indonesia and Australia could not agree about the use of a helicopter, it was decided that Gaisseau and his party, accompanied by a dozen Indonesian soldiers, would parachute into the mountainous country. Both Gaisseau and his 18-year-old son Nicolas, accompanying his father for the first time, narrowly escaped death on several occasions during this highly dangerous trip. Gaisseau's next film, ironically titled The Gooks (1972), about child victims of the Vietnam War, was produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and distributed in prime time by NBC and then PBS. It was called one of the best accounts of Vietnam by The New York Times. Profits from this film went to the Hospital for Reconstructive Surgery for Children in Saigon. Quien Sabe (1972-73), a made-for-television film about Colombia, was also produced by the CBC.

During this period, while Gaisseau was living in New York, a neighbor, Lili Caljún, from Panama, suggested he make a documentary about the Kuna (or Cuna) people of her country. Best known today for their colorful appliquéd textiles called molas, the Kuna are now largely restricted to the San Blas islands off Panama's coasts, but in pre-Columbian times they were the most populous ethnic group throughout Panama and Colombia. They are a matrilineal society in which there is a marked equality between the sexes. To better communicate with them, Gaisseau enlisted the assistance of renowned Panamanian poet, Arysteides Turpana, himself a Kuna. The presence of Gaisseau's wife, Kyoko and, most importantly, of their three-year- old daughter Akiko were equally, if not more helpful in winning the Kuna's friendship during the family's stay in that female-centered society. Ultimately, Gaisseau proved so successful in gaining their trust that he became the first person ever to film Kuna female initiation rites, which no outsider had been previously been allowed to view, let alone film. His made-for-television film, Iberogun (God is a Woman), 1975-76, 52 min., is invaluable as a documentation of Kuna culture. It is highly unfortunate that it has been withdrawn from distribution because of legal difficulties in France in connection with its funding. Some of Gaisseau's sound recordings of Kuna music are in the Alan Lomax Collection at the Library of Congress. There is also a fascinating recorded discussion (T3640) between Gaisseau and Alan Lomax about the Kuna and their music, which is rich in lullabies, in the Discussions and Interviews catalog in the Lomax Digital Archive. In it he is heard telling Gaisseau that he finds the music of the Kuna as beautiful if not more so than the better-known Andean music of Bolivia and Peru. 

Gaisseau's last book, Vivre pour voir, published in 1981, recounts his expeditions and adventures. Aventurier, a 1985-86 autobiographical film, was shown on French television as a mini-series. At the time of his death in Paris from complications of heart surgery on October 22, 1997, he had been preparing for a trip paragliding in the Alps.

Pierre Gaisseau's pioneering documentary films were important contributions to the study of indigenous cultures. Although his work was sometimes controversial - some of his footage found its way into Paolo Cavara and Gualtiero Jacopetti's 1962 "shockumentary" Mondo Cane it is necessary to remember Gaisseau was working before the use of film in anthropology became a widely accepted practice. Criticisms that he sensationalized his subject matter or was motivated by mere curiosity seem unfair, given his lifelong record as a humanitarian and the invaluable contributions he made to the record of human culture. His accomplishment as a documentarian went beyond what anyone else was doing at the time. The commercial nature of some of Gaisseau's ventures can be put down to the struggle of surviving as a documentary filmmaker and of funding the next film, his many prizes and honors notwithstanding. In his autobiography Gaisseau recounts how on his return from his first expedition to Africa, the producers of the film he had worked on there sent him a check so small that it was insulting. He tore it into pieces before returning it to them.

Pierre Gaisseau was a man of boundless good nature, affection, and liberality of spirit. His circle of friends embraced people from all walks of life. With Alan Lomax, as with Gilbert Rouget, he shared a particularly warm and enduring friendship. Shortly after Gaisseau's death, his widow, Kyoko Kosaka, recalled the happiness she felt when at their home in Paris she saw "Alan, Rouget and Pierre excited in idealistic discussion" (letter to Anna Wood). 

Gaisseau's first wife was Anne Marie Fichter with whom he had two children, Catherine and Nicolas. This marriage ended in divorce, and he subsequently married Kyoko Kosaka, with whom he had a daughter, Akiko Kosaka, who is a filmmaker like her father, working in Japan.