PRINT October 2000


Jean Rouch

“WE WANTED TO MAKE A FlLM of love, but in the end it came out somewhat impersonal,” sighs Edgar Morin at the end of Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a summer, 1961), the sociologist's collaboration with filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch. Beginning with the question “Are you happy?,” the film documents a group of Morin's friends in Paris, following them to dinner parties, at work, and on dates and getting them to reveal their innermost thoughts. A sociological exercise, an experimental film, a passionate inquiry into the meaning of Parisian life ca. 1960, Chronique d'un été, like most of Rouch's works, defies simple categorization.

Trained as a civil engineer in Paris in the late '30s, Rouch was a regular at the then newly founded Cinémathèque Française, housed in the Musée de I'Homme, where he began studying anthropology with Marcel Griaule during the war. Employed by the French government as an ethnographic researcher beginning in the late '40s, he spent most of his career studying and filming the Songhay people in West Africa. But Rouch's influence extends far beyond anthropology: One of the Nouvelle Vague's many “fathers” (Jean-Luc Godard cites him as a major influence), Rouch was the wellspring of what would come to be known as cinema verité, and he continues to influence contemporary filmmakers and artists (Christopher Williams and Sharon Lockhart, for instance, have recently expressed great interest in his work). His films are poetic documents that cross genres, shatter preconceptions, and invite philosophical inquiry.

Rouch, who turned eighty-three this past spring, is currently experiencing one of his periodic revivals—academic conferences at New York University last spring and at the London Consortium this summer, a miniretrospective of his films at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and now (Oct. 4–Dec. 31) the Musée de I'Homme in Paris hosts “Jean Rouch: Récits Photographiques,” an exhibition culled from some 20,000 photographs from the filmmaker's archive, which he recently donated to the institution, including a trove of images from the Songhay region in the '40s. A by-product of his filmmaking, the photos have never before been shown on their own, except for a small exhibition last spring at NYU's Maison Française.

It is still a sublime shock to catch a rare screening of Les Maîtres fous (The mad masters, 1955), perhaps Rouch's most controversial work. The film records the yearly spirit-possession ritual among the Hauka, a Nigerian religious group that emerged in the '20s. For Western viewers, the film's power depends on the startling revelation that the gods violently possessing the members of the cult—causing them to foam at the mouth, stagger like madmen, and snatch pieces of dog meat from a boiling pot—are not ancient spirits, but the supernatural shades of their colonial oppressors. One cult member is possessed by the Governor, others by the General and his staff; the movements of the Hauka mimic the rigid gestures of these colonial masters, as Rouch shows them in a parade-ground march.

This thirty-six-minute short opens up endless questions about the “colonial mind,” as well as the relationship between modern cinema and archaic ritual. The film implicitly makes a comparison between the cinematographic reproduction of the tribal spectacle and the sacred reenactment of colonial spectacle within the possession rituals themselves. “What's being mimicked is mimicry itself—within its colonial shell,” notes anthropologist Michael Taussig, speaking of Les Maîtres fous in his 1992 book Mimesis and Alterity. “The primitivism within modernism is allowed to flower. In this colonial world where the camera meets those possessed by gods, we can truly point to the Western rebirth of the mimetic faculty by means of modernity's mimetic machinery.” Rouch himself spoke of his process of filmmaking as entering a “cine-trance,” during which he was possessed by the mechanical eye and ear of the camera.

Les Maîtres fous has been called the greatest anticolonialist movie ever made, yet when Rouch first showed a silent version of it in Paris, Griaule, among others, asked that he destroy it. They feared the film would confirm every stereotype held by Westerners about “savages.” In response to their criticisms, Rouch recorded a voice-over narration that adds humor and humanity to the spectacle. To this day, fearing misunderstandings, he does not allow the film to be shown to the general public unless he is in attendance. Perhaps because of such fears, his works are largely unavailable on videotape.

Rouch promotes the idea of a “shared anthropology,” which he describes as “a new method of research that consists of ‘sharing’ with the people who, before, were only the objects of study.” Rouch's efforts to make anthropological objects into participating subjects is evident in his films Moi, un noir (Me, a black man, 1958) and Jaguar (1971), two experiments in “ethnofiction, as he calls it. The films chronicle the phenomenon of Songhay migration to the Gold Coast and allow their young male protagonists to create, and then narrate, their own travel adventures. The works that result are filled with a spirit of play and improvisation, while the voice-overs disrupt the Western audience's ability to distance itself from the characters. At one point in Jaguar, for example, the young wanderers meet the Somba, a remote and utterly naked mountain tribe. ”These are gentle people,“ notes one of the men. ”We shouldn't mock the Somba just because they are nude. God wanted them this way."

Rouch's commitment to the Songhay culture now spans six decades, and in the African region where the filmmaker works he has achieved the status of griot, the bard who preserves the life of the past through stories and songs of praise to the ancestors. Among the Songhay, Rouch's films are seen as cinematic ballads recalling the men of the past, in many cases documenting rituals, such as lion hunts and Hauka possessions, that have since vanished or changed completely.

Jean Rouch is something of a bricoleur, as Lévi-Strauss defined it—that is, someone who builds as best he can with the materials at hand. Rouch turned to voice-over narration because synchronized sound was unavailable to him, and then turned the voice-over into a stylistic signature. He allowed himself to be influenced by the people he studied, absorbing some of their cosmology, openness, and joyful style, and these elements infuse his 100-odd films—works of high art, documents of anthropological importance, and also films of love.

Daniel Pinchbeck is an editor of Open City.