PRINT November 2015


Still from Jean Rouch’s Moi, un noir, 1958, 35 mm, color, sound, 80 minutes. Edward G. Robinson (Oumarou Ganda) and Dorothy Lamour (Mademoiselle Gambi).

NEW IDEAS in motion pictures typically arrive from the so-called margins. Thus, modern (or postmodern) cinema comes to Europe by way of Africa. Working out his own particular destiny as an ethnographic filmmaker in France’s West African colonies, Jean Rouch (1917–2004) invented the French New Wave.

A professional anthropologist with a long-standing interest in Surrealism and, by his own account, an early regular at the Cinémathèque Française, Rouch credited the introduction of the 16-mm format with the “revival of ethnographic films.” He himself became a filmmaker when he started packing a secondhand Bell & Howell found in a Paris flea market on his West African field trips in the mid-1950s. His first short efforts were distinguished by their pragmatic resourcefulness and a kind of honest sensationalism that bespoke an imagination closer to that of Luis Buñuel than to that of John Grierson (the British filmmaker and critic who popularized the term documentary in his review of Robert Flaherty’s Moana in 1926).

Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), shot in 1953 and 1954 in the Gold Coast, the British colony that a few years later would become independent Ghana, showed members of the Hauka cult in the throes of spiritual possession, drinking dogs’ blood, frothing at the mouth, and going out of their minds—all as a means of hilariously mocking their colonial overlords. The thirty-six-minute movie was banned in England and the Gold Coast but caused a small sensation in France, where it was shown commercially in 1957 on a bill with Ingmar Bergman’s circus drama Sawdust and Tinsel (initially released in Sweden in 1953).

Les maîtres fous inspired Jean Genet to write Les nègres (The Blacks, 1958), and Peter Brook would show the movie to his actors while rehearsing Peter Weiss’s play Marat/Sade (1964), but Rouch’s African friends were scarcely more pleased by it than were the British authorities. The filmmaker took these criticisms seriously and began to experiment with new forms. Pushing beyond the ethnographic romances contrived by Edward S. Curtis and Flaherty during the silent era and further developing Flaherty’s collaboration with his subjects, Rouch introduced fictional and reflexive elements, including commentary, into his longer documentaries—films that sometimes took years to complete. (Jaguar, which both documented and staged aspects of the annual migration of workers from Niger to the West African coast, was filmed largely in 1954, finished in 1967, and first shown in 1971.)

Famous in France and encouraged to document his own culture, Rouch made Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), an investigation of “happiness” in the lives of Parisians. The film was conceived and directed in collaboration with the left-wing sociologist Edgar Morin, who called it “an experiment lived by its authors and its actors.” Whether or not the project achieved its announced goal, it successfully problematized the notion of acting naturally on camera. With direct interviews facilitated by its pioneering use of 16-mm sync sound, Chronicle is generally considered the first example of cinéma vérité and thus the founding work of contemporary documentary. Rouch had, however, already produced a more radical work, Moi, un noir (1958), made in (a less acknowledged) collaboration with the Nigerian longshoreman Oumarou Ganda.

Filmed in Abidjan, the capital of the French colony Côte d’Ivoire, Moi, un noir features a group of young immigrants from Niger, who, for the most part, played themselves as well as their ego ideals. While Rouch’s methodology had antecedents in Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana, its break with pseudo-observational ethnographic procedure made it analogous to such contemporary documentary fictions as Lionel Rogosin’s Neorealist On the Bowery (1956), a scripted, if minimal, drama enacted by the denizens of New York’s skid row. His principals were acting in the movie of their lives.

Originally titled Treichville, after the Abidjan slum where it is largely set, Moi, un noir resolved a particular ethical dilemma. Anthropology was once defined by Claude Lévi-Strauss, who disapproved of Rouch’s movies, as a “state of affairs in which one part of mankind treat[s] the other as an object”—a description equally applicable to cinema. Thus, as suggested by its title, Moi, un noir was as much psychodrama as ethnographic film, even while raising the question of moi’s identity. (“I is an other,” as Rimbaud famously put it.)

Moi, un noir was the first motion picture in which an African subject spoke about his life. Rouch called the movie “the result of an encounter between two people”—himself and Ganda, a day laborer, or bozzori, he had met in the port of Abidjan. Rouch hired Ganda (who completed primary school in Niger and, having served with the French colonial army in Indochina, had been on both sides of the colonial equation) to research his fellow immigrants. Ganda became the filmmaker’s Virgil, introducing Rouch to the “boxers and prostitutes” of Treichville.

For six months, Rouch documented his subjects—including Ganda, who, both playing the role of and working as a bozzori, wears a costume of rags for part of the film—and their milieu, shooting spontaneously and freely. “During the week M. Rouch would not leave me for a moment,” Ganda later recalled in an article published, as part of a Rouch dossier, by Cahiers du Cinéma in 1960.

The morning after the Saturday night, a gentleman was asking for me: It’s a European, it’s M. Rouch. And he followed me all day with his camera in his hand. I was treated like an idiot because I was making a film, but it wasn’t a normal film, because I was telling the story of my private life.

Using his lightweight Bell & Howell, Rouch filmed the bozzoris’ routines: loading cargo on Europe-bound ships, getting cheap meals in the marketplace, going out on Saturday night. Scenes were staged so as to create an account of a single week in their lives. Rouch further documented their inner worlds, to some degree formed by French and especially American popular culture, as well as their relative freedom from the society into which they were born. (“In a sense, the characters are seen as already living out a ‘fictional reality’ in Treichville, far from their homes and traditional lives in Niger,” the British critic Mick Eaton wrote in his 1979 compendium Anthropology—Reality—Cinema: The Films of Jean Rouch.)

Surrounded by advertising posters and murals, Rouch’s subjects assumed movie-star aliases: Ganda appeared as “Edward G. Robinson.” The two other principals are known as “Eddie Constantine” and “Dorothy Lamour.” Non-actors are shown playing characters who are, in some sense—at least so far as the camera is concerned—themselves. At the same time, as young people acting like they are young people acting in a movie, they have a self-invented mythic quality.

Moi, un noir is open-ended and pragmatic. The style is a function of necessity; it arose from the impossibility of shooting sync sound and from the fact that Rouch’s spring-driven camera had to be rewound every twenty-five seconds. As André Bazin wrote of Rossellini’s Paisan (1946), every shot is an event, although the narrative is created less through montage than through the dubbed voice-over that annotates the footage.

Still from Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters), 1955, 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, 36 minutes.

Chronicle of a Summer, which was shot with direct sound, includes a coda in which the movie’s actors were interviewed after seeing the rushes. In Moi, un noir, the participants comment directly. “We put together the narration in two days—for a film that was two hours long at that point,” Rouch recalled. “We recorded at the radio station of Abidjan, with the projector shining through the window from outside, so that we could hear Oumarou.” Others say that the dialogue was recorded in a studio in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris. In any case, the improvised commentary is mixed with ambient street noise possibly recorded around Abidjan. (Rouch only acknowledges Ganda’s commentary, although Touré Mohammed, known as Eddie Constantine in the movie, is also heard. That Mademoiselle Gambi, aka Dorothy Lamour, is functionally silent throughout is a factor of the movie’s unacknowledged and pervasive sexism.)

Narrative, for Rouch, is a means to justify the filming of that which he found before the camera: Muslims praying in the street, spectators at a soccer match, bystanders ogling the aftermath of a car crash. “I’m only ever happy on Saturdays,” Ganda remarks in the voice-over, and the footage that corroborates his claim—a sequence in which he, Constantine, Lamour, and other friends are seen taking a taxi to the beach, frolicking in the surf, and capering in the sand—is comparable in its celebration of youthful leisure time to the 1930 German proto-Neorealist youth film People on Sunday (and also echoes the innocent play of the Polynesian natives in People on Sunday’s secret sharer, the 1931 F. W. Murnau–Flaherty collaboration Tabu).

Some sequences, however, are blatantly performative, as when Constantine, partnered by the beautiful Nathalie, wins a dance contest at a Treichville nightclub, La Goumbé. Other activities are staged. Robinson’s perhaps sincere flirtation with Lamour is disrupted by the attentions of an Italian sailor (played by a French sound technician whose voice would be dubbed by an Italian ethnographic filmmaker), leaving the disconsolate protagonist to go off by himself and get so drunk that he is ejected from the bar.

Here the movie drifts into fantasy. “I didn’t hesitate to introduce the dimensions of the imaginary, of the unreal,” Rouch later remarked. Robinson envisions a future life with Lamour, shown seminude and happy. The more prosaic reality has Robinson coming by her house to find the door opened by the “Italian.” The two men fight—just like in the movies. In the end, Moi, un noir becomes Ganda’s statement; it concludes with fictionalized flashbacks to his childhood in Niger (shot, most likely, in Ghana) and his military service in Indochina. Ganda, who ultimately returned to Niger and himself became a filmmaker, made his first short feature, Cabascabo (1969), on the subject.

Operating in the gap between nonfiction and fiction recognized by People on Sunday and Luchino Visconti’s La terra trema (1948), Moi, un noir may be the movie that first put forth the echt-’60s notion that life itself is a sort of movie—that anything captured on film is part of the spectacle and that anyone is worth watching. In that sense, Moi, un noir anticipates the long-take improvisations of Warhol films such as Poor Little Rich Girl (1965), his portrait of Edie Sedgwick at home, and of Pedro Costa’s extraordinary situational documentary No quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), wherein Lisbon slum dwellers dramatize their condition or at least play themselves talking before the camera.

Decades before that, Rouch’s films had stunned the young critics at Cahiers du Cinéma—which repeatedly published Rouch’s scripts. Claude Chabrol was naively amazed by the performances in Les maîtres fous. (“How can he direct actors like that?” he supposedly asked Rouch’s distributor.) The beach sequence in Moi, un noir was thought by some to have inspired the final scene of François Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959). In 1965, seven Cahiers critics named Rouch’s La pyramide humaine (1961) one of the ten greatest French films of the postwar era. Jacques Rivette, who said in 1968 that “Rouch is the force behind all French cinema of the past ten years,” credits the four-hours-plus cut of Petit à petit (Little by Little, 1970) as “the main impulse” behind his thirteen-hour Out 1: Noli me tangere (1971). (A digital restoration of Out 1 premieres this month at BAMcinématek in New York.)

A onetime student of ethnology, Godard was the New Wave’s most enthusiastic Rouchian. He thought Chronicle of a Summer to be epochal—“the first time I heard a worker speak in a movie,” he later remarked. But he deemed Moi, un noir “the greatest French film since the Liberation,” “a text of wonderful verve and spontaneity,” “a paving stone in the marsh of French cinema, as Rome Open City in its day was in world cinema.”

That Godard’s Alphaville (1965) stars the real Eddie Constantine is more likely a happy coincidence than a deliberate tribute to Rouch’s film, but the first few scenes of Breathless (1960)—the “found” movie poster, the fragmentary editing, the blatant postdubbing, the sudden bursts of music, the Belmondo character’s brazen attitude and self-aggrandizing voice-over commentary—are Moi, un noir by other means. The rest of the movie, and much of Godard’s career, follows.

On the other hand, the first fully African “New Wave” movie, Ousmane Sembène’s debut feature, La noire de . . . (Black Girl, 1966), a stunningly spare, inventive, and conceptually elegant portrait of colonial displacement, can be read as an answer to—and critique of—Moi, un noir.

La noire de . . . opens, as if referencing one of Ganda’s memories (or fantasies) in Rouch’s movie, with shots of a boat from Africa docking in Europe. The “authentic” mask that Sembène’s protagonist, Diouana (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), gives as a gift to her French employers suggests that even these haute-bourgeois neocolonialists are amateur ethnographers.

The cast is nonprofessional but poised and fashionable, neither traditional nor Westernized; Diop’s Diouana is as stylized a being as Hollywood star Jean Seberg in the Neorealist world of Breathless. That La noire de . . . is also a post-Breathless film is apparent in its abrupt tonal and musical shifts, in its use of voice-over, natural lighting, and handheld camera, and even in its Côte d’Azur setting—although what’s most striking about the location is its harsh whiteness, at once blazingly hot and emotionally frozen. It is a realm where Sembène’s deterritorialized, objectified, and doomed noire can be heard only in voice-over, as if speaking from beyond the grave.

Sembène was formed both by the struggle against French colonialism and, as a soldier in World War II, by the struggle to defend it. A docker in Marseille, where he lived from 1947 to 1960, he joined the French Communist Party in 1950. No less than Frantz Fanon, Sembène pondered the psychology of the colonizer and the colonized, and La noire de . . . , which places at the center of the film the consciousness of its protagonist, who is brought from her home in West Africa to the South of France to serve her white employers as a domestic servant, is a definitive and still-fresh essay on the subject.

In 1965, Sembène wrote that Rouch’s attitude toward his African subjects was that of an entomologist—that he “dwelt on a reality without showing its evolution.” (La noire de . . . , which depicts Dakar as a mixture of the modern and the archaic, treats French neocolonialists as specimens.) But Rouch, hardly so scientific, was more of an explorer. Godard placed him among those filmmakers who “don’t know exactly what they’re doing, and search for it. The film is the search.”

Jean Rouch’s Moi, un noir is available on DVD from Icarus Films in the US and from Éditions Montparnasse in France. The Film Foundation’s new digital restoration of La noire de . . . made its US debut at the New York Film Festival last month.

J. Hoberman is a frequent contributor to Artforum.