Jean Rouch 1917-2004
The news of the death of Jean Rouch at the age of 87 undoubtedly represents the end of a unique and idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking, though the circumstances of his passing might be considered entirely fitting. For he was, we read, killed in a car accident whilst attending a festival in Niger, where his very first film was shot in 1947.
The real tragedy, though, is that at the time of writing few of his films are available to an anglophone audience and, perhaps even worse, his influence upon current film practice seems to have been all but erased.
This was not always the case. In over fifty years of active and continued filming Rouch produced a prolific body of work – over 120 films – that is aesthetically and scientifically unrivalled. To call him merely a ‘filmmaker’ is to diminish his stature as a social scientist and human philosopher, whilst to label him an ‘anthropologist’ is to ignore the wonder of his artistry and poetry.
Rouch is perhaps best known as the instigator of the term cinéma-verité, a direct translation of Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda. Though this term was anglicised as ‘direct cinema’, Rouch’s practice was never content with simplistic notions of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ filming. Decades before post-modernism recognised that ethnography was a form of writing, Rouch was always aware that the observer could never absent (in this case) himself from the pro-filmic action, that he was a defining part of that action.
His first masterpiece was Les Maitres Fous (Mad Masters) in 1955, a film about the trance ceremonies of the Hauka cult in Ghana, then still a part of the British Empire. To a great extent the form of this short film was determined by overcoming technological limitations. Rouch shot with a hand-cranked 16mm camera that only allowed for shots of 25 seconds with a separate wind-up tape recorder. Rouch himself supplied the commentary, inaugurating a style of voice-over which he continued long after direct sound was available. But this was far from the detached, quasi-scientific ‘voice of God’, rather it was the voice of a man from a different world trying to understand as much as interpret.
The film was instantly appreciated by that current within French anthropology which remained in dialogue with surrealism (how unlike the home life of our own dear Deans). It inspired Jean Genet to write Les Noirs in which the colonised act out the bizarre, incomprehensible rituals of their colonisers. But it was also heavily criticised by some expatriate Africans in Paris who objected to the depiction of an African underclass who would, unlike themselves, never be post-colonial political leaders.
An ambiguity of response from the former French colonies in Africa continued throughout his career. Rouch was always instrumental in training his African collaborators, several of whom went on to have distinguished careers in film. He was never a hit-and-run documentarist. But others criticised him for never really understanding the cultures he was filming. Gaston Kaboré, the director from Burkino Faso was quoted in Rouch’s Guardian obituary: ‘a piece of wood does not become a crocodile because it has stayed long in the water’.
But what other filmmaker from the metropolitan north has struggled harder to understand African cultures than Rouch? And, in doing so, cast such new light on our own strange ways of being? I can think of no other documentarist whose work has been characterised by such philosophical and methodological honesty.
Rouch, who originally trained as an engineer, was always at the forefront of technological experimentation. Two films in particular had a profound influence upon the nouvelle vague. In Moi, un noir (Me, A Black Man), made in 1958, the central characters may live in the slums of Abidjan but their nicknames and inspirations come from Hollywood movies. Rather than being an ‘observational’ documentary, these young people are allowed to act out not only their lives but also their dreams. The film was shot silent, in actual locations and often at night, and the commentary was improvised by Oumarou Ganda aka Edward G. Robinson. A work of astounding complexity and clarity resulted. No wonder Godard called it ‘the best French film since the liberation’ as so many of his early films aspired to the purity of Moi, un noir.
Perhaps the film which had the greatest impact worldwide was Chronique d’un Eté (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961) which he made with the sociologist Edgar Morin, also known for his pioneering study of movie stars which provided a foundation for so many later and less original cultural studies. This was a film ‘about Paris’ shot with a prototype Eclair camera, the first, light silent portable 16mm kit with fully synchronised sound. Off the tripod and onto the operator’s shoulder, cinema would never look the same the again. It is hard to imagine Dogma without Rouch, though it easy to imagine what he might have thought of such quixotic commandments.
This was the film which he dubbed ‘an experiment in cinéma-verité’, but Rouch soon replaced ‘truth’ with ‘trance’. Filming Tourou et Bitti (1967), named after ceremonial drums which are played to induce possession, Rouch became aware that it was only because the participants realised that they were being filmed that the trance state was finally achieved. So, rather than being an outside observer of exotic phenomena, the filmmaker becomes a sort of shaman, whose very presence provokes and stimulates altered states. And the camera, rather than an objective recording device, becomes a kind of magician’s wand, an instrument of transformation. He never tries to efface or edit out his shadow falling over the ritual, for that is an integral part of the picture.
I would love to be able to provide an account of the way technological advances continue to influence Rouch’s filmmaking in the final years of his life, but I haven’t seen any of these most recent films, nor do I know anyone who has. When I was privileged to have lunch with my hero a few years ago at a colloquy in London I was rather surprised to hear his scathing remarks about the coming of digital technology. This way of shooting for an hour at a time with sync-sound on equipment which, as Ricky Leacock put it at the same event, can be bought in any airport has been embraced by many other of his contemporary documentarists. So I suppose I’d assumed that Rouch might perhaps have considered this a fuller realisation of Alexandre Astruc’s prophecy of the caméra-stylo than anything that film had ever offered.
But he was never after some unrealisably unmediated cinema, which has been the misplaced, utopian aim of so many anthropologists. He was, I think, a fabulist at heart. With feet fixed firmly in two cultures he wanted to create spellbinding fables as well as supplying the methods for analysing them. He showed us the truth that in turning the camera upon others we are always filming ourselves. He pushed his craft to the limit, always worrying over ethnographic and aesthetic problems.
It is hard to consider this life as anything other than fulfilled. Rather it is ourselves who must feel cheated and frustrated because so much of this wondrous work remains unseen and unappreciated.
For a while, back in the ‘70s, there were people within British television who tried hard to bring Rouch back home. The first time I saw him speak was at a session organised by Granada Television, makers of the then prime-time series Disappearing World. Commercial television has embraced technological advancement to show so-called celebrities cavorting in a makeshift jungle or wannabe nobodies out on parade in a voyeur-designed house.
I realise, with ultimate sadness, how little impact the profundities of Jean Rouch’s vision and the lives of the people who were his participants in a life-long adventure have had upon us.
Somehow, though I have absolutely no idea how, his memory must be kept green.
© Michael Eaton and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.