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The Cinema of Jean Rouch

The Adventure of the Real – Jean Rouch and the craft of Ethnographic Cinema, by Paul Henley (University of Chicago Press, 2010), 533 pages, ISBN: 978-0226327150 (paperback), £24; Kindle, price £19.38; SBN: 978-0226327143 (hardback), £61.50.

About the Author: Susanne Hammacher is the Film Officer of the Royal Anthropological Institute. and coordinator of the RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film since 2002. She read anthropology, economics and history of art at the University of Basel, Switzerland. She worked for over ten years as head of education and public programmes at the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, and as exhibition officer at the Museum of Childhood, V&A, London. She has been conducting fieldwork in Mexico since 1982 on aspects of trading and market systems, gender and migration, textiles (silk production, platting, weaving), community museums and audio-visual indigenous media. She is curating and facilitating various screening and outreach projects in London as well as working on the digitisation of the RAI collection.

“For me as filmmaker and ethnographer, there is practically no frontier between documentary film and fiction film. Cinema, art of the double, represents a transition from the real world to the world of the imaginary, while ethnography, the study of other peoples’ systems of thought, involves a permanent criss-crossing from one conceptual universe to another a form of acrobatic gymnastics, in which the loosing your footing is the least of the risk.” – Jean Rouch (1981)

Jean Rouch (1917-2004) the French autodidact filmmaker and anthropologist is often considered as the precursor of the French New Wave Cinema and together with Edgar Morin as the inventor of cinéma-vérité. Influenced by the French encounter between surrealism and anthropology in the late 1920s several of Rouch’s films cross the boundaries between fiction and documentary by creating a new format, ethnofiction.

Paul Henley (director of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester), himself a filmmaker and anthropologist, opens up this complex character for the English-speaking world and positions his influence on the French cinema as well as visual anthropology. Henley’s main objective is to show how Rouch made his films in order to identify the enduring elements of Rouch’s legacy that can therefore serve as inspiration to next generation of ethnographic filmmakers.

He carefully analysis the underlying intellectual history and the principles and methodology of Rouch’s 56 years career of filmmaking and positions his complex oeuvres of over 115 finished films.

Rouch’s intellectual roots lay deeply imbedded in the French tradition of ‘ethnography’ passed on to him by his teachers, the famous Dogon (West-African) scholars Germaine Dieterlen and the charismatic Marcel Griault (himself a scholar of Marcel Mauss). But the brief encounter between surrealism and ethnology in pre-war Paris played an important role for Rouch’s filmmaking method.

Between mid 1940s and 1960 Rouch spend most of his time in Africa and after the independence of the francophone colonies in West-Africa he moved his principal base of operation back to Paris. Though he continued to return to West Africa, he also began to make films in Paris, including some of his best known works as Chronicle of a Summer, Gard du Nord etc.

An underlying principle of all of Rouch’s films is a conception of ‘shared anthropology’. Initially the sharing was relatively passive: in feedback screenings he gained a greater understanding by discussing the content with his subjects. This often evolved into a much more active process of collaboration. As early as 1954 Damoure Zika and Illo Gaoudel who appeared in ‘Bataille sur la grande fleuve’ suggested to Rouch after the screening, to make a ‘real’(they meant ‘fictional’) film about the migration of young men to the Gold Coast in which they would play the starring roles, which resulted in the filming of Jaguar a year later. This kind of ‘chain effect’, in a way that the screening of a film could lead to a next one was crucial to Rouch’s understanding of ‘shared anthropology’ and the subjects who proposed an idea for a new film became active ‘stakeholders’ in the new venture, protagonists in a so called ‘inspired performance’. Rouch developed a complex relationship with his main ‘collaborators’, Damouré, Lam Ibrahim Dia and later Tallou Mouzourane which lasted over 50 years: They became informants, actors, technical assistants, servants, and friends and there joint production venture of the most successful ethnofiction films was named DALAROUTA (made up of the first syllabus of their names). Even though his principle companions contributed in an unprecedented way in ethnographic filmmaking, and the overriding importance to Rouch was the participation in the lives of his subjects, Rouch stayed the ultimate author, who initiated the films and shaped them in the edit suite.

Henley analyses carefully Rouch’s shooting praxis, and his various leading concepts, working through his complex oeuvre of films as well as in his writings. In Rouch’s body of work there are a number of films which stand particular out. Among these is one of the cult films of both cinema and anthropology, Les Maîtres fous (the mad masters), which gets an extensive analysis within Rouch’s development of his film craft and a contextualized reinterpretation in this book. It concerns the hauka, the spirit possession cult around Accra. The medium were young Songhay men who came as seasonal migrants from the French colony of Niger, 650 miles to the north. Rouch shot it mostly on a single Sunday in August 1954,on his trusty spring-wound Bell&Howell, while the sound was recorded asynchronously by his long-time Nigerien associates, Damouré Zika and Lam Ibrahim Dia on a ‘portable’(over 30 kilogram) tape recorder. It was edited by Suzanne Baron, a rising star of the cutting room who had already worked with Tati on les Vacances de M. Hulot (1951).

“What is editing? It’s a fixing of the truth” – Jean Rouch (1992)

Rouch’s satisfactory working relationship with editors brought him to the view that it was not only useful but absolutely necessary to work with an editor. Many of the editors, mostly women, with whom Rouch worked in the 1950s, were like him at the beginning of their careers, who later worked with well-known feature directors. “Concerti a deux regards – concertos of two ways of seeing”, is described in the memories of his collaborators as a harsh dialogue of successive approximations.

Nevertheless a strategy in many of his films was the minimizing of editorial interventions, and instead to edit as much as possible with the camera, relying on the inspiration of the camera person on location to decide what to include and what to exclude.

Rouch’s filmmaking career stretched over 56 years (1946-2002).In the appendix Henley most helpfully lists, annotates and describes the complex body of over 105 completed films, both documentary and fiction and groups them by category and period.

Rouch’s film still manage to enthuse succeeding generations of young filmmakers, and a driving force of his lifelong vocation is his willingness to experiment, to take risk and his passion for the “Adventure of the Real”. Paul Henley’s superbly researched, splendid written and thoughtful illustrated book will certainly become a classic on Jean Rouch cinematographic legacy and his craft of filmmaking.

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