June 1, 2009

Rouch's Revolution: The Roots of Reality

Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch
Edited by Joram ten Brink
Wallflower Press, 2007
288 pages
$29.50

A good book takes you to places you have never been. A better one moves you both forward and back to places you should have already visited. Such a book is Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch, edited by Joram ten Brink and published last year by Wallflower Press as part of its Nonfictions series. The book inspired several trips to my university library to check out Rouch films I’ve seen before but never fully appreciated.

Brink also inspired me to read Ciné-Ethnography, a collection of Rouch’s essays edited and translated by Steve Feld for Michael Renov’s Visible Evidence series. The new book is a great companion to the older one if you want to understand the relevance of Rouch’s work to both fiction and nonfiction film and if you want to be able to argue the impossibility of categorizing Rouch with any pre-existing terms such as documentary, anthropology, ethnography, experimental, surrealism or poetry. Rouch’s films are all of those things in any given scene, and Brink’s new book features essays that meticulously unpack their complexity.

In his preface to Building Bridges, you can almost hear Renov chuckle at the irony of how appallingly underappreciated Rouch is in the age of reality television. Of course, we cannot blame him for the inane way television programmers have kidnapped his method and used it to bring banality into millions of American homes every night. I admit I read the last chapter in the book first, unable to resist Brian Winston’s exploration of how the Anglo-Saxon mainstream media use interventionism in a simple-minded way, ignoring the “implicit fraudulence” that Rouch was really trying to address. You will have to read it to believe it, but Winston actually does find the legacy of Rouch beneath the surface of programs like the BBC’s Wife Swap. His wry and insightful essay had me laughing out loud and convinced me to turn back to the beginning of Brink’s book and read on.

The idea for Building Bridges came out of a 2004 three-day conference in London dedicated to Rouch’s cinema. The book has three main sections. The first contains essays about Rouch’s unusual journey from army engineer to anthropologist to filmmaker. Dirk Nijland compiled several charts organizing Rouch’s prolific filmmaking, teaching, writing and service activities. The charts illustrate that the notion of “multi-tasking” did not arrive with the digital age.

The second section contains dense, analytical essays about how Rouch’s films were made and what they mean on a literary and scientific level. Reading behind-the-scenes accounts of Rouch’s method of filming written by close collaborators was fascinating. Essays here also explore his ethnological “gaze” and the lasting relationships he formed (through hard work) with the tribes he so often filmed. The second section also contains frank interviews with some of the young people that Rouch first featured in his films, then mentored as they built their own academic and filmmaking careers. Perhaps most notable are relatively recent interviews with Marceline Loridan Ivens (Chronique d’un été), Nadine Ballot (La Pyramide Humaine) and Safi Faye (Petit à petit). Philo Bregstein writes a warm, personal account of Rouch’s scripting methods for his hybrid documentary-fiction films.

The third section of the book sought to reconnect Rouch’s cinema with his roots in surrealism and ethnography. From those roots sprang his legacy in contributions to neo-realism, the nouvelle vague, cinéma vérité and film production technology. It is in these essays that Rouch’s work is more clearly understood in the context of the Italian neo-realist and French new wave films that were also being made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Anna Grimshaw suggests, “Rouch’s work raises the possibility that the origins of the nouvelle vague lie in Africa, not Europe” (page 283). Ian Christie reminds us, “Rouch may count as the first great doubter” (page 267), thus giving birth to the concept of documentary “repudiation” (coined by critic Jean-André Fieschi). Christie outlines the connections between Rouch, Chris Marker and Raul Ruiz.

Brink writes that he hopes Building Bridges will enthuse the reader to watch Rouch’s films and then go make films of their own. Perhaps it will also enthuse film distribution companies to make Rouch’s films more accessible. Right now, many still seem hard to find, and that is a shame. After reading Brink’s book and discovering Feld’s collection of Rouch essays, I’m ready to go back and see more of what I’ve been missing in Rouch’s films. He made more than 100 during his lifetime. My university library owns three.

 

Lisa Mills, PhD, is an assistant professor of film at the School of Film and Digital Media at University of Central Florida.

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