Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch
Edited and translated by Steven Feld
University of Minnesota Press (Visible Evidence Series, Vol. 13)
401 pps. (paperbound) $29.95
The 13th volume in the excellent Visible Evidence Series from University of Minnesota Press is a definitive collection on the work of Jean Rouch. "It should be clear now," notes editor Steven Feld, "that the idea all along has been for this to be a book in Rouch's voice." Accordingly, it is a book both by and about the pioneering documentary filmmaker whose motion pictures unite cinema and ethnography, documentary and drama, empirical science and surrealist dreams.
Despite recent works on Rouch, including Paul Stoller's The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch (1992); The Cinema of Jean Rouch Festschrift issue of Visual Anthropology (1989); Manthia Diawara's film Rouch in Reverse (1995); and Steef Meyknecht, Dirk Nijland and Joost Verhey's film Rouch's Gang (1993), the publication of this book will do much to rectify the considerable absence of Rouch's work in America.
Born in Paris, France, in 1917, Jean Rouch went to West Africa during the war in 1941 as a bridge and causeway engineer. Returning to France, Rouch decided to take a doctorate in anthropology. In 1946 Rouch returned to Africa with a 16mm spring-wound Bell & Howell "Filmo" camera, which could only shoot individual segments 25 seconds long. During a canoe trip down the Niger River, Rouch shot black-and-white footage and took ethnographic notes (which made their way into two of Rouch's essays, "The Mad Fox and the Pale Master" and "A Life on the Edge of Film and Anthropology," collected in this volume).
Using these notes, Rouch completed his dissertation in anthropology in 1953. Shortly after, Rouch returned to the Niger and made three short films, La circoncision, Les magiciens de Wanzerbe and Initiation a la danse des possedes, all in color. Like his initial film, these films were shot without sound. They were shown at the Festival of Biarritz to an audience that included directors René Clement and Jean Cocteau and later reedited into a single film, Les fils de l'eaux. It was the first color film in France to be blown up from 16mm to 35mm.
In the early 1950s, Rouch was one of the first to attempt the use of early portable field sound recorders, for pseudo-synchronous filming. He recorded West African music and sounds at the same time as his images. Throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s Rouch continued his ethnographic trips, working with the Sorko and Songhay peoples of Niger, and his work reflected a concentration on the topics of religion and migration.
With the backing of Andre Leroi-Gourhan, the Comité du Film Ethnographique was formed in 1952 as a department at the Musée de l'Homme in France, with Rouch as secretary/general. Shortly after, at the Fourth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences in Vienna, Rouch was instrumental in the formation of the Comité International du Film Ethnographique et Sociologique (CIFES), an organization devoted to the production and distribution of ethnographic films on an international scale.
Continuing his research on migrations, Rouch followed Songhay men from Niger to large West African cities, and in Ghana he made the films Madame l'eau and Les maîtres fous. Les maîtres fous , about a possession cult among the Songhay called the Hauka, was Rouch's first film reflecting a more synthetic approach that broke away from purely descriptive cinema. Using montage, he realized he could create a theatrical narrative by breaking down crucial aspects of an observed ritual.
Rouch's exploration of how film can reflect a people's subjective reality led to his best known film, Chronicle of a Summer, made with sociologist Edgar Morin in Paris in 1960. Presented as an inquiry into the lives of a group of Parisians, the film combines the techniques of drama, provocation and reflexive critique that Rouch had been developing in previous films.
Chronicle of a Summer represented a technological breakthrough towards cinéma vérité for Rouch in that it was made with the prototype Eclair lightweight 16mm camera and used with the Nagra recorder to achieve truly portable hand-held synchronous sound.
Steven Feld structured this collection with four main sections. The first section includes four essays by Rouch in which he sets forth his theories of ethnographic film against a context of film history and theory. The second section covers several wide-ranging interviews and conversations with Rouch from a variety of writers. The third is an in-depth "film book" by Rouch and Morin on the making of Chronicle of a Summer. An annotated Rouch filmography and selective bibliography makes up the fourth and final section of the book.
"For me, as an ethnographer and filmmaker, there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction," writes Rouch. "The cinema, the art of the double, is already the transition from the real world to the imaginary world, and ethnography, the science of the thought systems of others, is a permanent crossing point from one conceptual universe to another."
Ray Zone can be reached at email@example.com.