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Ethnography Through A Surrealist Lens

by Giovanni Marchini Camia

Anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917 – 2004) is one of those paradoxical figures in film history. His work has received exuberant praise, he is consistently hailed as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of his time, and yet, few have actually seen his films, which to this day remain very difficult—in many cases impossible—to get a hold of. This is especially true outside of his native France and only a fraction of his oeuvre has received distribution in the English-speaking world. Anthology Film Archives has partnered with the French Institute/Alliance Française to offer New Yorkers a retrospective of Rouch’s work throughout November. Assembling a remarkable selection of shorts and features, it provides an extremely rare chance to explore the work of one of cinema’s most eclectic and inventive pioneers.

In a career that spanned more than five decades, Rouch authored a colossal body of work comprising over 100 films and almost as many anthropological writings. It was a position at the French National Center for Scientific Research—obtained as a doctoral student in 1947 and held for the rest of his life—that enabled his prodigious productivity as well as his fervent experimentalism. Free of commercial considerations, he was not constrained by deadlines or producers’ directives, allowing him to work on several films at once, often re-shooting entire segments and working on the edit for years, only releasing the final cut when it corresponded to his vision.

The bulk of Rouch’s films were shot in West Africa and document the region’s wealth of cultural customs and traditions. Although he is generally considered an ethnographic filmmaker, his work always eschewed scientific rigor in favor of a subjective, experiential perspective. Even his more strictly documentarian films, such as La chasse au lion à l’arc (The Lion Hunters) and Mammy Water, offer very little explanatory content. In portraying the arcane (and now largely disappeared) rituals of Nigerien lion hunters and Ghanaian fishermen, these films include scarce background information and, while they acknowledge the presence of a foreign observer, they are strictly committed to their subjects’ perspective, taking their superstitions at face value and submitting them to the viewer as fact. Rouch believed that by being too removed from the humans it studies, ethnography was stuck at an impasse and that film’s immediacy represented the only way out of its “ivory tower.”


Still from Les maîtres fous (1955). Image courtesy of Icarus Films.

In this regard, his encounter with Surrealism as an adolescent played a strong formative role. While in aesthetic terms, Rouch’s films remained predominantly realist, their ethos was markedly Surrealist and he was forever seeking new ways to exploit the medium’s potential for evoking the inner reality of his subjects. This is most apparent in the film that first brought him international attention, 1955’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters). This short film depicts a Hauka possession ceremony, in which laborers from the city of Accra retreat to the jungle and become possessed by spirits in a ritual intended to purge them of their everyday ills, particularly the oppression of their colonized existence. In its depiction of the ceremony, it employs an increasingly feverish cinematography, with the frenetic editing, chaotic handheld camerawork and breakneck narration mirroring the intensity of the trances on display. Thus bombarded with images of men convulsing and foaming at the mouth, butchering and devouring a dog, and imperviously exposing their flesh to open flames and boiling water, the viewer is subjugated to a visceral and extremely upsetting experience, intended to not only convey the ecstasy of the possessions but also to reflect the violence suffered by the colonized Africans. Highly controversial, the film was universally censured upon its release: Western anthropologist deemed it a travesty, African intellectuals accused it of perpetuating racist exoticism, and the British Empire took it as a personal affront, banning it in its territories. Over time, its status has changed and it is now widely considered to be one of the most trenchant filmic reflections on imperialism.

Rouch’s efforts to further the potential of ethnographic film led him to develop what came be known as “ethno-fiction,” in which he explored cultural phenomena within the framework of a fictional narrative, believing it granted a more fruitful means of tapping into the psyches of his subjects and exploring their dreams and fantasies. The first film he released in this genre was Moi, un noir (I, a Negro) in 1958. Seeking to convey the experience of Nigerien immigrants in Abidjan, he recruited real-life immigrant laborers as his actors, improvised the script with them and had them record the voice-over narration, which they also improvised. This close collaboration with his actors constituted Rouch’s concept of “shared anthropology,” which he borrowed from one his idols, Robert Flaherty, and exercised throughout his career. He would consistently consult with the protagonists of his films, showing them different cuts and shaping his edit in accordance with their feedback, thus striving for the closest possible approximation of truth.


Still from Moi, un noir (1958), Oumarou Ganda. Image courtesy of NYU.

Watching Rouch’s films today, the sloppy camerawork, fragmented narratives or discordant soundtracks may give rise to accusations of amateurism. From a historical perspective, however, these were truly radical innovations and Rouch’s marked influence on the French New Wave is testimony to this fact. For instance, when Moi, un noir was released, Jean-Luc Godard wrote an extolling review in Cahiers du Cinema, asking in characteristic hyperbolic fashion, “is there a better definition of the filmmaker?” The film’s cinematography deeply impressed Godard and its influence on his own films, particularly his 1960 debut À bout de souffle (Breathless), is evident. The jump cut, for which Godard has received so much praise, is used in a very similar manner throughout Rouch’s film and features prominently in a lot of his earlier work as well. In Moi, un noir, the protagonists’ highly introspective voice-overs and the way they model their lives on icons of pop film culture—Edward G. Robinson, Marlon Brando, Tarzan—are immediately reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character in À bout de souffle. Likewise, Rouch’s seemingly arbitrary framing of brand names, slogans and wall posters in static shots while the narration continues in the background is also a device that would now be considered distinctly Godardian.

Another genre that Rouch deeply influenced, if not co-authored, is cinéma-vérité. Upon returning to France in 1959, his friend Edgar Morin challenged him to shoot a film about “his own tribe” and together they made Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer). The opening scene shows Rouch and Morin discussing the impossibility of capturing reality on film and what follows is their endeavor to transcend this problematic by seeking a purely cinematic form of reality. Rouch was a firm believer in Dziga Vertov’s notion of kino-pravda (cinema-truth)—a truth only accessible through the mechanical eye of the camera—and his film represents a continuation of the Soviet master’s legacy. Unlike direct cinema, which aims to set the subject at ease by negating the presence of a camera, cinéma-vérité regards the camera as an essential catalyst, able to probe and provoke the subject into revealing an otherwise inaccessible reality.


Still from Chronique d’un été (1961), Marceline Loridan Ivens. Image courtesy of Photofest.

Intending to capture the zeitgeist of 1960 Paris, Chronique d’un ètè presents a series of interviews broaching pertinent issues such as the working class’ enslavement to work and its effect on personal relationships, the experience of immigrants from France’s African colonies, the then-ongoing Algerian conflict, and the legacy of the Holocaust. One of its most powerful scenes depicts Marceline, a concentration camp survivor, recounting her experience of deportation in a long and melancholy address to her dead father. The camera follows alongside her, framing her in a full shot as she walks down the Place de la Concorde, one of the Paris’ busiest squares. She then enters an empty hangar-like building and while her monologue continues at the same volume, the camera slowly tracks away from her, keeping her receding figure in center frame until she is but a tiny silhouette isolated in a vast emptiness. In a single-shot sequence no longer than a few minutes, the film manages to encapsulate Marceline’s trauma and desolation, the difficulty of her re-integration, her persisting vulnerability and the irreducible distance that will forever separate her from the rest of society. When, at the end of the film, the protagonists are shown a rough cut and asked for their opinion, Marceline says that the film didn’t capture her natural state, that during the shooting of the scene she was driven by an involuntary compulsion to perform for the camera. To a delighted Rouch, this provides the confirmation of his experiment’s success.

Part I of the Jean Rouch retrospective Here and Elsewhere: The Films of Jean Rouch is held at the French Institute/Alliance Française throughout November and Part II will screen at Anthology Film Archives until November 15.

Giovanni Marchini Camia is a freelance writer and critic currently living in New York. For more of his writing visit his blog.

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