Truth died a little today.
I know it sounds trite, but how else to talk about the death of Jean Rouch, who died in a car crash in Niger at the age of 86?
Rouch is famed for his provocative style of documentary filmmaking, which came to be known as Cinéma Vérité. It is a name that he himself took from the Russian, Kino Pravda, or “film truth”, which was the name of a 1920s Soviet newsreel series by Dziga Vertov (director of Man with a Movie Camera.) Rouch’s work is not readily available, but its influences are everywhere — especially on the work of French nouvelle vague (new wave) filmmakers such as Truffaut and Godard.
In the United States, Rouch’s work was re-interpreted through the lens of positivism in the Direct Cinema movement. Filmmakers such as Donn Pennybaker, Richard Leacock, and the Maysles Brothers adopted a fly-on-the-wall (“observational”) approach, which contrasted quite sharply with the “participatory” approach of Jean Rouch. While Direct Cinema filmmakers thought that one could objectively record life as it happened, Rouch believed that the presence of a camera could provoke a new kind of truth. This can be seen most clearly in his most famous film: Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer).
Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first films to make use of a technological revolution in the portability of film equipment, enabling, for the first time, many of the techniques now used in news reporting — such as the “man on the street” interview.
Chronicle of a Summer was one of the first films to make use of the innovative equipment, which Rouch himself had helped to develop. The film’s object, nonetheless, was precisely the contamination so painstakingly avoided by exponents of ‘direct cinema’: in the film, Rouch and Morin begin by investigating the nature of happiness by questioning passer-byes in the streets of Paris, but as the film progresses, the investigation becomes a pretext in order to access people’s most innermost thoughts about life and their relationship with others.
This quote is from a nice article by Barbara Bruni, which is one of the few good pieces specifically about Rouch that is freely available online. She captures the essence of Rouch’s complex attitude towards objectivity:
… Rouch believes that, considering that the presence of the observer cannot be ignored, it should be taken into consideration so as not to invalidate the results of the observation.
It is necessary for Rouch and Morin to be present in the film and to explain the conditions of the project for their experiment to be valid. In the first scenes, the two are in front of the camera, explaining to Marceline, whom they have chosen to conduct the interviews, her role in the development of the film, and how they will go about the project. Both Rouch and Morin are present throughout the film, even though not always in front of the camera, asking questions and instigating reactions. Before the final scene, the film is screened to its actors/participants and receives mixed reactions. Subsequently Rouch and Morin discuss the results of the experiment in private. The outcome seems to have been unexpected, and they walk off full of unanswered questions. Rouch and Morin constantly provoke their impersonators, even quite crudely, as when Rouch asks a North African immigrant … to explain the numbers tattooed on Marceline’s arm, aware that the young man does not have knowledge of the events of the Second World War. Nevertheless they are exposing themselves too and putting themselves at the same level of the people they film. After that incident, Rouch said that he was ashamed of the cruel smile that he had on the screen while asking about Marceline’s tattoo, but even that simple smile is important in creating perspective for what we are watching, and in acknowledging the conditions under which it was created.
Rouch’s filmmaking continued to explore new ground and provoke strong responses throughout the rest of his life. Many of his later films were made in close collaboration with friends from Niger. As Jay Ruby writes,
Since the 1950s, French anthropologist Jean Rouch has been making films with his West African associates whom he taught to take sound and perform other technical duties in the field. Rouch is a pioneer in the training of African filmmakers such as Mustapha Alaassane, Safi Faye, Oumarou Ganda, and Desire Ecare. During the making of Petit á Petit and Cocorico, M. Poulet, Damoure Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, and Rouch formed a production company, Film Dalarou.
If there were time I would love to talk more about some of Rouch’s other films, especially the complex and stunning Le Maitre Fou. It would also be interesting to discuss “Reality T.V.” as Rouch’s bastard love-child… But for now, I’ll leave you with some links to more information (additional suggestions welcome!):
- Here is a useful review article which touches on the key works about Jean Rouch.
- See the endnotes of the Bruni article quoted above.
- A complete filmography, in French.
UPDATE: One of the nicest pieces yet, from the Washington Post. It has a nice account of Le Maitre Fou:
Then I witnessed the equivalent of a musical fugue, the classical film “Les Maitres Fous” (“The Mad Masters,” 1955), in which a number of the Songhay people are shown in Accra, Ghana, carrying out their jobs as uniformed policemen, mailmen and other occupations assigned to them by their colonial masters. But at a certain point of the year, these Songhay steal away from the city and return to the forest. The asphalt route disappears, then the dirt road is left behind and the Songhay walk down a path in the forest. What follows resembles a classical Greek cathartic play. The Songhay on the screen, all practitioners of the Hauka religion, widespread in Africa between the 1920s and 1950s, go into a trance, and impersonate and mock their colonial overlords. The images are violent and gripping. When the ritual is over, the participants pick up their things and return to the punishing reality of Accra and their jobs in uniform.
- See the endnotes of the Bruni article quoted above.