Africa and France: The Work of Jean Rouch

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by Steven Erickson
February 26, 2013 9:38 AM
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The French director Jean Rouch invented so many new cinematic forms that his films gave rise to new words: “ciné-trance,” “ethno-fiction.” Yet his prolific oeuvre has fallen in and out of favor; in the past few decades, it’s been hard to see most of his films in the United States. Criterion’s release (today) of his 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer  (co-directed by Edgar Morin) and Icarus Films’ traveling theatrical retrospective of a package of his best films may help change that. I can think of two reasons for Rouch’s descent into obscurity. 

First, many of his films combine elements of documentary and fiction. He was trained as an ethnographer and started off equal parts academic and filmmaker, making short, relatively artless documentaries depicting circumcisions and other rituals of African life. However, he quickly developed an interest in cinematic form and became a sophisticated director. By the mid 1950s, his work gained interest outside the scientific world and started winning prizes at film festivals.  While Robert Flaherty, generally acknowledged as the father of the documentary, incorporated elements of fiction in his work, this became taboo in the ‘60s, just as Rouch was making “ethno-fictions.” At this point, Rouch looks prescient—after Errol Morris’ reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and Werner Herzog’s obviously staged interviews in Grizzly Man, Rouch’s combination of documentary and narrative in his “ethno-fictions” no longer seems so problematic. In the context of films like Clio Barnard's The Arbor and the Taviani brothers' Caesar Must Die, which freely mix elements of documentary and fiction, Rouch actually looks downright prophetic.

Second, Rouch was a white Frenchman who made films mostly about Africans. Worse still, he started out during France’s colonial period. For this, he was criticized by no less a venerable personage than Senegalese writer/director Ousmane Sembene (the first prominent filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa), who praised his 1958 film Moi, Un Noir but went on to accuse him of filming Africans like insects. However, as Rouch’s work progressed, he did his best to engage in true collaborations with his African subjects. His narrative films were shot without scripts, with the actors improvising a voice-over in the editing room. He made several films with African filmmakers as co-directors. Rouch couldn’t transcend his perspective as a Frenchman, but he tried to engage with Africa and Africans on their own terms: he never used the continent as a backdrop for the stories of white people, as so many filmmakers have. In fact, his film Petit a Petit reverses this trend, making Paris the setting for an African man’s quest for knowledge and his eventual disenchantment with European values. 

The Mad Masters is one of Rouch’s best-known films; unfortunately, it’s also one of his most widely misunderstood works. On the surface, one can easily see why. It depicts a ritual of the Hauka faith, in which penitents participate in a trance ritual culminating in the sacrifice of a dog (who's then eaten) and are then forgiven for their sins. It’s full of images of “possessed” Africans foaming at the mouth and burning themselves with torches. But there’s something more subversive going on here than a simple documentary about African religion. The Hauka faith does not seem to exist apart from the context of colonial Africa, at least as it’s portrayed by Rouch. The possessed are not claimed by their ancestors or gods; they’re taken over by the spirits of colonial figures like generals and engineers. Participating in the ceremony requires some to don  a parody of European dress. One can see someone misreading it as a document of African “primitiveness,” but it really shows how cleverly the Hauka have created a new faith out of their oppressive surroundings. The film’s final few minutes suggest that it’s paid off for them in improved mental health. 

Moi, Un Noir may be remembered for influencing Jean-Luc Godard, who declared that he wanted to name Breathless Moi, Un Blanc as an homage to Rouch. More seriously, its use of jump cuts predates Godard’s use of the device. It makes the best case for Rouch’s “ethno-fictions.” Shot among a group of immigrants in the Ivory Coast,  it was made without sound. This led to a brilliant idea: Rouch’s subjects could take on new personae, adopting the voices of Hollywood stars like Eddie Constantine and Edward G. Robinson. This isn’t, though, just another way of saying “the Yanks have colonized our subconscious,” as a character in Wim Wenders’ Kings of the Road would later put it; it actually grants Rouch’s subjects the right to larger-than-life fantasies. Without the voice-over, the film’s depiction  of  lower-class life in the Ivory Coast would probably be grim and hopeless; the narration lends it just the right touch of playfulness and wit. “Constantine” and “Robinson” may be poor, even sometimes justifiably bitter, but they still have a sense of humor. 

Chronicle of a Summer starts with Rouch, Morin and future filmmaker Marceline Loridan chatting. Loridan says that she gives surveys for a living. This is quickly incorporated into Chronicle of a Summer, as she stands on the street asking people “Are you happy?” The responses are fairly banal, but it’s a starting point for a wide-ranging inquiry into the state of France in 1960. Rouch and Morin’s subjects obviously include some of their acquaintances, such as disillusioned radicals. Halfway through, their interviews turn topical. At the time the film was made, Algeria had been fighting France for its independence for six years. The film’s subjects have a heated debate about what France should do about the war. The Holocaust is also evoked - an African student is queried about the numbers tattooed on Holocaust survivor Loridan’s arm and has no idea what they are. The film makes fleeting use of a handheld camera, which had only recently become available. This device would soon become a trademark of French cinema. Here, as with his use of jump cuts, Rouch was a technical innovator. 

Chronicle of a Summer uses the phrase “cinéma vérité” in its opening sentence, although here it describes the directors' stated goal of “film truth,” not a label for a genre of documentaries. After the concept of “cinéma vérité” was popularized in the ‘60s, its naiveté was critiqued at length.  Chronicle of a Summer is far from innocent. It incorporates scenes that feel fictional, even if they’re not, such as a long walk by Loridan down a nearly deserted street as she delivers a monologue about her past. Rouch and Morin begin and end the film by focusing on themselves - in no other Rouch film I’ve seen is the director such a prominent presence—but they end Chronicle of a Summer by showing the film to its subjects, getting their mixed reactions and then talking about those responses. One can imagine the film turning into an endless hall of mirrors, with a coda depicting the first public screenings. 

As good as it is, Chronicle of a Summer may not be the most representative film in the Rouch canon. It marks one of the few times he turned his ethnographic gaze on a group of largely white French men and women; while that lends a fascinatingly reflexive dimension to it, it also thrusts Chronicle outside the concerns of many of Rouch’s best films. Nevertheless, one hopes its video release is the first of many for Rouch’s work in North America. I’ve only sampled a small portion of his huge filmography, but there are undoubtedly many gems waiting to be discovered.  

Steven Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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1 Comment

  • David Ehrenstein | February 27, 2013 8:37 AMReply

    "Les Maitres Fous" was a direct inspiration for Jean Genet's "The Blacks."

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