Ethnofiction and the Films of Jean Rouch

The Lion Hunters (1965)

The African "dialogues" with Western culture, as twisted here to suit the purposes of those exposed to it, reflects the wider idea of "dialectics" between filmmakers and subjects.

Eight Films by Jean Rouch
Jea Rouch

Icarus Films

11 Nov 2017


Jean Rouch is among the most important filmmakers whose work has been devilishly hard to track down. As far as Region 1 viewers are concerned, only his Parisian experiment in cinéma vérité , Chronicle of a Summer (1961) , has been made available, and that only as recently as 2013. So it's with surprise bordering on wonder that we're confronted with a four-disc set of beautiful 2017 restorations from Icarus Films.

Rouch spent most of his long professional life in Africa as an ethnographer with a particular interest in religion, animism and magic -- in other words, what some call superstition. His films essentially turn their backs on the modern world, except to perceive the post-colonial world as a problem that his African subjects navigate as best they can while clinging to their memories and folkways.

Rouch's films are firmly on the side of his subjects, who become collaborators in ways we'll discuss, yet such a project can leave Rouch open to the type of criticism that Zora Neale Hurston, for example, faced from Langston Hughes when she explored myths and folkways and dialects of Southern African-Americans that embarrassed forward-thinking urban strivers, who didn't want to be reminded of such things and didn't think it made a good progressive image for the white folks.

To the white folks who saw Rouch's films at festivals, the subject matter often seemed exotic and strange, yet Rouch's technique is to accept what he presents without question or condescension, so that the Africans' reality becomes the film's and therefore the viewer's reality. He did this partly with the heavy use of handheld cameras constantly moving about in the way we take for granted today, not only in documentaries but in fiction features and even on TV. Today's style has caught up with him, so that Rouch's mode doesn't feel as groundbreaking as it was.

Another of his techniques is to immerse the viewer in a busy, complex soundtrack that resulted from, in many cases, filming with cameras that couldn't record sound. He took advantage of this limit to create rich tracks that combine local music and dialogue, and he often has his "actors" take over the narration and provide spontaneous commentary among themselves.

Rouch called his method "shared anthropology", in an attempt to renounce the authority of the filmmaker, especially one from outside the culture. Just as he blurred the boundaries between filmmaker and subjects, he blurred fiction and documentary in the ethnographic manner of Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922), the first film he ever saw as a boy. Rouch goes farther than Flaherty, for while Flaherty organized his participants into an ethnographic story, Rouch encourages all participants to invent their own ideas for the film and use the filmmaker as a tool for whatever they wish.

He called the result "ethnofiction", as it becomes a toss-up whether the story should be considered fiction or ethnography. In any case, everything that passes before the camera is both "documented" and fictionalized. On top of this, Rouch shot in color, here richly restored on these discs.

Disc One contains the 1956 shorts Mammy Water and The Mad Masters, both funded as ethnographic projects, and the 1959 feature Moi, un Noir. The first film documents a fishing community's annual pagan ritual, which involves the blood sacrifice of a bullock in the ocean to appease the goddess of the sea. You might as well know right now that many of these films show the deaths of animals, sacrificed or hunted for various reasons, their throats cuts while the killers apologize and make amends for the animal's soul.

A newer ritual is documented in the second film, whereby ordinary laborers retreat on their day off to a country house and become "possessed" by spirits of their colonial leaders and generals -- in other words, by those with more power than these participants will ever have. It's not clear if mind-altering substances are involved, but we see the men foam at the mouth, argue, cavort and play with fire until a dog is sacrificed and the animal's blood drunk. The effect, while conveyed as a sectarian religious celebration, contains an element of parody and mockery reminiscent of the antebellum plantation tradition of the "cakewalk", in which the manners of the masters were parodied. The film ends by showing the men at work in their real identities on an ordinary day, including the one "rather effeminate" clerk who adopted a female persona under possession.

Viewers are warned about the cruelty, but it's also stressed that the participants are proud of what they do and welcome all observers, and that this film was made entirely at their request and with their cooperation. That's an important point, for these three films trace Rouch's evolution from presenting a culture with an outsider's narration (the first film) to having the narrator clarify the collaborative nature of the project (the second film), to relegating the French narrator to a minor role in a dialectic taken over by the voices of the participants themselves (the feature).

Moi, un Noir takes us inside the lives of day laborers who come from all over Africa to work in Treichville on the Ivory Coast. Rouch asked the people depicted if they were interested in making a film in which they play themselves and determine what they want to show. The result is a very personal insiders' view of looking for work, eating, sleeping, flirting, going to the beach on a day off, gambling after hours, etc. The footage was shot silent and the soundtrack created later, with the young men not only dubbing dialogue but offering their own commentary and analysis.

One striking element is the nicknames they adopt, which are lifted from movies. The credits give their true names as well as the nicknames, a point that underlines how "playing themselves" is also adopting a public persona. The main character, who states that he doesn't use his real name in the city, is called Edward G. Robinson, named for a resemblance to that actor, and he combines it with Sugar Ray Robinson when fantasizing about being a boxer. His friend, a ladies' man, is called Eddie Constantine. A girlfriend is Dorothy Lamour.

A cabdriver is called Tarzan, a particularly interesting example of co-opting Western culture, since American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan as a symbol of Africa who was safely a white English aristocrat, so that his American heroine could "fall in love with Africa" in a way that became a bestseller instead of getting him lynched. By adopting the name, the African cabbie exposes the subtext of the famous myth. These "dialogues" with Western culture, as twisted to suit the purposes of those exposed to it, reflects the film's wider idea of "dialectics" between filmmakers and subjects.

The film ends with Constantine's disappearance into jail for three months -- something that really happened and determined the course of the film. This feature had a marked impact on at least two lives in different corners of the world. According to Eric Kohn's excellent liner notes, Oumarou Ganda, the laborer who presented himself as Robinson, went on to a successful filmmaking career as one of the founders of Nigerian cinema. Another epiphany was felt in Paris by spellbound young critic Jean-Luc Godard, whose Breathless (1959) would present another handheld "ethnographic" study of a young man whose limited prospects are disguised by his passion for Western gangster movies.

The features on Disc 2 are The Human Pyramid (1961) and The Lion Hunters (1967). The first film is presented as a fictional collaboration between white French students and African students who attend the same school but don't mix socially. They adopt roles and attitudes in a story about a social experiment in hanging out together, and this racial awareness adds a layer of self-consciousness to otherwise ordinary anecdotes about romantic rivalry and the like, which includes a climactic melodrama for the sake of it. This is presented as a "movie" thing separate from the reality of filming.

The fiction is book-ended by scenes in Paris, where some of the African students have gone to study and formed friendships with the returning white students. This optimism, as in Moi, un Noir, feels like a celebration of youth. In both films, Rouch expresses the idea that the experience of making the film is more important as a catalytic act for its participants than anything in the film itself.

The Lion Hunters, shot over several years, documents the ways of a hunting tribe in the awareness that this way of life is disappearing and that the next generation probably won't follow the same immemorial methods. Many animals are killed with poison arrows and traps, then their throats cut, then the carcass prepared for food and pelt. The animals are thanked, gods are invoked, and sorcerers toss shells to divine the future. By serendipity or design, the one male lion they fail to catch and never see is called "The American".

All this, as in previous ethnographic films, is presented "in our faces" as part of everyday reality, with the narrator only explaining the procedures and translating the dialogue but offering no patronizing editorials on the "primitive" and suchlike. Where another film might have approached the material in the context of the march of civilization and the banishment of superstition, or else as a self-conscious elegy, Rouch is committed to dropping us into the worldview of his subjects, who are not objects.

Disc 3 begins with Jaguar (1967, but filmed in 1954), another collaboration in which his young Nigerian "stars" take over the narrative and provide jolly commentary on the footage of their road trip to Accra in the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the temporary jobs they take there before returning home. One of the young men is Damouré Zika, Rouch's longtime friend and collaborator who had also been among the lion hunters. He too developed a career in Nigerian film as well as radio and spiritual healing.

Little by Little (1971) is a kind of sequel that finds the same men having formed a successful import-export business. In an entirely fictional story, they visit France to learn about skyscrapers; perform "ethnographic" studies with unsuspecting white people in the street, who get measured with calipers and asked to show their teeth; and meet a confident African dressmaker and a young white secretary, plus an alcoholic bum, whom they whisk back to Africa with them. This film feels like it's making itself up as it goes along with a mischievous sense of liberation.

A completely improvised movie is the odd-film-out on Disc 4, The Punishment. At just over an hour, it's the only film in black and white and the only one entirely shot in Paris, as though Rouch felt it was a black and white city while Africa needs the full palette. Although black and white, it's just as visually beautiful as Rouch's visions of African oceans, rivers, veldts and fabrics.

The central white actress from The Human Pyramid is still playing a Parisian student who's been to Africa. On this day, she wanders the city and has three extended dialogues with very different men before an epilogue demonstrates the impossibility of an attractive young woman walking the street alone without being harassed by drageurs or pick-up artists (and one female drageuse). This feels like a lost work of the French New Wave, one combining the improvisation of Jacques Rivette with the philosophical man/woman dialogues of Godard and Eric Rohmer.

The disc is rounded out with an informative one-hour profile of Rouch from 2017. Rouch, who was killed in a car accident in 2004, is shown in archival interviews discussing various matters, including his friendship with Zika, whose grandmother introduced Rouch to African magic and spirit possession. Various friends (but not Zika, who died in 2009) and historians offer a personal portrait of this pioneer of cinema verité who easily transcended strict verité in favor of the fictional, the surreal, the numinous and the playful. He made many more films besides those here, and we hope that this set signals more to come.

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