The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres Fous) (1955) (NYC Film Forum)

The Paradox of Sight in the Films of Jean Rouch and Robert Drew

With all of their differences, the insistence that we are moved is integral to the cinematic enterprises of both Jean Rouch and Robert Drew.

Read from one point of view, cinema reinforces the ancient notion of sight as a “distance” sense. For many ancient Greek thinkers — and this is reinforced in the writings of Renaissance philosopher Marsilius Ficino — smell, touch, and taste were all closely bound with the body and its maintenance. We might dub these “preservation senses”. We employ touch to navigate the world safely and to move away from items that endanger us (the hot stove, the sharp blade); taste reveals what is good or bad to eat (rotten food tastes horrible); the malodorous indicates the corrupt and, perhaps, the diseased. These senses preserve the integrity of the body; they protect our corporeality. The remaining two senses, sight and hearing, what are often termed the “rational senses”—or in Thomas Aquinas’s formulation, maxime cognoscitivi—transcend our corporeality and put us in touch with the world outside our immediate needs and requirements.

This is why Pythagoras purportedly coined the term theoria (theory) as a derivation of the word theatai (spectators)—to engage in theory is to see as a spectator, as an audience member in a theater. To have theoretical knowledge of the world is to be detached from it. When we are in the theater (at least typically), we are not participating in the unfolding of events; we watch from a critical distance and thus evaluate and judge without being directly implicated in the proceedings. For Pythagoras, such a theatrical experience is metaphorically connected to philosophical understanding. In the great theatrum mundi of the universe, philosophers are the wise spectators, observing from a distance, involved in the sense of being alert to the subtleties laid out before us but uninvolved in the sense that (at least at that moment) we do not have an impact on what transpires.

Cinema reinforces sight as a distance sense in that the screen registers as a metaphorical barrier and physical limit to our connection with the images we observe. Calling out to the images on the screen will garner no response (at least not from those images—but perhaps from your fellow audience members). The people and events who left those images indelibly impressed upon the film occupy a different temporal and spatial realm from the person sitting in the darkened theater. We observe and are unobserved; we are perhaps moved but not to act (at least not in the immediate sense). Sight, in this sense, marks our distance from the world, our isolation.

And yet there is another way in which we might conceive of sight (and hearing) as a distance sense; that is, it is a sense that has the capacity for overcoming distance. In this manner, sight bridges the ontological chasm that separates the isolated self from the teeming and inviting (if often terrifying) world in which we find ourselves. I employ that locution (“in which we find ourselves”) deliberately. The very notion of a self depends upon something outside the self. Freud alludes to this fact in the opening of Civilization and Its Discontents when he claims that ego formation follows the erosion of the seemingly unbounded and limitless “oceanic feeling” that perceives whatever we are as fully connected to and not separated in any manner from the universe in its entirety. But if the self depends upon otherness and cannot be realized if closed off from that otherness, the ethical-ontological question at the core of our being perforce must be: what ought our relationship to that otherness entail? How ought we to comport ourselves to the world that surrounds and informs our very being? Sight, then, becomes a means to reach out toward that awaiting world, to connect with otherness.

Hence, sight occupies a seemingly contradictory position: it is the marker of our distance from the world and the means by which we connect with that world. Cinema—as an art form that alternately controls, manipulates, plays with, confounds, liberates, and rewards sight—can, from this point of view, be seen as a working out of that contradiction. Because it (often) deals with actions and the motivating factors behind them, film has a deeply ethical component to it that surpasses painting, for example—since at least Aristotle, ethics has involved an examination of the deed. Because it produces the representation of those deeds without actual people in the room as the performers, film offers a kind of abstraction that heightens its impact as theoria in a manner that differs strongly from theater, where the presence of living people paradoxically heightens the artifice while asking us to live in that shared space. In short, cinema enacts the ethical deed for its theatai, leading to a kind of withdrawn knowledge or theoria. Sight, then, operates in cinema in a manner that occupies both of its poles—it separates us from and connects us to the filmed other.

To observe and to learn and yet to be more intimately involved—this was the goal that two documentary filmmakers pursued in the early ’60s, giving rise to styles of film known as cinéma verité and direct cinema. These approaches had much in common and yet differed in significant ways that can all-too-easily be overlooked. Understanding these differences is essential when coming to grips with the ethical character that resides at the heart of these filmic projects. Both cinéma verité and direct cinema were hugely influential, not just on future documentaries but also on fiction film—including the New Wave French cinema and the American independent film scene. From 19 January to 6 February, the Film Forum in New York City presents “60s Verité”, a festival curated by Elspeth Carroll that charts the rise and early development of the verité and direct cinema styles in works ranging from the excoriatingly immersive documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and the iconic music documentaries of D.A. Pennebaker to John Cassavetes’s partially improvised masterpiece Faces and Agnès Varda’s bewitching Cléo from 5 to 7. But the founding figures of these styles and the charismatic presences that inform the festival as a whole are Jean Rouch, one of the progenitors of cinéma verité, and Robert Drew, the driving force behind direct cinema.

Jean Rouch and Cinéma Verité as Mimetic Act

In 1941, Jean Rouch, in his mid-20s, arrived in Niger as a hydrology engineer supervising a construction project. There he met Damouré Zika, a young Songhai man who became Rouch’s friend, collaborator, and muse. Rouch became fascinated by Songhai traditions and rituals and was determined to film Songhai ceremonies and send the footage back to his mentor, the anthropologist Marcel Griaule. Several of his early films featured spirit possession, culminating in his first major film statement, 1955’s Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters). The Mad Masters was a controversial film; it was banned in Niger and Great Britain, sharply criticized by Griaule, and widely condemned as dismissively colonialist by African viewers and disgustingly exploitative by European audiences.

And yet, with its meagre half-hour running time, the film presents a striking account of the Hauka movement toward the end of the colonialist period in the city of Accra—the capital of what is now, after independence from colonial rule was declared in 1957, the Republic of Ghana. The Hauka movement involved a religious ritual of possession in which the participants took on the characteristics of their colonialist oppressors. What is remarkable about Rouch’s film is that, even with the omnipresence of his voice-over narration, The Mad Masters creates its effects through visual means. The images and their juxtaposition are responsible for the film’s argumentation; the voiceover does little more than describe what we are seeing at a given moment—and in a situation so far removed from most European or American experience, the descriptions are hardly redundant.

The film opens with a look at the hustle and bustle of a modern Accra—the ceaseless traffic, the huge market, the train, the workers and merchants. In the midst of his description of modern life in the city, Rouch alludes to a practice that transpires outside of the city limits and outside of the boundaries of the work week. As he mentions the word “Hauka”, the film jumps to a clip of a man’s face in the dark, illuminated by a flashlight; the man foams menacingly from the mouth. There may be an element of exploitation here—certainly this exoticizes the practice of possession but I would imagine that in 1955 (and still today) it is rather difficult to portray a possession ritual to Europeans without it seeming exotic. What the cutaway does is to replace the voiceover as the primary means of communication with the audience with the film cut. It is the juxtaposition that does the work here. In the midst of our survey of the daylight world of Accra, we are shown a mysterious presence that is somehow outside of the city and yet resides at the very heart of the city’s inhabitants and their understanding of their relationship to the world around them. Notably the use of the darkness is clearly contrived—the possession ritual we witness in the next part of the film takes place during the day—but the contrivance is employed to make an argument about the shadow self that resides within (and perhaps redeems) the colonial subjects.

The extended possession scene itself is, obviously, the source of the consternation expressed by many viewers then and now. For some critics, the lack of contextualization reduces the scene to the merely fantastic and bizarre—thus dehumanizing the African subjects. Indeed, Rouch makes no effort to place this ceremony within a longer tradition of Songhai rituals. This arises from Rouch’s disinclination to provide much in the way of overt explanation at all. Most of the explanatory work that is done is, again, accomplished through the juxtaposition of images. For instance, Rouch never says that this possession ritual is meant as a critique of the British colonial powers. He simply juxtaposes images of the ritual with images of the British army in formation or the image of a celebrant cracking an egg on the head of a statue with the image of a serviceman with the ostentatious yellow and white plume on his helmet. These juxtapositions suggest but they do not dictate our interpretation. One gets the sense that the ritual adopts an exaggerated form of British ceremonial military activity in order to show how contrived and ritualistic it already is.

By mimetically embodying the British calls for order and grounding their interactions in the absurd vestiges of logic, the possessed men reveal the disorder and illogic that underwrites the colonialists and their power. Mimesis is, strictly speaking, a non-conceptual form of coming to know otherness. By imitating the unknowable other, the subject accommodates the self to a mystery that might have seemed frightening until it was embodied. The act of mimetically absorbing the other is not mere domination (although some manner of domination may come into play here) but rather involves a point of mediation between the seemingly powerless self and the seemingly omnipotent otherness of the world. The goal of mimesis is not a reversal of a power structure but rather a shift within it, an attempt to come to grips with an oppressive world by incorporating (quite literally) the strangeness of it all.

To my mind, this is the key to what Rouch accomplishes in this film. We are confronted, largely without explanation, by a ritual that at first appears chaotic, shot through with superstition, and without purpose (that is, without any so-called “real-world” efficacy). The film refuses to talk down to either its audience or its subjects. To explain what is going on would be to exert yet another form of colonialist control. Indeed, these subjects are not mere subjects in the film, they are collaborators. They explicitly invited Rouch to film the ritual and encouraged him to show it to people outside of Africa. Instead of imposing the organizing and containing force of explanation, Rouch and his collaborators largely allow the material to speak on its own—in all of its disorienting profundity, its puzzling polysemy, its ethical conundrums. Thus, in documenting the mimetic processes of the possession ritual, The Mad Masters itself performs an act of mimesis. It offers us a seemingly frightening and othered experience that turns out to be a reasonable critique of a power structure that is so familiar to European history that one easily forgets just how strange it really is—military and colonialist logic being, at the core, a corrupt and corrupting illogic. At least this is what one might learn on this reading, my reading, which is hardly the only reading available of the film since, with only one exception to be addressed in a moment, it endorses none.

The film ends with a return to the daylight workaday world of Accra and shows the celebrants in their quotidian jobs, no longer possessed, no longer foaming at the mouth. Rather than imitating or criticizing their British overseers, they are now occupied in colonial employ. These figures smile at the camera, appear well-adjusted and happy. Here, however, is where Rouch blinks. Perhaps in an effort to bring the film to some sort of conclusion, he offers a bit of interpretation—perhaps the first overt moment of explanation. He suggests that these men have found a “panacea” in the face of anxiety, that the charged ritualistic moment of the possession ceremony has expunged the suffering they experience under colonial rule. This ending brought Rouch a great deal of grief and criticism. It seemed to many as though he was suggesting that the usefulness of the ritual was really to benefit the British, providing a kind of safety valve to prevent African rebellion.

Ultimately, I think this is the wrong way to understand the moment. It is striking to see these men returned to the Accra environment of productivity after the visceral emotional extremes of the ceremony. Rouch really didn’t need to offer any explanation; the images (once again) are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. These images don’t provide clarification but rather a productive obscurity; it is indeed the mysterious connection between these two different manners of existence (the workday and the possession ritual) that so eloquently illustrates the conflicted dynamics of colonialist occupation and the manner in which the occupied live under those conditions and seek to mimetically accommodate themselves to it. This is not mere acquiescence but it is not some bloated fantasy of military retaliation, either. It is something far more complex, far more interesting, far more human.

Rouch continued to collaborate with his African subjects in his extensive output. Now the collaborations became more overt, with the subjects not only suggesting the topics of the films but also improvising narrations over the images. This gave rise to what Rouch termed “ethnofiction”, a genre in which the people in the film act out a scenario that is based on their own experiences but is not simply a transcription of that experience. In essence, Rouch and his collaborators solved the paradox of sight in cinema through a set of constructively mimetic acts. The films recognize that the camera always-already negates the unobserved truth of the world; the act of filming alters the “truth”. Instead of denying the intrusive presence of the camera and the act of filming, Rouch and his collaborators fully acknowledge that all narrative “truth” is a construction. Whomever tells the story exerts (even if unintentionally) some manner of control over that narrative. Although justifiable questions arise as to just how much control Rouch was willing to give to his collaborators, these films at least allow for some aspect of agency on the part of the filmed subjects in shaping their narratives.

Robert Drew and Direct Cinema as Immersive Act

In 1955, Robert Drew, a writer and editor for Life magazine, held the year-long Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University. The year before he had made a documentary film, Key Picture (Magazine X), for NBC and was disappointed with the results. So, he employed his year at Harvard to explore the reason behind his frustration with his own work. The problem, according to Drew, was that documentaries were, by and large, simply lectures or interviews with picture illustrations. They operated by “word logic” rather than “picture logic”, while he sought a “dramatic logic in which things really happened”. Just as we saw in Aristotle, Drew maintained that ethical truth resides in action and the documentary film had to open up a space in which that truth was not simply retold as narrative but revealed in its unfolding. In this manner, Drew believed, the documentarian would get out of the way of the truth of the moment being documented. This would be a new basis for a “new journalism”” “a theater without actors… plays without playwrights… reporting without summary and opinion, [this journalism] would be the ability to look in on people’s lives and crucial times from which you could deduce certain things and see a kind of truth that can only be gotten from personal experience.”

There are obvious parallels here with Rouch’s concerns: the insistence on allowing truth to emerge, the notion that documentaries are a type of theater employing non-actors who aren’t exactly acting but not exactly being themselves in some innocent manner, the shifting of the impetus for interpretation from the filmmaker to the viewer making critical judgments. There are technical parallels also: the use of the handheld camera to heighten the naturalness of the shoot (avoiding the obtrusive set lighting and staginess of earlier documentaries), the use of the lighter equipment to foster a sense of immediacy that attempts to override the distance inherent in viewing a film (the paradox of sight we discussed at the outset of this essay).

And yet important differences abound. Drew’s “direct cinema” is far less reflexive (especially in the first decade of his output) than Rouch’s cinéma verité. Drew’s films make a concerted effort to efface, insofar as possible, the presence of the filmmaker. Drew’s acolytes, the Maysles brothers, even went so far as to get their subjects used to their presence before the real shooting took place so that they would be more easily ignored while working. Whereas Rouch acknowledges that “theater” happens whenever anyone is actively looking (such as a camera), Drew seems to understand life itself as an endless theater (a theatrum mundi) that is best understood by not intervening. In this manner, Drew, far more than Rouch, is concerned with the aspect of sight that relies upon distance—at least a kind of ontological distance. The camera sees all by, ideally, not being seen, not participating and insofar as the camera is the proxy for the viewer that viewer is offered a kind of God’s eye view—observing without being observed, witnessing without impacting the events. There is a paradox afoot here. In offering this ontological distance, Drew hopes to create an experiential proximity. By having less of an impact on the filmed subjects we become more directly involved in the unfolding of the filmed events.

Rouch’s films rely upon the performative self-awareness of non-actors playing the role of being themselves. Drew’s films suggest that life is already performative and is only perverted and made more artificial (and consequently less dramatic) when the subjects of the film are made aware of themselves as subjects. In Rouch’s work, the filmmaker and his collaborators (the subjects of the film who maintain some kind of sovereignty over their representation) engage in an active dialogue with the viewer. The material is not pre-digested but it makes no pretense toward being “simply as things are”. In Drew’s work, the filmmaker ideally recedes into the distance, making way for direct access to the filmed subjects, who ideally exercise no attempt at control over their representation, and affording the viewer what Drew calls “personal experience”, the illusion of “being there”. Indeed, Drew’s films operate on what we might term the logic of immersion—our ontological distance being superseded by experiential proximity. Instead of absorbing a world mimetically (as we do in a Rouch film), these films encourage our absorption by and within that world. If, following our Aristotelian insight, movement and action is the source of ethical understanding, then Drew’s work catches us up in the sweep of those movements.

Primary (1960) (NYC Film Forum)

Drew’s landmark effort was Primary (1960), documenting the Wisconsin primary between Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. Drew had recently founded Drew Associates and he gathered around him a group of fellow travelers who would emerge to be some of the most important documentary filmmakers of the United States: among them Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, and Albert Maysles. Furthermore, with funding from Time and Life, Drew developed a handheld camera with synchronized sound, something that Rouch did not have available to him until around that same time. Rouch’s film, because of the reliance on voice-over and the total lack of synchronization between the sound and the images, always have a dream-like quality, a touch of the surreal (which accords well with Rouch’s aesthetic predilections). But Drew’s films engross the viewer in a world that does, at times, seem unmediated. Primary brings us into the presence of Humphrey and Kennedy; we hear their voices in the context of the rooms in which they speak—the background noise, the unexpected interruptions, the ambient reverberation.

There is a notable and justifiably celebrated moment in Primary. The narrator quickly mentions the importance of the fourth district of Milwaukee to Kennedy’s campaign and then falls silent. A quick shot of a booster rallying the crowd gives way to an extended walking shot as the camera follows closely behind Kennedy as he forges a path through a veritable sea of humanity on his way to the stage. Just slightly above him, the camera is at times so close to Kennedy that it nearly bumps the back of his head. The extended, two-minute shot threads behind Kennedy as he navigates the adoring crowd. He shakes hands, acknowledges pleasantries and cheers of adulation; we witness the gazes of the members of the crowd, the looks of hope and admiration. One woman claims she won’t wash her hand for a year after shaking his. Kennedy passes through a doorway and up a crowded stairway and finds himself on stage. The camera wheels about and the sound immediately shifts from the melee of greetings and desultory talk to the mass singing of the Kennedy campaign song based on “High Hopes”—”oops there goes the opposition”. The camera wanders away from Kennedy, and we reconnect with (are reabsorbed by) the teeming mass of people that have flooded into the hall.

Something remarkable happens here. Once we pull back from the quasi-POV shot following Kennedy—during which it seems like this crowd is endlessly vast, stretching to infinity—the camera opens onto the expanse, revealing it to be not all that expansive at all. The room is, certainly by today’s political standards, modest in the extreme. It is just a relatively small banquet hall or perhaps a school assembly room. There is something touchingly intimate about the whole affair. A stationary camera would inevitably portray the moment as either suffused with a stultifying pageantry or reduce it to a mere stopping place during a hectic campaign. But Drew’s approach reveals the dialectics of the political situation: at once formal and intimate, Kennedy’s efforts to connect with the public seek to bridge the public and the private.

The Chair (1962) (NYC Film Forum)

Drew’s other films build on this approach. The Chair (1962) charts the last-ditch attempt to save Paul Crump from Chicago’s electric chair. Again we are immersed in the environments of this world: the prison where the warden tests the chair with so much noise that we are unable to hear his instructions to his subordinates; the lawyer’s office strewn with discarded paper documenting his struggle to articulate to those loyal to capital punishment what seems to him to be so ludicrously self-evident; the courtroom where a man’s life is decided who is not even present to bear witness, where the nature of redemption and reformation are pondered, where the very nature of truth and our access to that truth (how can we tell whether Crump is actually rehabilitated or whether he is feigning) is debated.

Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1962) (NYC Film Forum)

That same year, Drew produced one of his most impressive and controversial films: Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, which traces the standoff between President Kennedy and Alabama governor George Wallace, who attempted to prevent the court-ordained integration of the University of Alabama. The camera takes no sides, simply bears witness to Wallace’s attempts to exert the “states’ rights” argument the South still attributed to the Civil War while Kennedy mulls over his responsibility for confronting a state-level politician with the open display of federal power. The film garnered some criticism owing to the sheer level of access the cameras were given to the White House. We watch as attorney general Robert F. Kennedy attempts to mediate between his official representation on the ground in Alabama (headed by his deputy attorney general Nicholas Katzenbach) and the president. RFK is constantly on the phone, frustrated by the lack of clear communication but assured of Katzenbach’s abilities. His feet propped up on his desk, leaning back in his chair—this is the portrayal of the informal quotidian habits of a man working in a position of the utmost formality. We are offered access that ideally comes with no pretense of “playing up” to the camera. We are given access to the privacy that resides at the heart of public life.

Of course, a lot of work is being done here by that word, “ideally”. The subjects are supposed to be caught in the act of behaving as they would were they not “caught in the act”. But this puts an outsized responsibility on these subjects. One can’t help but wonder how much of RFK’s nonchalance in this film is an intentional rhetorical gesture, an attempt to win the battle of perception. No one forgets there is a camera in the room, making all of this much more complex in practice than in theory. And here we are once again contemplating theory and its relationship to practice, sight and its relationship to the understanding of deed. And once again we return to Aristotle.

If we as the audience, as theatai, are removed from the situation unfolding before our eyes as a necessary attribute of our mandate to make judgments, we are always aware that those judgments have an ethical element as their basis. We are making ethical judgments in the sense of evaluating the deeds shown in these films in light of what we determine as being right and wrong. But we also are ethically compromised by that ostensibly “objective” point of view we occupy. By what right do we have this access? By what right do we get to judge while remaining beyond the reach of the judgment of those on the film?

On the other hand if, as Aristotle claims, ethics reside in the deed, in movement, then it is not true that we are somehow inactive. We are moved by what we see; we are involved. This, for Aristotle, is more than merely metaphorical. Aristotle asserts that we watch theater, in part, because it affords us an opportunity to hone our ability to make right judgment. We are impacted by theater because the deeds of a person are an expression of the movements of character (ethos) that constitute the person. In being moved, we mimetically accommodate ourselves to the otherness that confronts us. With all of their differences, the insistence that we are moved is integral to the cinematic enterprises of both Jean Rouch and Robert Drew. Whether we coax it into being (like Rouch) or reveal it in its own secretive unfolding (like Drew), truth is not a fixed, stable entity. It demands action; it elicits response. This, it seems to me, is the lesson that both Rouch and Drew teach us. Theory shades over—ineluctably and inexorably—into practice; objective sight becomes ethical deed.