Jean Pierre Rouch in Paris, 31 May 1917.
Lycée Henri IV, Paris, degree in literature; Ecole nationale des
ponts et chaussées, Paris, degree in civil engineering.
Married Jane Margaret Gain, 1952.
Became first to make descent of Niger River by dugout canoe, also began
making ethnographic films during trip, 1946–47; director of
research at Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, 1966–86;
Sécretaire Général du Comité du Film
Ethnographique, 1972; President of La Cinémathéque
Prize Festival du Film Maudit, Biarritz, for
Initiation à la danse
, 1949; Prix du Reportage, Paris Short Film Festival, for
, 1950; Critics Prize, Venice Film Festival, for
Les Maîtres fous
, 1955; Prix Delluc, for
Moi, un Noir
, 1959; Prizes at Cannes, Manheim, and Venice Festivals for
Chronique d'un été,
1961; Golden Lion Prize, Venice, for
La Chasse au lion
Films as Director:
Au pays des mages noirs (co-d, sc, ph)
Hombori ; Les Magiciens de Wanzerbé (co-d, pr, ph)
Initiation à la danse des Possédés ; La Circoncision (+ pr, ph)
Chasse à l'hippopotame
Bataille sur le grand fleuve (+ ph); Cimetière dans la falaise Yenendi: les Hommes qui font la pluie (+ ph); Les Gens dumil (+ ph)
Les Fils de l'eau (compilation of earlier films; released 1958)
Mammy Water (+ sc, ph)
Les Maîtres fous (+ ph, narration)
Baby Ghana ; Moi, un noir (+ sc, ph)
Moro Naba (+ ph); La royale goumbé (+ ph); Sakpata (co-d, + ph)
La Pyramide humaine (+ sc, co-ph); Chronique d'un été ( Chronicle of a Summer ) (co-d, co-sc); Les Ballets de Niger
La Punition (co-d); Urbanisme africain (+ sc); Le Mil ; Les Pêcheurs du Niger (+ sc); Abidjan, port de pêche (+ sc)
Le Palmier à l'huile ; Les Cocotiers ; Monsieur Albert Prophète ; Rose et Landry
"Véronique et Marie-France" (also known as "La Fleur de l'âge ou les adolescents") episode of Les Veuves de quinze ans ( The Adolescents ; That Tender Age ) (+ sc); "Gare du nord" episode of Paris vu par ( Six in Paris ) (+ sc)
La Chasse au lion à l'arc ( The Lion Hunters ) (+ sc, ph, narration); La Goumbe des jeunes noceurs (+ sc, ph) (released 1967); L'Afrique et la recherche scientifique ; Alpha noir ; Tambours de pierre ; Festival de Dakar ; Hampi ; Musique et danse des chasseurs Gow ; Jackville
Batteries Dogon—éléments pour une étude des rythmes (co-d); Fêtes de novembre à Bregbo ; Dongo Horendi ; Dongo Yenendi ; Koli-Koli ; Sigui année zero (co-d)
Jaguar (+ ph); Daudo Sorko ; Sigui: l'enclume de Yougo ; Tourou et Bitti
Pierres chantantes d'Ayorou ; Wanzerbe ; Sigui 1968—les danseurs de Tyogou (co-d); Un Lion nommé l'Américain
Sigui 1969—la caverne de Bongo
Yenendi de Yantalla ; Mya—la mère ; Sigui 1970—Les clameurs d'Amani (co-d)
Petit à petit (+ co-sc, ph); Porto Novo—la danse des reines (co-d); Sigui 1971—la dune d'Idyeli (co-d); Architectes Ayorou ; Yenendi de Simiri
Horendi ; Sigui 1972—les pagnes de lame (co-d); Yenendi de Boukoki ; Tanda Singui
L'Enterrement du Hogon ; VW—Voyou ; Dongo Hori ; Sécheresse à Simiri ; Boukoki ; Hommage à Marcel Mauss: Taro Okamoto
Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet (+ co-sc); Pam Kuso Kar ; Sigui 1973—l'auvent de la circoncision ; La 504 et les foudroyers (co-d); Ambara Dama (co-d); Sécheresse à Simiri (continuation of 1973 film); Toboy Tobaye
Souna Kouma ; Initiation
Babatou ou les trois conseils (+ ph); Médecines et médecins (co-d); Rhythme de travail
Makwayela ; Ciné-Portrait de Margaret Head ( Margaret Head: Portrait of a Friend ); Isphahan: Lettre Persanne 1977 ; Fête des Gandyi Bi à Simiri ; Le Griot Badye (co-d); Hommage à Marcel Mauss: Marcel Levy ; Hommage à Marcel Mauss: Germaine Dieterlen
Simi Siddo Kuma
Funérailles à Bongo: Le Vieux Anai (co-d)
Portrait de Raymond Depardon
Folie ordinaire d'une fille de Cham ( The Ordinary Madness of a Daughter of Cham )
Brise-Glace ( Icebreaker ) (co-d); Boulevards d'Afrique—bacou mariage
Cantate pour deux généraux (doc)
Madame L'eau ( Madam Water )
Moi fatigué debout, moi couché ; Faire-part: Musée Henri Langlois (+ ph)
Alger—Le Cap (adviser)
Niger, jeune républiquem (adviser)
Chantons sous l'occupation (co-ph)
By ROUCH: articles—
"A propos des films ethnographiques," in Positif (Paris), nos. 15/16, 1955.
"Migrations au Ghana (Gold Coast)—Enquête 1953–55," in Journal de la Société des Africanistes , no. 26, 1956.
Interview, in Movie (London), April 1963.
"Jean Rouch in Conversation," with James Blue, in Film Comment (New York), Fall/Winter 1967.
"Situation et tendances du cinéma en Afrique," in Catalogue des Films Ethnographiques sur l'Afrique noire (Unesco), 1967.
"Le Film ethnographique," in Ethnologie générale, Encyclopédie de la Pléiade , Paris, 1968.
"Je suis mon premier spectateur," an interview with L. Marcorelles, in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), March 1972.
"The Camera and the Man," in Principles of Visual Anthropology , edited by Paul Hockings, The Hague, 1975.
Interview in Ecran (Paris), March 1977.
"Ciné-transe: The Vision of Jean Rouch," an interview with D. Yakir, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Spring 1978.
"The Politics of Visual Anthropology," an interview with D. Georgakas and others, in Cineaste (New York), Summer 1978.
"Jean Rouch: A Pastoral Perspective," interview with H. Naficy, in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), no. 3, 1979.
"Note sur les problèmes techniques soulevés par l'expérience Super 8," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), January 1979.
Jean Rouch Section of Framework (Norwich, England), Autumn 1979.
"Superserious-8: Chronicle of a Master," an interview with T. Treadway, in Filmmakers Monthly (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), June 1981.
Interview with Enrico Fulchignoni, in Positif (Paris), January 1982.
Interview with A. Rodrig, in Cinématographe (Paris), April 1985.
"Cocorico monsieur le Président," an interview with Frédéric Sabouraud, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), July-August 1987.
Interview with Gilles Marsolais, in 24 Images (Montreal), November-December 1989.
"Le caméra comme lien social: cinéma direct et ciné-transe," in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), January 1989.
"A Conversation with Jean Rouch," with L. Taylor, in Visual Anthropology Review , no. 1, 1991.
"Jean Rouch, 54 ans sans trépied," an interview with J.P. Colleyn, in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), May 1992.
Interview with F. Maggi, and G. Maggi, in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), no. 4, 1996.
Interview with Borjana Mateeva, in Kino (Sophia), no. 3, 1998.
On ROUCH: books—
Armes, Roy, French Cinema since 1946: Vol. 2—The Personal Style , New York, 1966.
Issari, M. Ali, Cinéma Vérité , East Lansing, Michigan, 1971.
Marsolais, Gilles, Jean Rouch , Cinémathèque Québecoise, 1973.
Marsolais, Gilles, L'Aventure du Cinéma direct , Paris, 1974.
Barnouw, Erik, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film , New York, 1974.
Issari, M. Ali, and Doris A. Paul, What Is Cinéma Vérité? , Metuchen, New Jersey, 1979.
Eaton, Mick, Anthropology—Reality—Cinema: The Films of Jean Rouch , British Film Institute, 1979.
Prédal, René, editor, Jean Rouch, un griot gaulois , Conde-sur-Noireau, France, 1982.
Gauthier, Guy, L'Avènement du cinéma direct , Conde-sur-Noireau, France, 1990.
Stoller, Paul, The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch , Chicago, 1992.
On ROUCH: articles—
Tanner, Alain, "Recording Africa," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1956.
Jutra, Claude, "En courant derrière Rouch," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), November 1960, January 1961, and February 1961.
Sandell, Roger, "Films by Jean Rouch," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1961/62.
Graham, Peter, "Cinéma Vérité in France," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1964.
Blue, James, "The Films of Jean Rouch," in Film Comment (New York), Fall/Winter 1967.
MacDougall, David, "Prospects of the Ethnographic Film," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1969/70.
"Jean Rouch," in Documentary Explorations , edited by G. Roy Levin, Garden City, New York, 1971.
Ensault, Philippe, "Jean Rouch ou les aventures d'un nègre blanc," in Image et Son (Paris), no. 249, 1971.
Fieschi, J. A., "Dérives de la fiction: notes sur le cinéma de Jean Rouch," in Cinéma, théories, lectures , Paris, 1973.
Berman, Bruce, "Jean Rouch: A Founder of Cinéma Vérité Style," in Film Library Quarterly , vol. 11, no. 4, 1978.
" Moi, un noir Issue" of Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 1 April 1981.
Howes, Arthur, "Jean Rouch, Anthropological Film-maker," in Undercut (London), Summer 1983.
Kemp, Peter, "From This-Is-It! to Can-We-Do-It?" in Filmnews , February 1988.
Bruciamonti, A., in Cinema Nuovo (Bari), March/April 1994.
Predal, R., "Le Cinema Direct," in Cinémaction (Courbevoie), no. 4, 1994.
Movahed, A., "The Eyes of Africa," in Film International (Tehran), no. 3, 1995.
Faber, A., "Szelmalmok Afrikaban," in Filmvilag (Budapest), no. 7, 1996.
* * *
A prolific and innovative ethnographic filmmaker as well as a pioneer of cinéma vérité and improvised film psychodrama, Jean Rouch has not only redefined documentary film practice but also stimulated radical developments in fiction film. It was as a civil engineer preferring West Africa to the German occupation that Rouch came to anthropology through observation of Songhay rituals. After the liberation, his untutored enthusiasm found an intellectual framework at the Musée de l'Homme, where he studied social anthropology under Marcel Mauss and ethnography under Marcel Griaule, the initiator of film recording in fieldwork. It was at Griaule's instigation that in 1946 Rouch descended the Niger in a dugout canoe with a 16mm camera to make the first of over eighty ethnographic films.
Rouch's early films dutifully followed Griaule's lead in providing celluloid records of cultural practice. Typically, the self-effacing camera discreetly captured events which a later commentary interpreted for a posited Western audience. However, inspired by Flaherty's example, Rouch began to incorporate his subjects' perspective ( Cimetière dans la falaise ). Rather than make generalist exotic documentaries, he focused on particular aspects of African culture, sometimes in collaboration with fellow ethnographers. In the early years (1950–52), Rouch worked closely with Roger Rosfelder on migration, while in the period 1966–73, he made eight films with Germaine Dieterlen on the Sigui festivals of the Dogon.
Salient among the subjects covered during five decades of filming are: funeral rituals ( Cimetière dans la falaise; Moro Naba; Funérailles du vieil Anai; L'Enterrement de Hogon; Souna Kouma; Pam Kusoka; Ambara Dama; Simir Siddo Kuma) , hunting ( La Chasse à l'hippopotame; Musique et danse des chasseurs Gow; La Chasse au lion à l'arc; Un Lion nommé l'Américain, Koli-Koli ), fishing ( Au Pays des mages noires; Bataille sur le grand fleuve; Mammy Water; Abidjan—port de pêche; Les Pêcheurs de Niger ), spiritual practices ( Les Magiciens de Wanzerbe; Monsieur Albert, prophète; Jackville ), possession rituals ( Initiation à la danse des possédés; Les Maîtres fous ), rain-making rituals ( Yenendi; les hommes qui font la pluie; Dongo Yendi; Dauda Sorko; Yenendi de Ganghel, Yenendi de Yantalla; Yenendi de Simiri; Yenendi de Boukoki ), and celebrations ( Baby Ghana; Fêtes de l'indépendance de Niger; La Goumbé des jeunes noceurs ).
Apart from the rituals dealing with possession, rain-making, and funerals, the most celebrated ethnographic films concern the Gow lion-hunters: La Chasse au lion à l'arc and Un lion nommé l'Américain. Filming over a seven-year period Rouch earned the trust of the tribal hunters to capture not only their techniques but, most importantly, the intimate lion hunt rituals and their meaning for the Gow hunters.
Rouch's evolution as an ethnographic filmmaker and his progressive exploration of subjectivity can be traced through key films. In the possession rituals of Les Maîtres fous , participants adopt the personas of their colonial masters. Rouch conveys both collective and personal responses in the self-induced hysteria which culminates in the eating of a sacrificial dog. Inserted satirical images of the British governor break with the tradition of presenting only the pro-filmic event while the commentary indicates the violence as a politically therapeutic act. This combination of socio-political and psychological insights brought a new dimension to the ethnographic film. The powerful exteriorisation of violence and role-play had particular meaning for two creative artists: Peter Brook staging his Marat/Sade , and Jean Gênet in his conception of Les Noirs. Rouch's first feature film, Moi, un Noir , has thematic links with Les Maîtres fous. Observation of the daily lives of migrant workers includes their fantasies as they talk to the camera in the guise of their self-attributed movie-star pseudonyms. Discovering himself through the film's rushes, "Edward G. Robinson" is stimulated to talk openly about his problems and ambitions. The valuable perceptions derived from this participatory technique reinforced the importance of including the subjective conscious alongside objective observation in the ethnographic film.
As a means to gather further insights into issues of racial and cultural difference, Rouch regularly experimented with improvised dramas: Jaguar; Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet; Les Adolescents; La Punition; or the indicative La Pyramide humaine. In this film Rouch set up the situation of a white girl attempting to integrate with black classmates. With the camera providing the catalyst, pupils developed scenes from their own experiences to create a form of cathartic psychodrama, but the experiment was flawed by the lack of synchronized sound, and efforts to recreate raw emotions for a later soundtrack proved difficult.
At the suggestion of the sociologist Edgar Morin, Rouch applied his investigative documentary approach to a group of Parisians questioned about happiness ( Chronique d'un été ). With lightweight sound equipment and a special wide-angled camera developed by fellow cinematographer Michel Brault, Rouch achieved a sense of immediacy and intimacy previously lacking. Despite reservations about the interview sample (mostly Morin's friends) and the post hoc shaping implicit in editing twenty-five hours of recording to the ninety-minute feature, Chronique d'été was lauded as the new realism, or in Rouch's terms, cinéma vérité. The approach differs from the didacticism or idealism of scripted documentaries and implies a new directness and truthfulness (the term is borrowed from Vertov's kino-pravda). Whereas the contemporary "direct" cinema movement maintained the camera's invisibility, cinéma vérité foregrounded the technology, insisting that the elicited information is generated by the interview situation itself. The interventionist approach was geared to stimulate spontaneity, and with it, revelation.
The influence of the film was considerable. Radical filmmakers like Jacques Rozier, Chris Marker, and Jean-Luc Godard adapted the approach, so that hand-held cameras, actors addressing the camera, improvisation, or the undisguised directorial voice became staple elements.
The experiment of Chronique d'un été was extended in La punition , where Rouch also brought into play the techniques of La Pyramide humaine. Non-professional actors were wired for sound and left to improvise around the theme of a girl's encounters with three men in Paris. Rouch's aim was to maximise cinéma vérité spontaneity and, in order to reduce intervention through editing, filming was conducted in ten-minute takes over a single weekend. This attempt at convergence between film time and narrative time was only partially successful, and Rouch returned to the question in his "real life" drama of a fatal quarrel in Gare du Nord , one of the episodes in Paris vu par. . . . In subsequent films Rouch explored cultural issues through folk tales or contemporary African drama. In Babatou ou les trois conseils , he draws on war chronicles and a fairy tale to articulate views on slavery, while in Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet , a Nigerian tale about a travelling chicken dealer is retold through the collective improvisation of non-professional actors. A stage play is the source both for Folie ordinaire d'une fille de Cham , in which two female inmates of a mental institution act out their frustrations born of gender, race, religion, and upbringing, and for Boulevards d'Afrique , based on a Senegalese musical comedy, in which a young woman challenges her parent's cultural assumptions about an arranged marriage.
Rouch's most recent work confirms the continuing vitality of his eclectic interests. In the powerful Cantate pour deux généraux , he returns to a possession ritual in which Africans perform voodoo rites on Napoleon's grave to release the spirit of a black general. With Brise-Glace , he produced a wordless documentary about a Swedish ice-breaker in the North sea, while his current project, Madame l'eau has taken him to Holland.
As a self-tutored ethnographic filmmaker, Rouch pioneered approaches which in turn radicalised several areas of filmmaking in the 1960s. His interactive approach to documentary, which evolved into extemporized psychodramas, brought fresh insights into cultural difference, while the French tradition of scripted documentary (encapsulated in Rouquier's Farrebique ) was jolted into a new form of directness by Chronique d'un été. Latter-day film and TV documetarists as well as radical filmmakers such as Godard attest to his influence in sociological film essays ( Masculin et féminin ). After half a century as a filmmaker, academic, and author, Rouch's commitment to promoting film as an instrument of enthnographical research remains undiminished. In 1978, as a mark of his international standing, he was himself the subject of a TV documentary, Jean Rouch and His Camera in the Heart of Africa , but there are no greater monuments to his life's work than the unique corpus of films produced for the Musée de l'Homme and the worldwide host of filmmakers who have followed his stimulating cross-disciplinary approach to filmmaking.
—R. F. Cousins