Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean RouchJoram ten Brink’s interest in French Ethnographer-Cinéaste Jean Rouch’s (1918-2004) work “resurfaced” after the latter’s death in Africa. In October 2004, he organised the highly successful conference Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch at London’s Institut Français. The conference attempted to remedy the Anglophone world’s unawareness of Rouch by juxtaposing and interfacing past and current perspectives on his work, as well as screenings of his films. The book Building Bridges is both a record of this conference and, I would argue, an attempt to create the authoritative text on Rouch and his cinema for the Anglophone world.

Building Bridges opens with a preface by Michael Renov (omitted from the “Notes on Contributors”) followed by ten Brink’s introduction, a straightforward descriptive-explanatory piece in which he hopes that Building Bridges will “enthuse” readers to watch Rouch’s films and generate further publications on “one of the most important and innovative filmmakers of the twentieth century” (p. 5). The book’s closing chapter is by Brian Winston, general editor of Wallflower Press’ Nonfictions Series. Renov praises ten Brink for seeing that what “we most deserve and require” about Rouch is his legacy or “the Rouchian birthright” (p. xv); Renov points out also how “appalling it is that Rouch remains under-appreciated in the Anglophone world” (pp. xiii-xiv). For his part, Winston focuses on Rouch’s Chronique d’un été (1960), “the template for provoking action and then observing the consequences”, in order to expertly chart and unpick the film’s legacy for the Anglophone documentary, especially Reality TV.

Framed between Renov and Winston (both renowned documentary film scholars), Building Bridges is divided into three parts. Part One, “Rouch: Friend of Men and Gods Alike – Some Biographical Notes” (made of two chapters) is overall hagiographic but very informative. For example, it argues that Rouch created a main method and practice in ethnographic cinema, i.e. the validation of a film by those featured in it, while in the second half of his career, Rouch held “negative” views towards new technology, epitomised by video.

Part Two, “The Films” (eleven chapters, including four interviews), is by far the most useful, despite its unfortunate title. This is due to two interconnected reasons: on the one hand, strong critiques and theoretical analyses of Rouch’s cinema emerge for the first time in Building Bridges and, on the other hand, Part Two’s collective brilliance exposes the very few weaknesses in the book at play in Part Three, as we shall see. In Part Two, I would particularly draw attention to three groundbreaking contributions: Paul Henley’s for restoring and accenting the roles “Negro” art played in Rouch’s road to Anthropology in the 1930s; Brice Ahounou’s multidisciplinary approach for arguing that the “richness of Rouch’s work” and Visual Anthropology resides in their search for “identity at the intersection of disciplines” (p. 68); and Réda Bensmaïa for both his accessible analysis of how Rouch unmasks colonisation and lucidly unpicking the ways in which Rouch and his revolutionary cinema could be freed from condemnations by Africanists, Africans and so-called progressive intellectuals.

Part Three, “Foundations and Legacies” (ten chapters), is where Building Bridges becomes problematic, despite the following contributions: ten Brink’s authoritative “From ‘Caméra-Stylo’ to ‘Caméra-Crayon’ et puis après…”; Christopher Thompson’s ageless and incisive chapter on frontiers, borders and border crossings in Rouch’s work; Elizabeth Cowie’s much needed (by documentary aesthetics and studies of Rouch) contribution on the legacy of Rouch’s encounter with Surrealism and “the relation between the documentary evidential and the realm of dreams, of imagination and of the irrational” (p. 201); or Charles Warren’s refreshing reading of Rouch through Wittgenstein – to name a few.

Indeed, Part Three seems undermined by borderline-pretentious and, mostly, overwritten pieces such as “Inventing the Interview: The Interrogatory Poetics of Jean Rouch” by Michael Uwemedimo. Uwemedimo’s energetic, but ultimately flamboyant, Eurocentric and rigid rhetoric on one of the mellowest, most modest, fluid and elusive filmmakers could have been better handled. Rather than trying to claim expertise on French Cinema, French Culture and Rouch, Uwemedimo’s contribution should have focused on trying to be foundational, new and/or groundbreaking – which would have been more in line with his interesting, co-authored conference paper on “moments of [methodological] resonance” between “Vision Machine”, a collective he is part of, and Rouch’s works. Instead, Uwemedimo’s chapter contains no in-depth analysis worth mentioning; not even the chapter’s central question about French “national culture anxiously questioning the meanings and nature of modernisation, decolonisation and … ‘Frenchness’” (p. 251). Furthermore, I cannot help but wonder how one can know Rouch’s prolific and complex work well and then claim to define Rouch’s “interrogatory poetics”: do they actually exist? Not only that, but also to attempt to do this by focussing overwhelmingly on Chronique d’un été, less on Petit à Petit (1971), and even less on other parts of Rouch’s cinema, which fails to make much sense. Overall, Uwemedimo seems unaware that binary constructions are anti-Rouchian; he also demonstrates a limited understanding of “speech” and “voice” in West African “traditional” cultures while objectifying the camera work Rouch uses in his West African films:

In Paris, Rouch arrogates to himself the authority to question, and to call into question the answers he elicits … His interrogatory position here is one of sceptical sympathy – conspiratorial, yet critical.

Such critical pitch is absent from the films that deal with traditional aspects of various West African cultures – … their purpose seems to have been not so much to question as to record [Uwemedimo’s emphasis] … In those rural areas of West Africa, the camera does not so much incite speech as participate in other, typically non-verbal and ritualistic types of performance [my emphasis]. (p. 260)

At best, contributions like this should have been inserted in Part Two of Building Bridges and groundbreaking ones like Ahounou’s and Bensmaïa’s moved to Part Three. This is because, ten Brink’s humbly-stated hope notwithstanding, everything about Building Bridges (i.e. title, structure, numerous high-profile contributors, and trans-national research and support for the project) indicates an intention to generate the authoritative text, if not Reader, on Rouch and his cinema in the Anglophone world. Rightly so, because ten Brink and most contributors to Building Bridges have an important role to play in shaping perceptions of Rouch and his cinema in the above-mentioned world. Although ten Brink does not state his intention to build future bridges with new editions of Building Bridges, I would suggest he does. For these bridge-building ventures to succeed, however, two inter-connected things need to happen: an increase in the number of contributors, the publication needs to become multimedia (DVD and/or online publications) and, above all, the written text’s organising logic needs to be amended.

Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch, edited by Joram ten Brink, Wallflower Press, London and New York, 2007.

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About The Author

Dr Saër Maty Bâ is a Teaching Fellow of Film at the University of St Andrews where he convenes modules in Film History, World Cinema, and Film Theory.