image001“I was trained by people who were important researchers and who were at the same time great poets.”
– Jean Rouch in an interview with Enrico Fulchignoni. (1)

When I read Paul Henley’s The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema, it was as if I had spent time with Jean Rouch anew; such is the insight provided in this comprehensive study of Rouch’s oeuvre. Following in the footsteps of other authors that have explored the work of Jean Rouch, such as Paul Stoller (2), Steven Feld (3), and Joram ten Brink (4), Paul Henley continues to reveal the complex world of the French ethnographer and filmmaker of some 130 films to an Anglophone audience. Director of the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology in Manchester, and a practicing filmmaker himself, Henley delivers a detailed analyses of Rouch’s filmmaking methods: his experimentations with poetics and technique, his original use of unscripted narration and his development of the cinéma direct genre. Through the main motifs of Jean Rouch’s mindset, initiation practices and surrealist esthetics, Henley explores how the work of filmmakers such as Flaherty and Vertov, and the Songhay and Dogon thought systems contributed to fashion Rouch’s ethnographic and filmic practices, delivering an essential book for scholars of film, anthropology, and French culture alike.

 

Paul Henley at the Comité du film ethnographique, Musée de l'Homme, Paris, 2008, ©Françoise Foucault

Paul Henley at the Comité du film ethnographique, Musée de l’Homme, Paris, 2008, ©Françoise Foucault

The focus of Henley’s book is on Rouch’s process, style, and approach. It features over 150 images and numerous appendices, including a detailed filmography. Henley analyzes how literature, painting and photography influenced Rouch’s perception of reality and how it shaped the methods he used, such as a mobile camera, wide angle filming, the overriding of continuity and innovative sound recording techniques. The dominant image emerging is that of an anthropologist creating narrative films that grew progressively free of the structure of the event they represented. For example, Henley shows, how Moi, un Noir (Me, a Black Man) 1958, is representative of Rouch’s style: a fictionalization revealing degrees of facts with the actors playing young migrants in Abidjan trying to earn a living by casual labor and acting as film or paperback thrillers characters to express their reality through dream and fantasy.

image from Moi, un noir by Jean Rouch, 1958, ©Films de la Pléiade.

image from Moi, un noir by Jean Rouch, 1958, ©Films de la Pléiade.

original poster from Moi, un Noir (Me, a Black Man)

original poster from Moi, un Noir (Me, a Black Man)

In the first two chapters of The Adventure of the Real, ‘Initiation’ and ‘The Surrealist Encounter’, Henley describes Rouch’s childhood and youth in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, a period that coincided with Surrealism’s search for the ‘other’, first in Europe and later in Africa, no longer as a primitive but as an object and a subject of knowledge. Henley delves into the long-lasting impact of a young Rouch discovering the poetic and scientific journal Minotaure in a Montparnasse bookshop. Rouch depicts the encounter thus:

“In the window of a bookshop suffused with evening sunlight, I saw two large pages from the publication La revue Minotaure. One was from the special edition devoted to the Dakar-Djibouti mission, showing the unforgettable photo of the Kanga masks on the rooftop terrace of the hunter Monzé for his funeral Dama ceremony. The other was the frontispiece of Issue n° 5 from May 1934 on the metaphysical paintings of Georgio de Chirico, showing the Duo or Les mannequins de la Tour Rose. Suddenly I found enchantment, from Marcel Griaule’s photo of the Dogon people of the Cliffs of Bandiagara to these two anxious characters, also on a rooftop terrace at sunset…” (5)

Rouch describes the connection between ethnography and Surrealism and sets the scene for photography and painting as prisms playing an all-important role in his filmmaking throughout his career, as we can see from his summary of filming the Sigui ceremonies in Dogon country, “All of a sudden, I was back in teenage nostalgia, the mineral landscapes of Dali, the use of perspective and that hard of light of de Chirico, the smell of the old Trocadéro…” and continues to underline the importance of performance in his way of seeing, “We were the spectators of a fabulous opera of which we knew the libretto by heart before the curtain rose,” referring to the oral reports Marcel Griaule collected on the previous Sigui cycle that took place seventy years before. (6)

Cover, special edition of Minotaure (1933) on Griaule's Dakar-Djibouti Mission

Cover, special edition of Minotaure (1933) on Griaule’s Dakar-Djibouti Mission

Le duo or Le mannequins de la tour rose (The Duo or The Mannequins of the Pink Tower), by Giorgio de Chirico, completed in 1915

Le duo or Le mannequins de la tour rose (The Duo or The Mannequins of the Pink Tower), by Giorgio de Chirico, completed in 1915

In part I, ‘The Camera and a Man in Africa,’ Henley examines Rouch’s filmmaking activities up to around 1960. He traces the development of Rouch’s ideas on ‘shared anthropology’, systematically sharing results of his filmic research with actors and involving them at every level in the process of creation, in films such as Bataille sur le grande fleuve (1952), The Lion Hunters (1956), Moi, un Noir (1958) and Jaguar (1967). Part I concludes with an extensive discussion of Les maîtres fous (1954-55), which breaks with Henley’s announced goal of analyzing Rouch’s filmmaking methods. This chapter was initially published as an essay, which may explain its depth of ethnographic detail and its tone that is quite different from the rest of the book. (7) Henley here provides a detailed discussion of Songhay religion to substantiate his re-examination of Les maîtres fous. He challenges the common interpretation—by Rouch himself at first, although he redefined his analysis later—of the Hauka (New Gods) ritual portrayed in the film as mainly a political parody of British colonial rule in Ghana. For Henley, the characters personified by the Hauka practitioners are spirits not humans. To claim that the negative image making in the film is the purpose of the ritual is to confuse the issues.

 

Title credit of Les maîtres fous (The Crazy Masters), by Jean Rouch, 1956, ©Films de la Pléiade

Title credit of Les maîtres fous (The Crazy Masters), by Jean Rouch, 1956, ©Films de la Pléiade

Rouch referred to the making Les Maîtres fous as entering a ‘ciné-trance’, a reference to Vertov’s Kino Pravda or ‘film-truth’: “In the lens (objectif) there is a film, but there is also chance! And I have been practicing lens (objective) chance, I think… without knowing it, ever since I was born…” (8) Rouch defines filming performance, “For me then, the only way to film is to walk with the camera, taking it where it is most effective and improvising another type of ballet with it in which the camera becomes as alive as the men it is filming. (…) Leading or following a dancer, priest or artisan, the filmmaker is no longer himself, but a ‘mechanical eye’ accompanied by an ‘electronic ear’. It is this strange state of transformation that I have called, by analogy to possession phenomena, ‘ciné-trance’.” (9)

In Part II, ‘Between Paris and the Land of Nowhere’, Henley follows Rouch’s activities from around 1960 when he was working in Paris and West Africa, beginning with Chronicle of a Summer (1961), co-directed with Edgar Morin. Henley focuses on Rouch’s experimentation with techniques, such as single takes, improvisation, jump cuts (Moi, un Noir), shared authorship, first person filming, hand-held camera, filming in 16mm, improvised voice-work and synchronous sound that influenced New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard.

 

Opening Title of Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer), by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1960, ©Argos Films

Opening Title of Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer), by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1960, ©Argos Films

Henley describes how Jean Rouch, an engineer by training, worked with technicians to improve his equipment. The Bell & Howell Filmo camera that Rouch had been using for Les Maîtres fous forces the filmmaker to record sound separately and to synchronize image and sound in post-production. Rouch’s innovative response to this technical limitation in Moi, un Noir (1958) was to have the main character improvise a commentary while watching the rushes for the first time. As filmmaker and cameramen of Chronicle of a Summer, Michel Brault, says in MICHEL BRAULT Le cinema c’est ce qu’on veut, (10) “Until 1960, the documentary film was silent…Do you find that surprising?” In fact, at the time, 16-mm cameras could not record synchronous sound. The separately recorded image and sound of Chronicle of a Summer was post-synchronized, and Brault continues to say, “But in the final film, there was an impression of life on the screen, much like the train coming into the station of the Lumière brothers.”

Jean Rouch during the filming of Dogon-Sonchamp (1983), an interview film with Jean Rouch, Germaine Dieterlen and Enrico Fulchignoni, ©Françoise Foucault

Jean Rouch during the filming of Dogon-Sonchamp (1983), an interview film with Jean Rouch, Germaine Dieterlen and Enrico Fulchignoni, ©Françoise Foucault

In Part III, ‘The Craft of Ethnographic Cinema’, Henley identifies the defining principles of Rouch’s ethnographic filmmaking, looking into technical strategies, aesthetic considerations and ethical positions that contributed to his cinematographic legacy, including a chapter on the notion of ‘ciné-trance’. He examines the influence of Mauss and Griaule on Rouch with their founding principle of collecting a body of data on one’s field of study. Henley outlines how the Surrealists influenced Rouch’s filmmaking practices, such as editing through successive approximations, to the use of improvisation, joking relationships that formed the foundation of his associations, and oral tradition techniques for the commentary of films such as Jaguar. Henley analyzes the difference between Rouch and Dziga Vertov; for Rouch the cinema not only transformed one’s perception of the world, but the world itself. He shows how Rouch was influenced by Robert Flaherty’s practices of ‘shared anthropology’, such as filmmakers showing their rushes to the people they filmed. He ends with an assessment of the criticism against Rouch, for example, Oumarou Ganda’s claim to have been misrepresented in Moi, un Noir, and the academic Pierre Haffner who relayed the negative opinions of Ousmane Sembene and other African filmmakers on Rouch.

Left, Jean Rouch with center, François Didio and right, Jérôme Blumberg, Musée de l’Homme, 1995. ©Françoise Foucault

Left, Jean Rouch with center, François Didio and right, Jérôme Blumberg, Musée de l’Homme, 1995. ©Françoise Foucault

Throughout Henley’s book, Rouch transpires as a DIY filmmaker who made films with cameras and sound equipment that he continuously adapted to his needs. Rouch came to Direct Cinema as an amateur. It provided a means of reflecting reality, to which he added his own literary and poetic impressions, his subjective way of seeing. Deeply influenced by the people he filmed, Rouch incorporated their way of thinking into his films, but also into his way of being. He shared the lives of his actors, especially the DaLaRouTa group (Damouré, Lam, Rouch and Tallou), with whom he made several films and with whom he shared royalty returns. Finally, Henley points out, Rouch’s greatest contribution was the intense process of exchange he created between himself, his actors, and his spectators. Through his “anthropology in the first person,” Jean Rouch drew both subject and spectator into his subjective responses to the people and situations of his films, revealing beliefs, realities and ways of thinking that would otherwise not be obvious to the eye. In Rouch’s own words, “I cannot read the lines of the hand, I read into the heart and the beating of my heart is a metronome of my unreason…” (11)

For his study of Jean Rouch’s methods and films, Paul Henley benefitted from the fact that in 2008, the Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) collected Rouch’s documents. At the same time, the Comité du Film Ethnographique deposited a number of his films at the French Films Archives (Bois d’Arcy). An inventory was established and a first set of films was restored. Close to forty films can now be viewed at the Film Archives. Some have been digitized and can be viewed at the National Library, such as Les Magiciens de Wanzerbé (1949), Circoncision (1949), Initiation à la danse des possédés (1949), Cimetières dans la falaise (1951), Les Hommes qui font la pluie (Yenendi) (1951), Bataille sur le grand fleuve (1952) et Moro-Naba (1958). Through an extensively researched account of Rouch’s practical filmmaking methods, The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema, presents a portrait of Jean Rouch as a filmmaking ethnographer who records his relationship with the people he films. The precision, scope and detail of Henley’s expression makes The Adventure of the Real an informed source and an important reference for ethnographers and filmmakers alike.

Paul Henley, The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London: 2009, 507 pp. 131 photos, tables, maps, index. ISBN 9780226327150.

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Endnotes

  1. Jean Rouch, une retrospective, Catalog, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1981.
  2. Paul Stoller. The Cinematic Griot, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  3. Steven Feld. Ciné-Ethnography, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
  4. Joram ten Brink. Building Bridges, (London: Wallflower Press, 2007).
  5. Nadine Wanono, “Jean Rouch or the Magic of Images,” in Jean Rouch: A Celebration of Life and Film, Ed. William Rothman, Translatlantique N° 8, Biblioteca de la Ricerca, Shema Editore, 1-2.
  6. Jean Rouch, “Le renard fou et la maître pale” (The Crazy Fox and the Pale Master), in Systèmes des signes. Paris, Hermann, pp. 9-17, 1978.
  7. Paul Henley, “Spirit Possession, Power, and the Absent Presence of Islam: Re-viewing Les Maîtres fous,” in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Vol. 12, Issue 4 (December 2006) 731-761.
  8. “Je pratique le hasard objectif depuis ma naissance”: Jean Rouch sur un retour possible en Afrique et l’esprit aventure, Transcription of an unpublished interview with Jean Rouch, URL: http://www.arte.tv/fr/Je-pratique-le-hasard-objectif-depuis-ma-naissance/1944724.html, Web, March 7, 2013.
  9. Jean Rouch, “La camera et les Hommes. Pour une anthropologie visuelle”, Mouton, 1978.
  10. MICHEL BRAULT, Le cinéma c’est ce qu’on veut, Rina Sherman, 85mn, HD, 2013, from the Collection, VOICES Meetings With Remarkable People by Rina Sherman
  11. “Je pratique le hasard objectif depuis ma naissance”: Jean Rouch sur un retour possible en Afrique et l’esprit aventure, Transcription of an unpublished interview with Jean Rouch, URL: http://www.arte.tv/fr/Je-pratique-le-hasard-objectif-depuis-ma-naissance/1944724.html, Web, March 7, 2013.

About The Author

Born in South Africa, Rina Sherman was exiled from the country and settled in France in 1984 where she has been living and working since. A classical musician by training, she worked as independent theatre actress and in television before turning to filmmaking. In 1990 she completed a doctorate with distinction at the Sorbonne, supervised by Jean Rouch. Her first novel, UITREIS, (Leaving) was published in South Africa in 1997 to critical acclaim. Writer, filmmaker and anthropologist, Rina has initiated several cultural projects. She was audiovisual director for the exhibition South Africa: Music of Freedom in La Villette, 1995. That same year, she was awarded the prestigious French prize, Villa Médicis Hors les Murs that allowed her to undertake extensive research in the film archives of the Southern African region. In 1996, she organized Jean Rouch's tour of South African universities in collaboration of the French Institute in South Africa (IFAS) and the Mission for Cooperation and Cultural Services of the French Embassy in Namibia. In 1997 Rina was awarded a Lavoisier Research Bursary by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the project The Ovahimba Years, a multi-disciplinary long-term research programme (drawings, oral tradition, video, film, photography) aimed at creating a living trace of Ovahimba cultural heritage. For a period of seven years, she filmed and photographed aspects of the daily and ritual lives of the Ovahimba.