No outside figure has contributed more to the cinema of francophone West Africa than Jean Rouch. Yet, much as he devoted his life’s work to subverting the power dynamics of the anthropological gaze, his influence does not only flow one way. For it was his films – and not only his, given the crucial roles played by his predominantly African collaborators – that in turn helped bring a new language to French cinema. None of those films better symbolise the complexities of that exchange than Petit á Petit (Little by Little, Jean Rouch, 1970).

Petit á Petit was conceived of as a loose sequel to Rouch’s first fictional film, Jaguar (Jean Rouch, 1954/1967). In that earlier work, three Nigerien men (Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia and Illo Goudal) travel by foot to Accra in order to find work; in Petit á Petit, Damouré and Lam travel to Paris. A third chapter, in which the pair were to become gurus sought out by western hippies, was planned but never completed.1

The title refers to the name of a market stall run by Damouré and Lam in Jaguar: “Petit á Petit l’Oiseau Fait Son Bonnet” (“Little by Little the Bird Makes its Bonnet”).2 At the beginning of the second film, “Petit á Petit” has become a large corporation, and Damouré is sent to Paris to gain information about the construction of multistorey buildings. Concerned about his mental well-being, the company sends Lam over to bring him back, and the two eventually return to Niger with a troupe of stray Parisians in tow. Their tower is constructed, but local displeasure with the company’s dubious practices lead to Damouré and Lam leaving the company and going their separate ways.

As in many of Rouch’s films, the dialogue and much of the plot of Petit á Petit were almost entirely improvised by the actors.3 This collaborative methodology is an essential aspect of Rouch’s filmmaking: present from the beginning of his work as an ethnographer in the 1940s,4 and of particular importance given the active suppression of African filmmaking in French colonies via the Laval decree.5 Rouch helped undermine this system by collaborating closely with the subjects of his films, who often acted simultaneously as performers and technical assistants, and in some cases went on to become pioneering African filmmakers.6

It is not only the cinema of Niger (and, to varying extents, those of Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal) that bears Jean Rouch’s mark, however. His influence – that is, the influence of his films; born of both French and West African parents – on French cinema is no less important.

In this regard, it is hard to overstate Rouch’s impact. Jean-Luc Godard credits Rouch’s films – and particularly Moi, un Noir (Me, a Black, Jean Rouch, 1958) – with being a direct inspiration for his use of handheld camera and montage in À Bout de Souffle (Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard, 1960).7 Jacques Rivette described Rouch as “the force behind all [French New Wave] cinema”.8

Even in the aftermath of the New Wave, Rouch’s influence was still being felt in France. Rivette cites Petit á Petit as being “the main impulse” behind the creation of his highly improvised, 12-hour masterpiece Out 1 (1971).9 He reports being so impressed by a screening of an eight-hour workprint of Petit á Petit that he refused to see the shorter versions of it – the three-part, 255-minute miniseries Rouch made for television, and the 96-minute theatrical cut.10

While there is limited information on the content of the longer versions of Petit á Petit – Paul Henley refers to a scene in which Safi Faye eats a dead American soldier’s hand! 11 – the at-times breathless pace of the theatrical version attests to its truncation. This is no more evident than in the surreal sequence in which Lam and Damouré descend into the depths of the Paris metro, only to wind up on a skilift in the Swiss Alps, a historical Italian village, and finally in California before inexplicably appearing back in Paris. The entire journey is over in a few minutes of screen time.

Petit á Petit is full of such idiosyncratic shifts. Although it is a more purely fictional film than most of Rouch’s other work (many of which fit within the mold of what Allan King described as “actuality dramas”, films in which the fiction is developed mainly in post-production,12) it still drifts into documentary – for instance, in early scenes where Damouré talks directly to Rouch off-camera, or more notably in the sequence in which he conducts an anthropological study of unsuspecting Parisians (some of whom are in on the joke, and some of whom clearly aren’t).

Here, Damouré inhabits a kind of proto-Sacha Baron Cohen role, accosting pedestrians and performing various examinations on them: indeed, the aesthetic, thematic and narrative similarities between Petit á Petit and Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Larry Charles, 2006) are striking. This parodic reversal of European anthropology – Damouré takes subjects’ head measurements and inspects their teeth – is what the film is famous for, but, as with the initial vox-pop set-up of Chronique d’un Été (Chronicle of a Summer, Edgar Morin & Jean Rouch), it is only one part of a far more eclectic project.

Upon release, Petit á Petit was sharply criticised by some African viewers for its conclusion, in which the protagonists abandon their business – and, by extension, capitalism – and return to working on the land.13 This tension between the need to industrialise and the yearning for a more traditional way of life runs throughout Petit á Petit, and a less generous reading of the film might well present Rouch as being too enamoured with exoticism and insufficiently interested in the well-being of his protagonists. But such an analysis would overlook the essential irreverence at the heart of Little by Little, and also Rouch’s goals as a filmmaker, which were always to bring West African voices to the seventh art – not as ‘others’ to be observed, but as subjects constructing their own stories, both in front of the camera and behind it. To this dialogue, this exchange, contemporary cinema owes much.

 

Petit à Petit (1970 France/Niger 96 mins)

Prod. Co: Les Films de la Pléiade Prod: Pierre Braunberger Dir: Jean Rouch Asst. Dir: Philippe Luzuy Scr: Jean Rouch Phot: Jean Rouch Ed: José Matarasso & Dominique Villain Snd: Moussa Hamidou Cast: Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, Illo Goudal, Safi Faye, Ariane Bruneton, Philippe Luzuy

 

Endnotes

  1. Sandra Straccialano Coelho, Vozes da Etnoficção: Autoria e Alteridade no Cinema de Jean Rouch, (Salvador, Brazil: Universidade Federal da Bahia, 2013) p.121
  2. Paul Stoller, The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch, (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 1992) p.136
  3. Joram ten Brink, Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch. (London, UK: Wallflower Press, 2007) p.157
  4. Mick Eaton, Anthropology–Reality–Cinema: The Films of Jean Rouch, (London, UK: British Film Institute, 1979) pp.2–4
  5. Manthia Diawara, African Cinema: Politics & Culture, (Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press, 1992) pp.22–24. Instituted in 1934, the Laval decree required all filming in the French colonies to be first authorised by the colonial ministry. This was primarily a means of controlling the spread of anti-colonial sentiment, but it also had the effect in practice of preventing Africans from participating in any aspect of film production. This policy was active until the late 1950s.
  6. Jean Rouch, Ciné-Ethnography, trans. Steven Feld (Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) p.19
  7. Gilles Mouëllic, Improvising Cinema, (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Amsterdam University Press, 2013) pp.49-51
  8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Anthropological Auteur,” Chicago Reader, 1 November 1990
  9. Carlos Clarens and Edgardo Cozarinsky, “Jacques Rivette on Out 1 and Celine and Julie Go Boating,” Sight & Sound, Autumn 1974
  10. Ibid.
  11. Paul Henley, The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema, (Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press, 2010) p.216
  12. Seth Feldman, Allan King: Filmmaker, (Bloomington, USA: Indiana University Press, 2002) pp.12–13
  13. Jean Rouch, Ciné-Ethnography, trans. Steven Feld (Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2003) p.181

About The Author

David Heslin is an editor and film critic residing in Melbourne, Australia. He edits Screen Education and Senses of Cinema, and has been published in The Age, Overland and The Conversation. David was a participant in the Melbourne International Film Festival’s 2015 Critics Campus program.