February 21, 2004
Jean Rouch, 1918-2004

rouch.jpgJean Rouch, an Ethnologist and Filmmaker, Dies at 86, by Alan Riding, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2004:

"Jean Rouch, a French explorer, ethnologist and film director who played a significant role in forging the cinéma-vérité style, died on Wednesday night in a car crash in the west central African nation of Niger, the French Embassy there said. He was 86.

"Mr. Rouch (pronounced roosh) was attending a film festival in Niger, where he first worked as a civil engineer more than 60 years ago. Reuters reported from Niamey, the Niger capital, that Mr. Rouch's wife, Jocylene Lamothe, the Niger filmmaker Moustapha Alassane and a Niger actor, Damouré Zika, were also injured in the accident."

I still remember how uncomfortable I felt watching Les MaÓtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955) in college. The images of Hauka priests undergoing spirit possession were terrifying but also sort of funny and strange. The film provoked a heated discussion: Was it racist? Was it anti-Colonialist?

The participants in the ritual were imitating—parodying, actually—the personalities of their colonial occupiers. According to Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell's Film History: An Introduction, "By day the cultists are dockers and cattle herders, but at the ritual, one becomes an army captain, another the governor, a third an elegant French lady. Rouch's doctoral thesis argued that in parodying their rulers, the Hauka release their feelings of imperialist oppression. 'The violent play,' the film's commentary warns, is only the reflection of our civilization.'"

This is very different from most depictions of Africa during that era in documentaries like Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi's Africa Addio (Goodbye, Africa, 1966), which I wrote about last year. Jacopetti and Prosperi used shock and terror to frame Africans: their sympathies are clearly not with their subjects or Africa.

Rouch was different. As Daniel Pinchbeck (Out of Africa, Art Forum International, Oct. 2000) writes:

"Les MaÓtres fous has been called the greatest anticolonialist movie ever made, yet when Rouch first showed a silent version of it in Paris, Griaule, among others, asked that he destroy it. They feared the film would confirm every stereotype held by Westerners about 'savages.' In response to their criticisms, Rouch recorded a voice-over narration that adds humor and humanity to the spectacle. To this day, fearing misunderstandings, he does not allow the film to be shown to the general public unless he is in attendance. Perhaps because of such fears, his works are largely unavailable on videotape."

(A slightly more contemporary American analog would be Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990) in which gay African American and Latino men perform in voguing competitions by vamping down the runway parodying the businessmen and rich people the world will never let them be.)

Rouch is one of those influential filmmakers who's slipped through the cracks. His films—particularly Moi un noir (Me, a Black Man, 1959)—influenced the French New Wave and the cinéma vérité movements. Unfortunately, his work is hard to come by outside of academic conferences, but perhaps they will find their way to DVD in the future.

Also worth seeing is Manthia Diawara's Rouch in Reverse, which takes on the filmmaker's work from an African's standpoint.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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