Building Bridges

By Peter Loizos

jean-rouch.jpgJean Rouch

This collection is an invaluable sourcebook for teachers and students of Jean Rouch’s work. It comprises 23 essays by authors expert in a field relevant to Rouch’s oeuvre – French cinema 1950s and 1960s, surrealism, film-in-anthropology, Niger, and practical filmmaking. Some authors have interviewed Rouch, some have worked with him, some have studied with him, some have been driven to make their own films out of dissatisfaction with his, and some have done several of these things. A number of the essays have appeared elsewhere, usually in French.

This book, product of a three day retrospective and conference organised by the editor is more thoughtful than much earlier writing. Some myths are dispelled. Bregstein sees off the idea that Rouch did everything in a spirit of possessed spontaneity, an idea which he too easily promoted in some of his interviews. In fact, he was observed by Bregstein making all kinds of thoughtful preparations before shooting. Shooting itself might be full of spontaneity and improvisation, but editing was selective, consultative, and took place over long periods. Some Rouch films were edited many years after being shot. Some have been shot and remain unedited. The Master’s productivity and commitment to the promotion of film cannot be gainsaid. He dominated French ethnographic documentary for decades. He made things happen, and not only for the camera. Films got catalogued, archives got set up. He returned to Niger virtually every year for 50 years, died and was buried there, with full cultural honours.

Rouch had a way of making his own creative biography sound more pioneering than it actually was. He learned that you could film effectively without a tripod, but Bell and Howell’s Filmo camera was promoted to the [wealthy] amateur in the 1930s with a photo of a woman hand-holding it while filming her children. The combat cameramen who landed on Normandy and Iwo Jima beaches would not have survived if they had been operating with tripods. Rouch “discovered” what others had known about for some time, and had even designed into 16 mm cameras.

Joram ten Brink’s attempt to connect Rouch’s practice and theory to Astruc’s “Camera-Stylo” bends intellectual history in that he cannot show that Rouch had ever taken the time to read Astruc. It’s one thing to refer –after the fact – to a Big Idea and quite another thing to have intellectually taken it into one’s own thinking. The fact that Rouch comments sardonically that Astruc has talked the talk but not walked the walk suggests a certain detachment. . Ten Brink succeeds in doing something else: he shows that Astruc was a John the Baptist for the New Wavers, and that the theory of camera-stylo made Rouch’s hand-held off-the-cuff filming more acceptable because it gradually became the cool thing to be doing. I’m pointing to the need for a serious biography of Rouch, of the kind that tells us, where he was when Astruc published, what he read or didn’t read.

chronicles-of-a-summer-jean-rouch-edgar-morin.jpgChronicles of a Summer, 1961

Meanwhile, the book provides plenty of material towards such a project. We get very informative interviews with three women affected by working with Rouch – Nadine Ballot, Marceline Loridan and Safi Faye. We hear how they developed subsequently, how they thought about the Rouch films they had worked in. Questions of [contested] Moi, Un Noir was understandable, but showing how Ganda himself went on to make his own films in his own voice. Paul Henley has continued his analytic engagements with Rouch, here assessing the “Sigui” films about Dogon ritual, noting that apart from the brilliance of the “camera, which takes the viewer right inside the ritual’s snake dance, the film style and construction is enhanced ethnological description. It documents what would have gone on with or without Rouch’s camera, although we can grant that some participants happily “play up” to the filming process. My point is that this sequence calls in question attempts by other contributors [Thompson, Bate and Cowie] to tie Rouch into the surrealist movement. Rouch spent his life evading intellectual capture, and the butterfly net for surrealists was no better at catching him for a pinning down than any other net. He was consistently inconsistent. Rouch was influenced by surrealism, but his flowering was later, and independent of a movement which had largely ran out of steam by 1939. For sure, he mostly wanted to make Europeans less comfortable in their assumptions, but after Les Maitres Fous his jeux d’esprit were usually just that – playful.

chronicles-of-a-summer-jean-rouch-edgar-morin-2.jpgChronicles of a Summer, 1961

Brian Winston’s concluding paper on the “legacy” of Chroniques in “reality” television connects issues which were brought into the light in the early 1960s, which led Morin to say to Rouch “I think we are in trouble” [dans le bain] to the world of Big Brother, and Wife Swap. Winston shows that two different things went on in the 1960s films. There was Rouch’s interview-provocation: making people respond to questions from behind the camera, which gave current affairs TV a catalytic booster. Big Brother has everything to do with that idea, and is its bastard grandchild. Bastard because where Rouch and Morin were serious in their intentions – what do you think about the Algerian war, about racism, about cheating, Big Brother is an all-for-profit, Bensmaia and Naficy, ears in the frame asking his own questions, the Big Brother producers are not putting themselves in the frame or risking anything personal. The other thing which characterized the 60’s pioneers was the attempt to make an “evidentiary documentary” [see Loizos 1993] and that interest is still with us, in serious observational films, for a little while longer at least, and cannot be driven out by more manipulative and bad-faith genres.

Readers will not want to be walked through every contribution in this highly informative volume, but Chanan on music and Grimshaw on the post-war Italian neo-realists’ parallels to Rouch are challenging, as are Ahounou, Bensmaia and Naficy. Suffice it to say, each essay has something to say and the authors are serious in their attempts to trap the Pale Fox., the ever effusive, ever-elusive Maitre Fou.