L’aventure du réel and Jean Rouch’s Passionate Subjectivity

Laure Astourian

Bentley University

An ethnographer studying Jean Rouch might begin by jotting down his sociocultural background: white, bourgeois European male born in 1917 to educated, worldly parents (artist mother, naval meteorologist father). They might then note a correlation between Rouch’s privilege and his life of adventure. Rouch’s mythical aura—carefree, curious, confident—was inherent, of course, but it was also cultivated through experiences and opportunities. Due to his father’s job, Rouch spent part of his childhood in Germany, Algeria, and Morocco. In his teens, he returned to Paris at his father’s encouragement, to prepare entrance exams for two highly competitive, elite French institutions of higher education, the École normale supérieure (humanities and social sciences) and the École Polytechnique (science and engineering). Despite his favorable social (pre)conditions, Rouch did not attain his father’s goal. He was, however, admitted to the Ponts et Chaussées (Bridges and Roads), the elite institution for civil engineering.

A 1935 cover of the Surrealist magazine, Minotaure
Photo credit: The Guggenheim Museum

Rouch began his studies in November 1937, a pivotal time for both French ethnography and French cinema. That year, Paul Rivet founded the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind), while Henri Langlois and Marie Meerson established the Cinémathèque française. A passionate cinephile, Rouch haunted both institutions, which were conveniently located in the Palais de Chaillot. Rouch was also passionate about Surrealism. In fact, his interest in ethnography was piqued by a connection he drew between two images in the Surrealist magazine Minotaure: one of a de Chirico painting, The Duo, and the other a photograph from ethnologist Marcel Griaule’s report on a Dogon funeral in sub-Saharan Africa. Struck by their parallels, in 1940-1941 Rouch enrolled in an elective course on Ethiopia, taught by Griaule.

Paul Rivet leads tour of the Musée de l’Homme on the occasion of its reopening in 1939.
© Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum

In October 1941, as part of his service during the Second World War, Rouch traveled to the French colony Niger where he worked as an engineer for the French public infrastructure program, Travaux Publics (Public Works). This marked his first contact with the Songhay people in the Niamey (capital of Niger) region. Thanks to his mentors, Griaule and Théodore Monod—ethnologist and director of the Institut de l’Afrique noire (French Institute of Black Africa, IFAN)—as well as informants such as Damouré Zika, he gathered information on Songhay mythology, history, and language. Later, during his 1943 stint in the Free French Army, as part of the Bataillon de Génie (Corps of Engineers), Rouch traveled north from Morocco to Alsace, building mines and blowing up bridges so as to hinder the Germans. In December 1944, he returned home to liberated Paris. By June 1945, having completed courses with Griaule at the Institut de géographie (Geography Institute), he received a certificate in ethnology. In October 1945, Rouch left the military and began working towards a diploma in ethnology.

Rouch was not part of the 1946 Mission Ogooué-Congo, a multidisciplinary scientific expedition to Central Africa. He was, however, on the same flight as the participants: thanks to a photographic commission from Agence France-Presse, he and his friends Jean Sauvy and Pierre Ponty were on their way to Songhay country with a 16 mm Bell & Howell camera. As the famous story goes, at one point in Ayoru (western Niger) Rouch wanted to film a hippopotamus hunt. He did not know how and accidentally broke (or lost—depending on the source) the camera’s tripod and as a result he filmed in an unorthodox way, with a hand-held camera. The footage he captured ended up becoming his first film.

Upon his return to France in 1947, Rouch used the footage to make a thirty-minute silent film on the hunt. He screened it at the Musée de l’Homme to an audience that included Griaule, ethnographer Claude Lévi-Strauss, ethnographer and Surrealist writer Michel Leiris, and ethnographer Germaine Dieterlen. Griaule had in the meantime agreed to supervise Rouch’s doctoral thesis on Songhay religion. The same year, Monod arranged for Rouch to become a researcher at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (French National Center for Scientific Research, CNRS), the major government agency providing funds to scholars. He was admitted at the lowest rank and subsequently returned to the field to shoot three films over seven months: Les magiciens de Wanzerbe (The Magicians of Wanzerbe, 1949), La circoncision (The Circumcision, 1949), and Initiation à la danse des possédés (Initiation into the Dance of the Possessed, 1949). During this period, he became convinced of the utility of participatory ethnography, in which those studied also participate in the research on and narrativization of their experience. This would become a central component of his filmmaking praxis throughout his prolific career, until his death in 2004, at the age of 87.

In the late 1940s, Rouch became the ethnographer-filmmaker we know today. It was during this period—notably through the projection of Initiation at the avant-garde Festival du film maudit de Biarritz (Festival of the Cursed Film)—that his star began to rise. At the festival, Initiation won the grand prize in the presence of then-teenaged film critic François Truffaut and other future New Wave directors. In 1952, Rouch helped establish the Comité du film ethnographique (Ethnographic Film Committee, CFE), a primary goal of which was to propagate a new wave of filming in the field. Over the subsequent decade, he would become a reference in the field as well as a significant influence on cutting-edge French filmmakers. Following his controversial Les Maîtres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), the success of his experimental ethnography Moi, un Noir (I, a Black Man, 1958) would cement his reputation. It would also palpably influence Jean-Luc Godard’s first feature film, the New Wave classic À Bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960).

Original French poster for Moi, un Noir (Jean Rouch, 1958)

Rouch’s La Pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961)—a not-quite-ethnographic experiment set mostly in Abidjan, Ivory Coast—marked a pivot in his career: following the independence of France’s sub-Saharan African colonies in 1960, Rouch made several films in Paris, while continuing to travel to and make films in sub-Saharan Africa. The successive works resulting from Rouch’s Parisian period are often grouped together under the umbrella of cinéma vérité. While this ambiguous and malleable term does not quite explain them as a group, the film that does clearly belong in this category is Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer, 1960), which Rouch co-directed with sociologist Edgar Morin. Chronique is also the first extensive Parisian urban ethnography. Rouch’s next film, La Punition (The Punishment, 1963), was significantly shaped by the debates ignited by Chronique. His other Parisian films of note are Gare du Nord, a contribution to the omnibus film Paris vu par… (Six in Paris, 1965) and Petit à Petit (Little by Little, 1969).

The opening of Chronique d’un été (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961)

In addition to sketching out the first and most important half of Rouch’s professional trajectory, the text above has conveyed key points from the first 9 chapters of scholar, anthropologist, and practicing documentary filmmaker Paul Henley’s L’Aventure du réel (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2020). Henley—who in 1987 was awarded a prize by the Musée de l’Homme festival committee presided by Rouch—offers a thorough examination of the practical and technical processes by which Rouch made his films. He analyzes technical matters and editorial strategies as well as the aesthetic, ethical, and epistemological positions Rouch associated with those procedures. In chapters 10 to 16, he moves beyond the description and analysis of specific films to a broader analysis of Rouch’s praxis, from pre-production to post-production. He highlights Rouch’s likes (voice-over narration, improvisation) and dislikes (subtitles, video). And in the scrupulous, sharp, yet diplomatic ethos that guides this essential study, he notes that Rouch’s theoretical writings should be considered metaphorically rather than literally, given their author’s poetic rather than analytical sensibility.

The cover of Paul Henley’s L’Aventure du réel (2020)

L’Aventure du réel is a revised and expanded French edition of The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema (The University of Chicago Press, 2009). Skillfully translated by Joëlle Hauzeur, this edition benefits from a vivid preface by Antoine de Baecque, the eminent French film historian of the New Wave. The high production quality of the French edition is also worth noting: the stylish visual layout and abundance of black-and-white stills contribute to a pleasurable reading experience. The introductory chapters describe Rouch’s background and his gradual shift from engineering student to ethnographic filmmaker. Surrealism, particularly its valorization of improvisation and seemingly random but meaningful encounters, would inform Rouch’s filmmaking praxis throughout his career.

Following the two introductory chapters, the book is divided into 3 parts. Part 1 is comprised of five chapters which analyze Rouch’s work up to La Pyramide humaine. Chapter 7 is of particular note: in it, Henley re-interprets Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous. The widespread interpretation is that the subjects of the film performing a ritual ceremony just outside of colonial Accra (then-capital of Gold Coast), during which they imitate colonial administrative figures, are engaging in a parodic, counter-hegemonic theatrical burlesque. Henley proposes instead that their imitation actually represents an aspiration on the part of marginal individuals vulnerable to the vagaries of political power. In other words, they seek to gain control of that political power, indirectly, through religious means.

In the first half of the book, Henley also underlines the importance of “feedback screenings” to Rouch’s praxis. During these screenings, he showed footage to the subjects of his films. These spontaneous gatherings and discussions would affect his editing choices while also leading to the creation of subsequent films. Thus, the feedback screening of Bataille sur le grand fleuve (Battle on the Great River, 1951) led to the making of Jaguar (principal material shot in 1954-55, but released in 1967), his first and prototypical ethnofiction, and one of his greatest works. Part 2 of L’Aventure du réel is comprised of four chapters. Henley analyzes Chronique d’un été as well as Rouch’s other Parisian and sub-Saharan African films of the 1960s.

A still from La Pyramide humaine (Jean Rouch, 1960)

Whereas in parts 1 and 2 Henley shows how particular films manifest the principles underlying Rouch’s ethnographic filmmaking praxis, in part 3, Henley identifies those principles directly, referring back when necessary to the films. In part 3, comprised of four chapters, Henley consecutively treats Rouch’s praxis during the conceptualization and production phases, as well as the editing and broader post-production phase. He also extensively analyzes the key notion of “shared anthropology” in Rouch’s work. Henley closes L’Aventure du réel with a brief conclusion on the legacy Rouch has left to ethnographic filmmakers today.

The introduction of part 3 is particularly important, as Henley discusses and deconstructs the influence on Rouch of American filmmaker Robert Flaherty and Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov. Rouch admired both, and sought to align himself with Vertov, despite the fact that their praxis, and even the look of their films, differed significantly. Henley highlights the importance of montage to Vertov’s conception of truth (he saw himself as a “camera thief”) contrasting sharply with Rouch’s films which were marked by naturalistic realism. There is indeed a key epistemological difference between Rouch and Vertov: one sought the transformation of the world (Rouch), while the other sought to transform its perception (Vertov). As for Flaherty, Rouch admired and shared his willingness to try new things, as well as his relationship to his subjects.

Chapter 13 details Rouch’s filmmaking process and methodology. While Rouch believed in inspired performance (both that of his subjects and his own) and leaving things to chance, he also took care to meticulously prepare in advance. He saw the camera as a catalyst, disliked zoom lenses, and loved tracking shots and shooting in color. His works are also devoid of formal interviews (in contrast to those of his mentor Griaule). In chapter 14, Henley explores Rouch’s difficult relationship to editing. While Rouch asserted its importance, he sought to keep it to a minimum, both through his filming practices (long takes) and in the editing suite itself. He worked with the top editors in France, most of whom, in the 1950s, were women. In addition to Suzanne Baron (who also worked with Jacques Tati and Louis Malle), a notable example is Marie-Josèphe Yoyotte. She cut Moi, un Noir and La Pyramide humaine as well as Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). Henley describes Rouch’s editing process as “editing by successive approximations,” noting the example of Jaguar, which was recut several times. He aptly notes that Rouch’s protracted editing schedule (cutting films in light of feedback, waiting months to begin the editing process) was made possible by his particular institutional circumstances whereby, unburdened by teaching responsibilities and with a secure position at the CNRS, he had freedom to do as he liked.

Chapter 14 delves deeper into Rouch’s paradoxical attitudes towards the nuts and bolts of editing. In particular, Rouch’s difficult experience with editing during Chronique (it pained him to discard most of the footage) led him to minimize image-related editorial interventions. This did not extend to sound editing, however; the super-imposition of commentary he performed himself was indeed central to his praxis. Crucially, in all of his films, Rouch’s subjectivity mediates the image and the experience of the subjects filmed. His narration is a key component of his films, which involved his intense subjective engagement. Furthermore, Henley explains that for Rouch the essence of filmmaking was an improvised yet highly authored performance at all stages of the filmmaking process. Rouch’s firm claim to authorship is indeed a central component of his praxis; the collaborative ethos of “shared anthropology” has its limits. Ultimately, we are watching “un film de Jean Rouch,” and this is what irked at least one of his collaborators, Oumarou Ganda, who was the subject—and star—of Moi, un Noir. Rouch was extolled for revealing the subjectivity and voice of Ganda, but in the end, he took credit for the film. Ganda went on to make several films and once claimed that with every film he made he “killed Rouch”!

In chapter 15, Henley addresses the intricacies of this “shared anthropology” and clarifies Rouch’s political positions—or rather, his “historically progressive” but apolitical stance. A key point is the sharp contrast between his and Griaule’s method regarding informants. Griaule considered his informants to be deceptive and sought to deceive them by any means to meet his objectives. Rouch, on the other hand, saw the process as “collaboration in a joint creative project” and his feedback screenings as an “audiovisual countergift,” a term clearly inspired by the sociologist and pioneering ethnologist Marcel Mauss. Henley also explores what Rouch’s African collaborators gained from working with him, notably material and career benefits. Finally, he briefly addresses criticism of Rouch among African screen studies scholars who consider that Rouch’s work ignores the broader political context in which it takes place. This “apolitical” stance explains why Rouch’s films were not rigorously censored, whereas overtly political films were. A notable example is the 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die), by Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, and Ghislain Cloquet.

The final chapter is an abridged version of its English-language original, which highlights the lessons of Rouch for ethnographic filmmakers today. Rouch’s interest in the intellectual underpinnings of the external manifestation of culture clearly echoed that of Mauss. He shared with Griaule a commitment to provoking the subjects into revealing these underpinnings, albeit with a camera instead of interrogatory interviews. Rather significantly, Rouch anticipated by almost twenty years the rejection in Anglo-Saxon anthropology of dispassionate objective organization.  As Henley observes, at the peak of Rouch’s career, even the most “progressive” Anglo-Saxon filmmakers believed their instruments to be “objective recording devices” rather than catalysts, or immersive tools.

The cover of Paul Henley’s The Adventure of the Real (2009)

The major differences between The Adventure of the Real and L’Aventure du réel are the following: whereas the English-edition contained an appendix listing Rouch’s films, the latter does not, given that the Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée (National Center for Cinema and the Moving Image, CNC) has in the last decade produced two catalogues of his films, including Jean Rouch, l’Homme-Cinéma (Jean Rouch, the Cinema-Man, 2017). Henley has instead added around fifty pages incorporating the considerable scholarship (eighty-five new references) that emerged around the time of Rouch’s centenary in 2017. Many of Henley’s updates take the form of footnotes, with the exception of the chapter on Chronique d’un été, which he rewrote substantially in light of film scholar Séverine Graff’s important monograph, Le cinéma-vérité: films et controverses (Cinéma Vérité: Films and Controversies, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014). In addition to updating the chapter on Chronique, Henley modified his angle on—and softened his critique of—Rouch’s Dogon films (chapter 11); he was compelled to do so upon learning that these films were in fact made for Dieterlen according to her ideas and methods, as an elaborate homage to her partner in life and work, Griaule.

L’Aventure du réel is a thoughtfully prepared book of the highest quality. Throughout, Henley alludes to elements he mentioned earlier in the book. Far from being redundant, the weaving in of these reminders guides the reader and rewards them for their attention. He clearly conveys his deep and extensive understanding of Rouch and also seeks to distinguish between Rouch the man and Rouch the legend. The reader thus trusts him and enjoys going on the “adventure” of the book which reads like an engaging story. My only criticism of the book stems from my approach to Rouch’s work from the perspective of a French film scholar. Henley could have explored the anthropological objectives behind Rouch’s Parisian films, but that is not the focus of his work. His analysis privileges their experimental aspects, as underlined by the title of chapter 9: “Rencontres parisiennes: experiences du cinéma de fiction” (Parisian Encounters: Experiments in Fiction Cinema). Henley focuses on Rouch’s investigation into whether fiction films could be made using the production methods of cinéma vérité: without scripts or studios, with a handheld “walking camera,” improvised dialogue, and sound recorded on location. While he does note that La Punition sheds light on French male-female relations of the period, more could be said about what this and Rouch’s other Parisian films reveal about their largely bourgeois, urban Parisian subjects.

Jean Rouch and friends
Courtesy: Faye Ginsburg and NYU

At the beginning of this review, I approached my subject—Rouch—as he might approach his: noting his background and origins before engaging further. Such information should not be taken for granted for various reasons. Notably, it underscores a central element of Rouch’s praxis and resonant legacy: his passionate subjectivity. Despite the fact that Rouch was neither a major theoretician nor a brilliantly talented cameraman, he was ahead of his time (and, sadly, even ahead of ours) in that he acknowledged that being a white, male European did not de facto make him a dispassionate, objective recorder of the sub-Saharan African reality, or of any reality for that matter. Rather than blindly or lazily embracing the pretense of dispassionate objectivity, Rouch privileged the subjective in his filmmaking: both his own and that of his subjects. To my mind, his passionate subjectivity defines his praxis even more than his collaborative ethos, which is a result of the former.

Rouch’s passionate subjectivity is, in the end, the most progressive aspect of his work, and the reason for which films that were admired in the past remain compelling today. Given the mythical aura surrounding Rouch, thorough and meticulous analyses such as Henley’s are critical to guiding scholars towards a fair and deep understanding of his work. In this regard, both The Adventure of the Real and L’Aventure du réel have been indispensable to my own research, and I recommend them wholeheartedly. These studies are also versatile pedagogical supplements to courses related to French imperial and post-imperial history, visual anthropology, and French cinema. In a French film history course, for example, pairing chapter 6 of L’Aventure du réel with a screening of Moi, un Noir would likely spark a lively discussion on subjecthood, subjectivity, and ethnographic authorship in the late colonial period. This pairing would work just as well in a course on sub-Saharan African cinema. Indeed, given that the 1934 Laval Decree (which prevented subjects in French African colonies from filming themselves) was in effect during the making of Moi, un Noir, the film’s valorization of Oumarou Ganda’s passionate subjectivity makes it a key work in sub-Saharan African cinema as well.

Paul Henley, L’Aventure du réel, Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2020

Jean Rouch, Director, Eight Films by Jean Rouch, France, 605 min, color, Icarus Films (2017)

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