Magazine article Artforum International

The Film Is the Search: J. Hoberman on Jean Rouch's Moi, Un Noir (1958)

Magazine article Artforum International

The Film Is the Search: J. Hoberman on Jean Rouch's Moi, Un Noir (1958)

Article excerpt

NEW IDEAS in motion pictures typically arrive from the so-called margins. Thus, modern (or postmodern) cinema comes to Europe by way of Africa. Working out his own particular destiny as an ethnographic filmmaker in France's West African colonies, Jean Rouch (1917-2004) invented the French New Wave.

A professional anthropologist with a long-standing interest in Surrealism and, by his own account, an early regular at the Cinematheque Franchise, Rouch credited the introduction of the 16-mm format with the "revival of ethnographic films." He himself became a filmmaker when he started packing a secondhand Bell & Howell found in a Paris flea market on his West African field trips in the mid-1950s. His first short efforts were distinguished by their pragmatic resourcefulness and a kind of honest sensationalism that bespoke an imagination closer to that of Fuis Bunuel than to that of John Grierson (the British filmmaker and critic who popularized the term documentary in his review of Robert Flaherty's Moana in 1926).

Rouch's Les maitres fous (The Mad Masters, 1955), shot in 1953 and 1954 in the Gold Coast, the British colony that a few years later would become independent Ghana, showed members of the Hauka cult in the throes of spiritual possession, drinking dogs' blood, frothing at the mouth, and going out of their minds--all as a means of hilariously mocking their colonial overlords. The thirty-six-minute movie was banned in England and the Gold Coast but caused a small sensation in France, where it was shown commercially in 1957 on a bill with Ingmar Bergman's circus drama Sawdust and Tinsel (initially released in Sweden in 1953).

Les maitres fous inspired Jean Genet to write Les negres (The Blacks, 1958), and Peter Brook would show the movie to his actors while rehearsing Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade (1964), but Rouch's African friends were scarcely more pleased by it than were the British authorities. The filmmaker took these criticisms seriously and began to experiment with new forms. Pushing beyond the ethnographic romances contrived by Edward S. Curtis and Flaherty during the silent era and further developing Flaherty's collaboration with his subjects, Rouch introduced fictional and reflexive elements, including commentary, into his longer documentaries-films that sometimes took years to complete. (Jaguar, which both documented and staged aspects of the annual migration of workers from Niger to the West African coast, was filmed largely in 1954, finished in 1967, and first shown in 1971.)

Famous in France and encouraged to document his own culture, Rouch made Chronique d'un ete (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), an investigation of "happiness" in the lives of Parisians. The film was conceived and directed in collaboration with the left-wing sociologist Edgar Morin, who called it "an experiment lived by its authors and its actors." Whether or not the project achieved its announced goal, it successfully problematized the notion of acting naturally on camera. With direct interviews facilitated by its pioneering use of 16-mm sync sound, Chronicle is generally considered the first example of cinema verite and thus the founding work of contemporary documentary. Rouch had, however, already produced a more radical work, Moi, un noir (1958), made in (a less acknowledged) collaboration with the Nigerian longshoreman Oumarou Ganda.

Filmed in Abidjan, the capital of the French colony Cote d'Ivoire, Moi, un noir features a group of young immigrants from Niger, who, for the most part, played themselves as well as their ego ideals. While Rouch's methodology had antecedents in Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and Moana, its break with pseudo-observational ethnographic procedure made it analogous to such contemporary documentary fictions as Lionel Rogosin's Neorealist On the Bowery (1956), a scripted, if minimal, drama enacted by the denizens of New York's skid row. His principals were acting in the movie of their lives. …

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