Magazine article Artforum International

Out of Africa

Magazine article Artforum International

Out of Africa

Article excerpt

DANIEL PINCHBECK ON JEAN ROUCH

"WE WANTED TO MAKE A FILM of love, but in the end it came out somewhat impersonal," sighs Edgar Morin at the end of Chronique d'un ete (Chronicle of a summer, 1961), the sociologist's collaboration with filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch. Beginning with the question "Are you happy?," the film documents a group of Morin's friends in Paris, following them to dinner parties, at work, and on dates and getting them to reveal their innermost thoughts. A sociological exercise, an experimental film, a passionate inquiry into the meaning of Parisian life ca. 1960, Chronique d'un ete, like most of Rouch's works, defies simple categorization.

Trained as a civil engineer in Paris in the late '30s, Rouch was a regular at the then newly founded Cinematheque Francaise housed in the Musee de I'Homme, where he began studying anthropology with Marcel Griaule during the war. Employed by the French government as an ethnographic researcher beginning in the late '40s, he spent most of his career studying and filming the Songhay people in West Africa. But Rouch's influence extends far beyond anthropology: One of the Nouvelle Vague's many "fathers" (Jean-Luc Godard cites him as a major influence), Rouch was the well-spring of what would come to be known as cinema verite and he continues to influence contemporary filmmakers and artists (Christopher Williams and Sharon Lockhart, for instance, have recently expressed great interest in his work). His films are poetic documents that cross genres, shatter preconceptions, and invite philosophical inquiry.

Rouch, who turned eighty-three this past spring, is currently experiencing one of his periodic revivals--academic conferences at New York University last spring and at the London Consortium this summer, a miniretrospective of his films at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and now (Oct. 4-Dec. 31) the Musee de I'Homme in Paris hosts "Jean Rouch: Recits Photographiques," an exhibition culled from some 20,000 photographs from the filmmaker's archive, which he recently donated to the institution, including a trove of images from the Songhay region in the '40s. A by-product of his filmmaking, the photos have never before been shown on their own, except for a small exhibition last spring at NYU's Maison Francaise.

It is still a sublime shock to catch a rare screening of Les Maitres fous (The mad masters, 1955), perhaps Rouch's most controversial work. The film records the yearly spirit-possession ritual among the Hauka, a Nigerian religious group that emerged in the '20s. For Western viewers, the film's power depends on the startling revelation that the gods violently possessing the members of the cult--causing them to foam at the mouth, stagger like madmen, and snatch pieces of dog meat from a boiling pot--are not ancient spirits, but the supernatural shades of their colonial oppressors. One cult member is possessed by the Governor, others by the General and his staff; the movements of the Hauka mimic the rigid gestures of these colonial masters, as Rouch shows them in a parade-ground march.

This thirty-six-minute short opens up endless questions about the "colonial mind," as well as the relationship between modern cinema and archaic ritual. The film implicitly makes a comparison between the cinematographic reproduction of the tribal spectacle and the sacred reenactment of colonial spectacle within the possession rituals themselves. …

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