Jean Rouch was killed in a tragic car accident and buried in the Republic of Niger in 2004. We remember the film director and author for his pioneering works of “ethnofiction” which blend scientifically grounded ethnography with creative narrative stories, and which established Rouch as “the father of cinema verite.” The new Eight Films by Jean Rouch box set offers a restored selection of the director’s works and reasserts his role in the evolution of postwar nonfiction and fiction cinema.
Rouch was educated as a civil engineer, and it was a road-building project in the Colony of Niger that first brought Rouch to Africa in 1941. When some of his road workers died Rouch was informed that they’d been killed by a thunder demon named Dongo. Rouch was told that the priestess of a spiritual troupe could protect his workers, leading Rouch to documenting the pre-Islamic religious life of the Sanghay people which included sorcery, sacrifice and spirit possession. But beyond Rouch’s vivid capturing of folkways and traditions, the director’s movies asked questions about racism and class while also sparking a revolution in African cinema, and inspiring the directors of the French New Wave.
Eight Films by Jean Rouch includes the titular eight films spread over three discs. Here are the specs from the Icarus Films site:
MAMMY WATER (1955, 29 min)
An exploration of the spiritual traditions of a fishing village on the Gulf of Guinea. When the catch is bad, villagers must honor the water spirits, or Mammy Water, with a ceremony.
THE MAD MASTERS (1956, 19 min)
A possession ritual of the Hauka religious sect using the delirious techniques of “cine-trance” also doubles as a theatrical protest against Ghana’s colonial rulers. The most controversial and also the most widely celebrated work by Jean Rouch.
MOI, UN NOIR (1958, 74 min)
A complex portrait of Nigerian migrants in Abidjan, the Ivory Coast. Winner of the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc in 1958, MOI, UN NOIR marked Jean Rouch’s break with traditional ethnography, and his embrace of the collaborative and improvisatory strategies he called “shared ethnography” and “ethnofiction.”
THE HUMAN PYRAMID (1961, 93 min)
At a Lycée on the Ivory coast, Rouch meets with white colonial French high-school students and their black African classmates (all non-actors) and persuades them to improvise a drama.
THE LION HUNTERS (1965, 81 min)
Documentation of the lion hunt performed by the gow hunters of the Songhay people, shot on the border between Niger and Mali over a period of seven years.
JAGUAR (1967, 93 min)
Three young Songhay men from Niger journey to the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana). After filming the trip in mid-1950s, the four reunited a few years later to record the sound, remembering dialogue and making up commentary.
LITTLE BY LITTLE (1969, 96 min)
Jean Rouch’s Nigerian collaborators travel to France to perform a reverse ethnography of late-1960’s Parisian life.
THE PUNISHMENT (1962, 64 min)
An aimless young woman is sent home from school with nothing to do. Drifting through the streets of Paris, she comes across a variety of people.
A fourth disc includes the illuminating new documentary Jean Rouch, The Adventurous Filmmaker which offers a great primer on the director and his African films.
For newbies here’s one of Rouch’s early films, Initiation into the Dance of the Possessed…