Jean Rouch (1917-2004)

Cimetieres dans la falaise (1951)
Les Maitres fous (1955)

Obituary: Jean Rouch

James Kirkup

THE CREATOR of at least 120 documentary films, all remarkable, the great French cineaste Jean Rouch and his works are known and appreciated by a select few among all the "fans" swarming to wallow in the latest trilogies of this and that. Though since my film-club youth I had always been enthusiastic about documentaries, it was not until June 1996 that I experienced the revelation of Rouch's incomparable cinematographic art at the Galerie du Jeu de Paume in Paris.

He was then in his 80th year, just one year older than myself, and this encounter with an unknown fellow spirit was one of the great events of my old age. The prospect of soon becoming an octogenarian filled me with excitement when I saw Jean Rouch's tall, upright figure and handsome face. It was the first of several sightings, mainly in the streets of Montparnasse and at the cafe known as Le Bal Bullier.

At the age of six, Jean was taken by his father, director of the Musee Oceanographique in Monaco, to a cinema in Brest showing Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty's 1922 film about life in an Eskimo family. The next week, his mother took him to see Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. The future film-maker was born under the twin stars of discovery and adventure.

In his youthful student days, back in Paris, he haunted cinemas and joined the circle of devotees organised by the future director of the Cinematheque Henri Langlois. However, in 1937 he entered L'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees to train as a civil engineer. One year after the defeat of France in 1940, he managed to make his way to the West African state of Niger to construct roads and bridges.

It was there that he first succumbed to the fascination of traditional native rites. An elderly Sorko woman set out to purify the souls of 10 workmen struck by lightning - "a truly marvellous but horrifying ceremony", Rouch was later to recall -

and from that day on I realised that such an event could not be conveyed in writing or in photographs; it could only be captured on film, in colour and with sound.

In that great retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, I was entranced by the early works of what he called his "visual anthropology" from his first visionary masterpiece, paid for out of his own pocket, Au pays des mages noirs ("In the Land of the Black Seers", 1947), in which with a few friends he descends the Niger from its source to its magnificent espousals with the ocean.

By a miraculous concatenation of circumstances - through his fellow writer/ ethnologist Michel Leiris (whose L'Afrique fantome, 1934, had been an inspiration) and a joyous troupe of jazz fiends fired by black African rhythms - the film was brought to the bemused attention of the newsreel director of Actualites Francaises, who decided to schedule it, conditional upon the addition of commentary, music and the insertion of a few supernumerary indigenous animals, which gave what he considered was a suitably "colonialist" stamp of authority. The commentary was enthusiastically declaimed by the regular racing-cyclist authority on the Tour de France. Rouch rejected the result, though he accepted it as "a lesson in how not to approach the montage of a film".

His real entry upon the cinematic scene came one year later when Henri Langlois organised "A Festival of Forbidden Films" with the help of Jean Cocteau at Biarritz, where in 1949 the film that was awarded the Grand Prix du Documentaire was Rouch's ultra-realistic La Circoncision ("The Circumcision"), along with his Initiation a la Danse des Possedes ("Initiation to the Dance of the Possessed"). Rouch then composed a thesis on rituals of possession to accompany his film Les Maitres fous ("Masters of Madness", 1955), which was severely criticised for its "lack of objectivity" by certain academic ethnographers.

He was just as disrespectful of the current views of what "quality French cinema" should be with his preceding masterpieces Yenendi: les hommes qui font la pluie (Rainmakers, 1951), Cimetiere dans la falaise ("Cliff Cemetery", 1951), and Batailles sur le grand fleuve ("Battles on the Big River", 1950) - all three of which were later combined into a full-length feature entitled Les Fils de l'eau (The Sons of Water, 1958).

Jean Rouch's fame was spreading among film fanatics after he received the Venice Festival Grand Prix in 1957 for Les Maitres fous. In 1958, inspired partly by Jean Genet's 1958 play Les Negres, he made Moi, un noir (I, a Negro, 1958), which won the Louis Delluc Prize. His work had already attracted the young intellectuals and influenced the first films of the nouvelle vague including some who were to achieve fame and fortune - Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, who was the first to welcome him to the select band of the New Wave film-makers, and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

"Cinema verite" was one of the terms used to express the realism of "cinema truth", a term invented by Rouch himself. It reached its full expression in a film he made in collaboration with the young sociologist Edgar Morin in 1960, Chronique d'un ete (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), a work of radical originality set in the period of Algerian decolonisation and created entirely in the streets of Paris by means of a hand-held camera with synchronised sound. New technology had made cinema verite more than ever true to the truth.

Jean Rouch at 86 had lost some of his youthful energy but none of his wit and enthusiasm. With another great film-maker still not subdued by the constraints of old age, the veteran Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira (a Firbankian nonagenarian), he made a film in Oporto centred on that city's Pont Eiffel, based on a poem d'Oliveira had written as a script.

En une poignee de mains amies ("In a Fistful of Friendly Hands", 1997) was a symbolic return to his first employment as a builder of bridges - he who built bridges of the creative spirit between blacks and whites all over the world. And whose final bridge was crossed in a car crash in the night in his preferred province, Niger.

Jean Pierre Rouch, ethnologist and film-maker: born Paris 31 May 1917; Director of Research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 1966- 86; General Secretary, Cinematheque Francaise 1985- 86, President 1987- 91; married 1952 Jane George (deceased), 2002 Jocelyne Lamothe; died Konni, Niger 18 February 2004.

Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited


Jean Rouch in the 356 Days Project on UbuWeb