November 12, 2012
Jean Rouch: The Ethnographic Surrealist

For me cinema, making a film, is like Surrealist painting: the use of the most real processes of reproduction, the most photographic, but at the service of the unreal, bringing into being elements of the irrational… the postcard at the service of the imaginary.      - Jean Rouch

Anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch (1917 – 2004) is one of those paradoxical figures in film history. His work has received exuberant praise, he is consistently hailed as one of the most innovative and influential filmmakers of his time, and yet, few have actually seen his films, which to this day remain very difficult—in many cases impossible—to get a hold of. This is especially true outside of his native France and only a fraction of his oeuvre has received distribution in the English-speaking world.

In a career that spanned more than five decades, Rouch authored a colossal body of work comprising over 100 films and almost as many anthropological writings. It was a position at the French National Center for Scientific Research—obtained as a doctoral student in 1947 and held for the rest of his life—that enabled his prodigious productivity as well as his fervent experimentalism. Free of commercial considerations, he was not constrained by deadlines or producers’ directives, allowing him to work on several films at once, often re-shooting entire segments and working on the edit for years, only releasing the final cut when it corresponded to his vision.

The bulk of Rouch’s films were shot in West Africa and document the region’s wealth of cultural customs and traditions. Although he is generally considered an ethnographic filmmaker, his work always eschewed scientific rigor in favor of a subjective, experiential perspective. Even his more strictly documentarian films, such as La chasse au lion à l’arc (The Lion Hunters) and Mammy Water, offer very little explanatory content. In portraying the arcane (and now largely disappeared) rituals of Nigerien lion hunters and Ghanaian fishermen, these films include scarce background information and, while they acknowledge the presence of a foreign observer, they are strictly committed to their subjects’ perspective, taking their superstitions at face value and submitting them to the viewer as fact. Rouch believed that by being too removed from the humans it studies, ethnography was stuck at an impasse and that film’s immediacy represented the only way out of its “ivory tower.”

In this regard, his encounter with Surrealism as an adolescent played a strong formative role. While in aesthetic terms, Rouch’s films remained predominantly realist, their ethos was markedly Surrealist and he was forever seeking new ways to exploit the medium’s potential for evoking the inner reality of his subjects. This is most apparent in the film that first brought him international attention, 1955’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters). This short film depicts a Hauka possession ceremony, in which laborers from the city of Accra retreat to the jungle and become possessed by spirits in a ritual intended to purge them of their everyday ills, particularly the oppression of their colonized existence. In its depiction of the ceremony, it employs an increasingly feverish cinematography, with the frenetic editing, chaotic handheld camerawork and breakneck narration mirroring the intensity of the trances on display. Thus bombarded with images of men convulsing and foaming at the mouth, butchering and devouring a dog, and imperviously exposing their flesh to open flames and boiling water, the viewer is subjugated to a visceral and extremely upsetting experience, intended to not only convey the ecstasy of the possessions but also to reflect the violence suffered by the colonized Africans. Highly controversial, the film was universally censured upon its release: Western anthropologist deemed it a travesty, African intellectuals accused it of perpetuating racist exoticism, and the British Empire took it as a personal affront, banning it in its territories. Over time, its status has changed and it is now widely considered to be one of the most trenchant filmic reflections on imperialism.

The full version of this essay was published on BOMB magazine’s blog, BOMBlog. You can read the essay here.

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »