From 1963 to 2005 the Cinémathèque Française, the temple of movie love, was located in the east wing of Paris' Palais de Chaillot. The south wing was, as always, occupied by the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Man), devoted to anthropological and ethnographic study. Jean Rouch, an employee of the Musée and a filmmaker, the Cousteau who documented an unseen Africa, was one man respected equally in both wings — without exactly belonging to either.
Born in Paris in 1917, Rouch fled the European war to Niger in 1941, working as an engineer in French West Africa. When he returned in 1946, he brought his first movie camera — a spring-loaded, 16mm Bell & Howell. Having begun a doctorate in anthropology, Rouch began to film the country and people along the Niger River. He continued to film them until he died, at 86, in a car accident in his beloved West Africa.
In the United States, it's long been easier to read about Rouch's films than to see them, but this is changing. Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch's most famous work — which I saw on a 16mm print in a college documentary class and never forgot — will be released by Criterion in February, and a touring passel of Rouch's films arrives this week at the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
UCLA's “Selected Shorts” program encompasses Rouch's earliest reportages, shot without synch sound. 1949's The Circumcision is an exuberant look at a group of Songhay boys being carved into manhood, while Initiation Into Possession Dance, shot during the same horseback expedition, shows an early interest in ecstatic and hypnotic states manifest in Rouch's later ciné-trance films (the term is the filmmaker's), such as 1971's long-take Tourou and Bitti, in which the cameraman, Rouch himself, is drawn into and becomes a part of the observed ritual.
Possession Dance predicts Rouch's most famous short, 1955's The Mad Masters, sitting in on a Hauka possession cult ceremony. Ordinary men from all walks of life in industrial Accra, capital of present-day Ghana — then the Gold Coast, a British colony — meet for a yearly revel in the countryside. After working themselves into a foam-mouthed lather, the Hauka strut like malfunctioning automatons around a fire where dog meat crackles, adopting alter egos — the governor, the general, the corporal of the guard — which are pompous parodies of the colonial ruling class's pretensions.
Rouch's participatory cinema did not end with ciné-trance. He greatly admired Robert J. Flaherty, the American father of the ethnographic documentary, particularly Flaherty's remote, self-sufficient shoot for 1922's Nanook of the North, in which he screened each day's rushes for his Inuit subjects/crew while planning the following day's scenes. 1958's Moi, un noir (Me, a Black Man) was the first collaborative docu-fiction, in the Flaherty mold, that Rouch publicly screened, depicting life in the Treichville slums of Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, during a bibulous weekend and the two grueling workdays on either side.
The film's opening narration describes its subjects, migrants from Niger come to the city for work, as “youth torn between tradition and mechanization” — mostly, though, it lets them speak for themselves. Real-life bozzori day laborer and Indochina War vet Oumarou Ganda — who goes by “Edward G. Robinson” — free-associated his narration over a rough cut of the improvised filmed material, with bitter frustration showing through his laughing delivery. (Ganda later would become a filmmaker himself, only one example of Rouch's inciting the indigenous African film industry.)
Rouch's interest in the migrant's plight also is evident in his first docu-fiction shoot, following a trio of Songhay heading for the Gold Coast's cities. Filmed in the mid-'50s, this material was finally assembled with the chatty voice-over of performers and longtime collaborators Damouré Zika and Lam Ibrahim Dia and screened in 1967 as Jaguar.
Jaguar, which plays REDCAT on Feb. 4 in conjunction with UCLA's series, displays Rouch's increasingly tight structuring of long-form narratives after 1965's The Lion Hunters. Detailing two-years-apart expeditions by Niger's Gow lion-killers, this raggedly beautiful film is exhaustive in describing both the process-oriented details of arranging the hunt and the mystical code that determines conduct in the bush.
Further rarities from Rouch's 100-plus film oeuvre include controlled cross-cultural collisions like 1961's The Human Pyramid, observing the student body at a lycée in Abidjan encouraged into integrated socialization, and 1969's Petit à Petit (Little by Little), which sends Damouré and Lam to “study” the Parisians.
Both films complement Rouch's revolutionary 1961 Chronicle of a Summer, co-directed with sociologist Edgar Morin. Shooting in France as African independence dominates the headlines, Rouch turns his camera around and films his own tribe, the voluminously unhappy Parisians. Using new, lightweight synch-sound equipment, Rouch and Morin captured a small group of working- to middle-class subjects, sometimes in dialogue with African students. Chronicle's conclusion has the filmmakers inviting their subjects to be filmed while critiquing the “reality” of the earlier footage — a technique premiered in The Human Pyramid — deconstructing cinema vérité's vaunted claim to “truth” even as it was still being invented.
That summer of 1960 was all a long time ago. But as 2012's best fiction film, Portuguese director Miguel Gomes' Tabu — released in L.A. this week and reviewed in these pages — examines the intermingled fates of Europe and Africa, and as French troops deploy in Mali, Rouch's sense of cross-cultural irony remains vital. The Mad Masters ends with the Hauka back at work, purged and happy, as the narrator muses, “Comparing these smiles with the contortions of yesterday, one really wonders whether these men of Africa … may have found a way to absorb our inimical society.”
Chronicle of a Summer is testament to Rouch's belief that industrialized society wasn't only inimical to the African.