Slawomir Sikora

Jean Rouch: the Creative Combination of Opposites

“Ce n’est pas une film africain. C’est un film rouchien. C’est-a-dire un film qui n’est ni noir ni blanc.” – anonymous remark on Jean Rouch’s Petit à petit

“Jean Rouch n’a pas volé son titre de carte de visite: chargé de recherche au Musée de l’Home. Existe-il une plus belle définition de cinéaste.”
– Jean-Luis Godard

Finding the proper approach to an ethnographic film, a work of anthropology, can be difficult. This is true not only in Poland, but it may be particularly true in Poland. This area in filmmaking, though represented by some accomplished directors in Poland, such as Jacek Olędzki, Piotr Szacki and Andrzej Różycki, among many others, never turned into a strongly active, widely discussed, thoroughly typical branch of Polish anthropology. The festivals of ethnographic films that took place in Łódź for over a decade disappeared, no doubt for financial reasons, as well. This is a real shame, because it seems that film, itself an intermediate space, between materiality and non-materiality, for instance, lends itself splendidly to creating, studying and contemplating a space of encounter with the Other. The transgressive and metaphorical potential of film and movies has been wonderfully exhibited in such films as Woody Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo or Wojciech Marczewski’s excellent Ucieczka z kina Wolność.

Notions of “savage” fears of the camera and taking pictures have passed into the realm of shop-worn stereotypes; some other theories are worth considering. Peter Brook observed that his camera became a kind of natural passport during his “theatrical” journey through Africa – it often functioned as an excuse that justified his presence there. Earlier on, we find similar admissions from Jean Rouch. Some of his remarks go even further than that, however. The film camera was, for him, not merely an excuse that justified the filmmaker’s presence. Rouch shifted the emphasis to the metaphorical possibility of moving into the sphere of the Other’s reality, a different reality, of knowing it and participating in it. Among his assertions, we run across statements that can be interpreted as attempts to create a certain intermediary space, a shared space of encounter, sometimes called (also in ethnology, for example in the work of Homi Bhabha) “the third space.” Rouch created and propagated a model of anthropology based on cooperation and collaboration – l’anthropologie partagée, shared anthropology.

Let us begin from the beginning, then. Asked by Lucien Taylor about his “totemic ancestors,” the masters and ideas that shaped him, Rouch mentions first and foremost the influence of surrealism, which developed decisively in Paris during the late director’s childhood and youth (he died in 2004). At the age of fifteen, he read Breton’s Surrealist Manifestoes and Nadja, works of Bataille, Leiris’s L’Âge d’homme, Surrealist poems (from which we find quotations in his films) and was fascinated by the painting of Salvador Dali, Magritte and De Chirico. One source of his knowledge on the subject was the specific Surrealist publication, Documents, which had quickly replaced another – Minotaure. These journals attempted to bridge the dichotomous gap in our culture between the categories of science and art, joining and combining documentary photographs with paintings, essays with poetry. Their approach was thus based on combination rather than division, geared toward stimulating the imagination and creating a shared space for reflection on the human being, whom research cannot capture without drastically reducing to one model. It was precisely in the journal Minotaure that Rouch was able to see for the first time the masks of the Dogon, a tribe to whom he would later devote much attention and a series of films.

During the war, Rouch went to Niger, where as an engineer he was occupied with building roads and bridges. At that time, he had only one work of anthropology with him: Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme, a singular journal of the famous French research expedition known as the Dakar-Dijibouti Mission (1931–1933) across Africa. Its members included ethnologists as well as people from the art world – at that time, in fact, those divisions were often relatively flexible, as is clear from the example of Leiris himself; the scientific field of ethnology was just beginning to take shape. L’Afrique fantôme is a peculiar kind of report, an attempt at a zero-degree description of the experience of the journey. Leiris grapples not only with the difficult task of describing a foreign culture, but also with that of finding a way to touch on the truth of his experience in his reportage, revealing both it and himself in the face of that encounter. How is it possible to keep a journal that gives a true and faithful account of experience, that does not take the form of distancing the author from it intellectually? “To be in the facts like a child. That is where I would like to go.” The attempted encounter entails emotional and physical commitment. Leiris actively participates in, among other things, a rite of sacrifice, going so far as to taste the sacrificial blood of the animal. James Clifford, in an essay full of acclaim for the French ethnologist, used a somewhat ironic image to represent this work of joining faithful description with authentic experience: “His head is smeared with butter, and – as required by ritual – the dead animal’s entrails are coiled around his brow. He does not, however, interrupt his note taking.” This unusual document of wrestling (coping) with external and internal truth, with how to present it, is certainly one of the first such profound examples of reflexive anthropology. It was no doubt an important text for the formation of the Rouch approach to ethnography as well. Not long after he first arrived in Africa, Rouch witnessed the rite of possession. Friends of his and friendly contacts among Blacks made it possible for him to do so. At the same time, he reached the decision that only film would allow him to “enter into” the phenomenon, that it offered an attempt at understanding the substance of the ritual. “When for the first time I observed the rite of possession, I stood before something I could not understand. For the first time in my life I saw a dialogue between human beings and spirits. I thought of the ‘possession’ experiments of Breton and Éluard. And from the very beginning I said, ‘There is only one way to study this – by making a film.’” He sent the photographic material he had gathered and a description of the ritual to Marcel Griaul (later Rouch’s advisor when he wrote his doctoral thesis), who received them with intense gratitude. Griaul’s interest was shared by Germaine Dieterlen (a specialist in the study of the Dogon). A few years later, Rouch shot the footage that allowed him to make Les maîtres fous (1955), undoubtedly his most controversial film, but also one of his most celebrated. It shows the rite of possession, during which the participants, dancing members of the Hauka sect, are inhabited by spirits. The members of the sect travel to the place where the ritual is performed from distant places, sometimes neighbouring countries.


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