Cinema is an adventure

Published: 2021-09-30 14:10:05
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Category: Surrealism, Cinema, Film, Anthropology, Ethnography

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The very perceptions and style of ethnographic cinema was changed with the intervention of late Jean Rouch’s films. He was considered as one of the founding fathers of Cinema Verite or Real Cinema In France, and Surrealism. Jacques Rivette (1968) considers Rouch as the force behind the entire French cinema made in past ten years. Rivette comments that the importance of Rouch is much more in the evolution of French Cinema than Godard with few people realizing it (Rivette,1968). According to Henley(2009) his sudden death in a road accident, in February 2004, made Visual Anthropology lose one of its precious gems. Rouch was a visionary and a true believer in the strength of lenses. In most of his interviews he talked about the power of camera and the responsibility attached to it. He believed that camera had the power to reveal the inner most beliefs and impressions of mankind (Henley,2009). My first encounter with Rouch’s films was in my Visual Anthropology classes. At first I found it quite difficult to understand his films as most of them were in French. However Rouch’s different and controversial approach to ethnographic cinema with his very interesting personal touch in all his films molded me to watch his movies in spite of such difficulties. Henley comments that though Rouch made more than one hundreds of films but only handful films have been distributed far wide while majority of the films remain unknown and difficult to see specially for English speaking world (Henley,2009). The most interesting fact about Jean Rouch’s cinema, as Mick Eaton puts forward was that, Rouch believed that more observations can be done with a film rather in direct observations. He suggested that through films you can get more feedback from your subjects and participants which make the observation far more interesting and trustworthy. Rouch belived that his films were for greater number of people, it is a fight against the colonial oppressions and colonial notions of other societies as savages.(Eaton, n.d) Through his films he conveyed the message that was given by Malinowski long back. He asked people to understand each society in their own unique context and to respect their values and institutions. Rouchs films are true representation of his thoughts on humanity and global understanding (Eaton,n.d).

My earnest desire to write a Visual Anthropology essay on the works and contributions of Late Jean Rouch grew more profound after watching his film” Les Maites Fous” (The Mad Masters) .The film was released in the year 1955 and was a subject of great dispute among the various African intellectuals and French scholars. At the first glance I felt very uncomfortable with the scenes and visual presentations of the Film, but as I kept on watching it, true meanings of the film kept on unfolding in front of my eyes. One of the major reasons for choosing Jean Rouch and his film as the topic of my essay is because through my research I realized that most of the scholars and researchers have avoided critical evaluation and organized research on Rouch’s films due to unavailability of the films and also because major number of films are in French. This has diminished the contribution of Jean Rouch and his films in the sector of Anthropological and Ethnographic films to an extent especially in the English Speaking Countries. The neglecting behavioral pattern towards Rouch’s films instigated me to find out more about Jean Rouch and his films. As Paul Stroller (1992) puts forward, that Jean Rouch is not given the right place in the history of anthropology and film and is often misunderstood and condemned by different scholars. In this essay I will talk about the various notions attached to Jean Rouch and his films, while critically evaluating his work “Les Maitres Fous”(The mad masters), 1955.
Jean Rouch as a film maker and an ethnographer
Jean Rouch saw cinema as an adventure and himself as an adventurer. As Claude Jutra(1960) comments “ A chronicle of the Rouchian adventure is certainly an exciting prospect , but it is one that I approach with caution. One never admires without reservation. Any tribute carries within it an element of denunciation. No eulogy deserves to be trusted unless it is combined with certain degree of meanness”. (Jutra,1960:2).
Jean Rouch dreamt of cinema as the only means of telling truth about people and societies. Stroller designated Rouch as the most prolific ethnographic filmmaker in the world whose ethnographic works are much unknown (Stroller,1992). Rouch clearly represented a unique combination of anthropology and art in his films. According to Brink, he was a filmmaker who did the most initiating job in pushing the boundaries of visual anthropology to an extent whilst still following the important norms and perceptions of visual anthropology of his time (Brink,n.d). Henley(2009) claimed that his films blurred the distinct lines between fiction and reality. As Jean Rouch himself, elaborately comments “For me as Filmmaker and ethnographer, there is practically no frontier between documentary film and fiction film. Cinema art of the double, represents a transition from the real world to the world of the imaginary, while ethnography, the study of other a peoples’ system of thought, involves a permanent criss-crossing from one conceptual universe to another, a form of acrobatic gymnastics, in which losing your footing is the least of the risks”.(Rouch,1981:31)
Rouch’s most remarkable films were Les Maitres Fous (The Mad Masters 1955),Moi Un Noir (1958),Jaguar (1967), andChronique d’un ete (1960).Grimshaw and Eaton suggested that Jean Rouch’s films were much controversial in nature as well as did create a lot of debates among the scholars and intellectuals of younger generations. Surprisingly enough, among the anthropologists, there has been a substantial transformation in the approach towards Rouch’s films which has made it as one of the best examples of traditional ethnographic films. Stroller comments Jean Rouch as the Champion of the African Ethnography and the “Father of The Nigerian Cinema”(Stroller,1992).Brink states that Rouch gave primary focus to African people in his films, which made his cinema appealing and engaging to a limited number of audiences (Brink,n.d). According to Eaton, Rouch wanted his cinema not only to serve the purpose of anthropological education but also to use it in much greater scale in order to understand the universal human interests and disciplines (Eaton,n.d). Henley remarked that Rouch believed in 100% participation in the events he filmed (Henley,2009). According to Edgar Morin, Rouch was a “Filmmaker Driver” who immerses himself into the life of his subjects and participants. Morin who was a well known French sociologist, worked with Jean Rouch in one of his most celebrated works “Chroinicle of a Summer” or “Chronique d’ un ete”in 1960. It was him who categorised Rouch’s films as “Cinema Verite”. Morin has explained this term as “there remain the most difficult, the most moving, the most secret (aspect of social life): wherever human feelings are at stake , wherever the individual is directly involved , wherever there are interpersonal relationships of authority, subordination , comradeship , love , hate – in other words everything connected with emotion fabric of human existence . There lies the great terra incognita of the sociological or ethological cinema , of “Cinema Verite” . There lies its promised land (Morin, 1962:5)
“Cinema Verite” is very much different from the direct cinema. Rouch viwed “Cinema Verite” as “Cinema Provocation”. He explained that through this provocation a new form of cinema emerges which is more realistic than the real. The most interesting fact is that at first Rouch, himself was a great supporter of direct Cinema but with the time he got more indulged into the fictional films following the ethnological perception. According to Michel Marie (1976), “Direct” in the technical sense of the term designates the synchronous recording of image and sound , the concept of direct cinema designates first of all a new technique of recording pro-filmic reality. This term replaced the more enigmatic cinema such as “Cinema Verite” at the beginning of the sixties, applies beyond a simple technique, to the whole new stream of practices which overthrew methods of film making that was previously standardized completely through the industrial model. Marie commented that “As opposed to industrial cinema, fictional and spectacular, in case of direct cinema the action to be filmed is void of an anterior status” (Marie,1976:35). “Cinema Verite” It is a kind of cinema where there is a good amount of conversation and interaction between filmmaker and his subject. In this form of cinema there may be also little provocations which can be noticed from the filmmakers side to his subjects (Feld,2003). Rouch as a kid was very much influenced by the film “Nanook Of the North” (1922), which became an inspiration to the films that he made in later life. Brink states that Rouch inserted new forms and ways in the style of film making. With his work he blurred the difference between real and unreal, truth and fantasy and literally played with his lenses. It was interesting to note that his inquisitive nature and the use of new technology gave birth to a different genre of cinema which more or less became unique in its own ways. As Mick Eaton (n.d) suggests that Rouch has tried to defend his film making practice in a very significant way, according to Rouch his presence during the film making is a very crucial factor not because people i.e. his subjects and participants will reveal themselves more openly and honestly out of trust and faith but more because they will lie and feel uncomfortable. It is the manifestation of this side of participants which will be regarded as more profound disclosure than anything “candid camera” or “living cinema” ever could disclose. Eaton followed the words of Jean Rouch believed that camera uniting with presence of its director acts as a catalyst to the whole process of film making. Thompson comments that Surrealism played a very important role in the development of Rouch’s films (Thompson,n.d). Surrealism as a cultural movement influenced the mind of Jean Rouch to a great extent. It was a philosophical movement which according to Henley became very popular in Paris during the world war. Jean Rouch claimed in 1967 that for him making a film or cinema is like a surrealist painting. Rouch was a bridge builder in true sense. He bridged the gap between film and anthropology along with an introduction to new techniques and style of film making.
Brink comments that:
“The filmmaker who was educated as civil engineer became a true bridge builder between film and anthropology, film and art, fiction and documentary , Europe and Africa”(Brink,n.d:2)
Grimshaw states that Rouch’s Anthropological films are mostly based on the sense of intuition and are idiosyncratic in approach. His films are a visual treat for the students of visual anthropology. Grimshaw strikes a comparison between the anthropological cinemas of Jean Rouch and Mac Dougall where she describes Mac dougall cinema as detailed and practical while Rouch’s anthropological films to be more idealistic and imaginative. According to Grimshaw , rouch was a visionary who used his films as a way to interpret the complexities and connections between the world and humanity. His ethnographic films were very much influenced by the political situation at that time. Rouch was very much inspired by the different freedom movements by the colonial people during that time which brought huge political, economic and social transitions around the world saw the colonies as oppressive masters. According to Grimshaw, Rouch was not only supportive of these movements but also gave different humanitarian expressions to it (Grimshaw,2001). Rouch’s ethnographic sensibilities as a film maker and anthropologist was very much shaped by his individualistic nature, background and political circumstances in France during that time (Grimshaw,2001). Rouch as an Anthropologist was very much trained in the path Maussian ideologies a very well know French anthropologist during 1920s till 1940s. Henley comments that Rouch himself never met Mauss but he came to know about his contributions in Anthropology through his supervisor Marcel Griaule who was a student of Mauss himself. Maussian influence is very much evident in earlier works of Jean Rouch, especially in the films he and Rosefelder produced together during their expeditions. Inspired greatly by Mauss’s idea to use camera gave birth to Rouch’s lifelong interest in “salvage ethnography”(Henley,2009). The most significant and appealing part of Rouch’s journey is that though other leading ethnographic film makers such as Robert Gardner and Judith Mac Dougall (2006) have made films based on different continent. However, Rouch’s focus has always been on Paris and Africa, with more concentration on Niger. This approach of his was mostly influenced by Griaule (1938) and Dieterlen (1987) who believed that it takes twenty to thirty years to understand and have a deep knowledge about a particular society. This view is significantly supported by Jutra’s comment “Rouch, the ethnologist! Rouch, the explorer! Rouch, the traveler ! mere appearances. Rouch has two very circumscribed habitats : Paris and Niger… he has no desire to cross these boundaries that he has so carefully traced…. Rouch is sedentary, a stay – at – home.”(Jutra,1961:116)
From all the works of Jean Rouch I will consider Les Maitres Fous as the starting point of his greater expression for universal humanity. This film is notable in ways that it establishes and evokes the contours of Rouch’s humanistic vision (Grimshaw,2001)
“Les Maitres Fous” (The Mad Masters)
This film was first screened in Paris in the year 1955. According to Grimshaw the small number of audience of African intellectuals and French anthropologist present in the premiere of the film in Musee De l’ Homme was largely antagonistic in its response to Rouch’s works. Marcel Griaule called for the fim to be destroyed; Africans present during the screening of the film rejected it as bigoted and insulting. Shortly afterwards British government banned this movie to be shown in the colonial territories of West Africa (Grimshaw, 2001). Today” Les Maitres Fous” is widely accepted and considered as a classic of contemporary cinema. After watching the film consecutively for the third time I realized that the film’s power to move and perturb the audience has not reduced at all with the passage of time. Grimshaw comments that “Les Maitres Fous” inaugurates the distinguished series of films, which Rouch made between 1954 and 1960. Some of the films which were made during this time was Jaguar, “Moi Un Noir”and “Chronique d’un Ete”, the most important fact about all of these films was that all f them were based in different themes. It is one of the most significant films in the growth of Rouch’s works as an ethnographer (Eaton n.d). Feld (2003) illustrates that Les maitres Fous was the earliest departure from purely evocative cinemas into a more unreal approach to event structures. He claims that having experiencing a ceremony several times, Rouch thought of breaching the vital aspects and approaches them as dramatic narratives.
According to Eaton Rouch was asked to make this film after him and his wife Jane had given lecture at the British council in Accra. Rouch was approached by some of the Hauka priests and initiates present in that lecture who approached him to film their Hauka Annual Ceremony. The priests wanted to record the event not only to preserve it as a film and memory but also so that it could be used I the ritual itself (Eaton,n.d) .
Grimshaw reflects that the film basically documents the course of possession ceremony held during one Sunday by members of the Hauka sect working as migrant labourers in Accra. During 1920s there was a form of strong resistance against the French colonial rule by this Hauka cult who had moved from their villages to work in Kumasi and Accra , the commercial areas of British dominated Gold Coast (Grimshaw, 2001) . According to Feld the Haukas were the most famous possession cult among the Songhay , that reached its full expression in Ghana, brought by the migrants from Niger. Mick Eaton explained that these ceremonies of Hauka sect started in the late 20s in the upper Niger region. Discriminated by the French colonial administration and adjudicated by rigid Islamic supporters many of the members of the Hauka sect moved to Ghana in the thirtees working as a migrant labourer throughout the gold coast region. Haukas defined themselves as the “new gods” the spirits of power and the winds (Eaton n.d) .The film vividly views the members of the Hauka cult working at menial task in the city during the week then in the possession trance during the weekend and again back to work in the week. The film starts with the scene of Bustling city of Accra where different people from across West Africa jostle up with one another sharing the “Great African adventure of work and life”. From the start the film appears to be imparting a sense of complexities, movements and characteristics of urban life. Then there is sudden shift of events and audience find themselves plunged into a dark deep forest where Hauka people travelled by buses and trucks. According to Rouch’s commentary this was the place where the Hauka annual ceremony takes place and where the high priest of Hauka known as Mountebya lives. The film shows the preliminary stages of confessions and appointment of new members before arriving into a dramatic climax where members become possessed, adopting the identities and conventional behavior of British governor and his crew. The ceremony reaches its peak with the killing and eating of a dog, slowly Dusk approaches and Hauka people emerges from their trance and get prepared to return to Accra. The film ends with streams of flashbacks. Rouch is shown to return the following day to the same Hauka members who were possessed in the ceremony, calmy and efficiently working in their respective jobs (Grimshaw,2001). The possessed and frothing of the mouth, dribbling saliva flecked with the blood of the butchered dog, the violent and uncontrollable body movements and disturbing style of eating the dog meat are the most troubling factors of the film which shocks the senses of human mind and leaves a lifelong impression in ones’ mind. These shocking scenes of the film justify the fact behind the film being rejected by most of its audience as a whole. Indeed as James Clifford notes that this film stands as Rouchs’s manifestation of Griaule’s recognition that ethnographic observation involves conflict. According to Grimshaw “Les Maitres Fous”, reveals the sharp contrast between the conception of a shared or participatory anthropological cinema persued by Mac Dougall and the one practiced by Rouch”(Grimshaw,2001:101)
“Les Maitres Fous” is distinguished for its intricate style camera work which Rouch adopted during his earlier life after the destruction of his tripod. Grimshaw (2001) also talks about Rouch’s narration in the Film as improvised or unrehearsed. It is his commentary that makes the film comprehensible and incomprehensible at the same time.
Feld commented that Rouch made the film “ Using a montage to create contexting boundaries and making the most of the technical limitation of twenty five second shots (he was still using a 16mm camera),Rouch was able to make a short film with more explicative depth and synthesis than his previous ethnographic studies”.(Feld,2003:5)
As Feld (2003) and Eaton (n.d) both expressed that the film was shot on a hand cranked 16mm Bell and Howell Camera which allowed for 25 second shots, but it was also edited in the camera as much as possible and the ultimate shooting ratio turned out to be 8 – 10. The sound was recorded by Lam Ibrahim Dia and Damoure Zika, one of the first Africans whom Rouch knew quite well from his first trip to during the war, using a scubitophone which is a portable though heavy tape recorder with a clockwise motor that had to be wound up between takes. Henley added that the film is of 28 mins, edited by Suzzane Brown and produced by Les Films de la Pleiade and was awarded Grand Prix in the ethnographic category of the Venice Film festival in 1955 (Henley,2009). Eaton significantly estimated that Rouch’s use of voice over in “Les Maitres Fous” does not preserve the primacy of the images rather sets up completely different relation with sound and image. Rouch not only translates the ceremony held by Huaka sect but more or less acts it out which in a way kills the authenticity of an ethnographic documentary (Eaton,n.d). Cooper (2006) suggests that though Rouch has tried to gain ethnographic knowledge through his ethnographic films as claimed by Jay Ruby (2000) but there is still a lot of space in acknowledging the fact which cannot be known or understood through the lenses. With no formal training in film making and direction, Rouch suprsing arose as a rule breaker in the Film world. Les Maitres Fous was one of the biggest examples of such rule break. According to Cooper” Les Maitres Fous” as a film can be represented in two ways at first considering the fact it is filmed by a western filmmaker it can be interpreted as a show of uncivilized attitude by the African Hauka people and secondly it can also be deciphered as African representation of the oppressive colonial western culture and its position in their society (Cooper,2006). According to Homi.K .Bhabha the film is a clear representation of mockery to the oppressive colonial rule and their power show while showing the deep sighted pains of oppressed Africans (Bhabha,1994). The voice over used by rouch in the film is quite assertive and does influence the thinking process of the audiences a lot.
Rouchian cinema indeed consists of the most exciting form of ethnography which can be traced in all of his movies. My personal experience of Rouch’s film is a mixture of both the senses of agitation and fascination simultaneously. His film is indeed an experience of life time which stays in your memory till the last days of your life and which evokes the true spirit of humanity irrespective of class race and ethnicity. Through this Essay I have tried to discuss the various aspects of Jean Rouch’s cinema significantly concentrating my attention on ““Les Maitres Fous”. This movie disturbed my senses and my thinking about the human acceptance of culture. Through this film I realized that each society is different and is composed of different social dynamics. To me this film is a clear representation of the influence of oppressive western civilizations on the Africans and there after effects on African society. Though it should be also noted that this film has a element of fiction into it which sometimes covers the facts and presents a new form of truth which cannot be trusted sometimes. Cinema is the combination of rational, irrational, fiction and fact. Rouch expresses these elements more profoundly through his movies.

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