Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch

Joram ten Brink (ed),
Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch (Preface by Michael Renov).
London: Wallflower Press, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-905674-47-3
US$29.50 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

The film returns to past people and places, but in fact it does not seem to be a film in search of the past. … Is it Rouch’s way of refusing the envelopment of previous films, of cinema itself—if only by making another film? There is of course no final escape from such a chain of revisitations; but a series of films spaced over many years at least calls attention to the intervening spaces, much as a jump cut calls attention to missing footage. Each new film makes amends for the portrayals and betrayals of past films. Each buys time and puts off the final reckoning. (MacDougall, pp. 36–37)

Here David MacDougall was discussing Jean Rouch’s 1992 film Madame l’Eau, but this practice of returning to familiar territory and familiar faces was a recurring theme in Rouch’s work. As one of the chapters in this edited collection points out, Rouch’s involvement in filming the 100-year Sigui ritual cycle in Africa (inheriting this task from filming undertaken by the anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen in 1931, and in turn passing on the mantle to other filmmakers to continue filming the cycle through to 2033) shows his interest in recurrence, ritual and return. Rouch completed more than 100 films, and he estimated that at least 50 of these concerned spirit-possession ceremonies.

It is not a criticism of Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch to say that it is frustrating to read. Frustrating in that tormenting, discomfiting sense of reading about films rather than seeing them, and knowing one is not likely to be able to see them any time soon, if ever. Hardly any of Rouch’s 100-plus films are readily available in the English-speaking world. The contributors to this volume are aware of this problem. In Michael Renov’s preface, he hopes that the book will contribute to an increased demand for the films themselves.

Building Bridges is a valuable companion-piece to Ciné-Ethnography, the 2003 anthology of Rouch’s own writings. Joram ten Brink explains in his introduction that the book emerged from a three-day conference on Rouch’s work that was organised after Rouch’s death in Niger in 2004. Some pieces were specially commissioned for the book, and there are a few reprints or reworkings, such as Hamid Naficy’s 1977 interview with Rouch.

Building Bridges is best read by gleaning points of interest from the whole, rather than by concentrating on particular contributions. What becomes apparent is the symbiotic nature of Rouch’s praxis: theory, personal preference and political views leading to technical and practical choices as a working filmmaker; the choices made working in the field, often in tough conditions in Africa, informing and developing his views as a filmmaker and ethnographer. I realise that the use of the word ‘praxis’ can annoy, inextricably tied as it is to Marxist theory; but it is that sense of a fruitful cross-fertilisation between theory and practice that is meant here. For example: Michael Chanan notes that from very early on in his lengthy filmmaking career, Rouch did not use a tripod, as he deemed it necessary to be able to move freely around his subject/s, rather than making people move to suit the needs of a fixed camera (p. 88). (It may also be worth noting that his tripod broke soon after Rouch first returned to Africa after World War II with the intent of making films.) Philo Bregstein also discussed Rouch’s cinematographic practice: scenes were never rehearsed, rarely repeated, and were usually shot in a single take. Bregstein sees this as not just due to budget constraints, but a stylistic element in Rouch’s work (pp. 171–72).

The contributors to Building Bridges throw out several illuminating and sometimes contradictory hints on the financial and labour aspects of Rouch’s films. How much were the participants in Rouch’s films paid? Rouch said, in his interview with Hamid Naficy, that the hunters of La Chasse au Lion à l’arc (France 1957–64) were paid forty per cent of the profits of the film (p. 100). Bregstein distinguished between Rouch’s anthropological and fiction films: with participants/co-workers paid upfront for anthropological films, whereas participants in the fiction films worked without pay but shared the profits equally. Rouch’s films were rarely successful commercially. Safi Faye, who is now a filmmaker, appeared in Petit à Petit (France 1968–69), and was critical of what she was paid for her work on that film (p. 158).

Rouch’s films resist ready categorisation, as the uneasy, shifting language used above to describe their participants reveals. Were they participants? Actors? Subjects? Co-workers and colleagues? Rouch is probably best known in the English-speaking world as one of the founders of cinéma-vérité, although this was a term he himself avoided, preferring cinema-direct, or indeed shared anthropology. Writing about Chronique d’un été(France 1961), the now-classic film of ‘reverse anthropology’ he made with the sociologist Edgar Morin, he said that the ciné-vérité they sought to capture was not ‘the cinema of truth, but the truth of cinema’ (Ciné-Ethnography, p. 167). One can see the influence of his first career as an engineer: a close concern with how things are made, and a preparedness to expose and include these workings in the finished products, his films.

Mas Generis,

Works Cited

Steven Feld (ed and trans), Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch, Visible Evidence, vol. 13 (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema, ed and intro Lucien Taylor (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998).

Created on: Saturday, 18 April 2009

About the Author

Mas Generis

About the Author

Mas Generis

Mas Generis lives in Melbourne where she reads library books and goes to the movies.View all posts by Mas Generis →