From January 13 to January 31, the Gene Siskel Film Center, in cooperation with Icarus Films and the Institut Français, presents Jean Rouch: The Ethnographer As Auteur, a series of six features and two shorts representing the work of the influential French filmmaker who was a key figure in the evolution of ethnographic cinema, the French New Wave, and the cinéma vérité movement.
Born in Paris, Jean Rouch (1917-2004) was trained as a civil engineer. In 1942, while supervising construction projects in the French colony of Niger, he became fascinated by the possession ceremonies of the Songhay tribe, which solidified his already burgeoning interest in anthropology. In 1946, he returned to make a film on hunting rituals; when the camera tripod was lost, he discovered the advantages of hand-held camerawork.
The more direct engagement afforded by the hand-held camera was just the first in a series of steps by which Rouch challenged the voyeuristic detachment and purported objectivity of traditional ethnographic filmmaking. While making a number of documentary shorts in Africa in the late 1940s-early 1950s, he sought to break down the boundary between filmmaker and subject through such concepts as “shared anthropology” (by which ethnographer and subject are put on equal footing), feedback (by which the filmmaker shows the footage to his subjects and seeks their input), and provocation (by which the filmmaker and his camera act as catalysts that participate in and even precipitate the action). These early experiments climaxed with his controversial 1954 short film LES MAÎTRES FOUS, the unsettling record of a possession ceremony of the Hauka cult that was staged specifically for Rouch’s camera.
After stretching the boundaries of the ethnographic documentary, Rouch’s next step was to blur the boundary between documentary and fiction. Stating that “Fiction is the only way to penetrate reality,” he collaborated with nonprofessional African actors on the largely improvised road movie JAGUAR (begun 1954, completed 1967). In MOI, UN NOIR (1958), his first completed feature, Rouch incorporated fiction and fantasy into a portrayal of three Ivory Coast slum-dwellers who appropriate the identities of foreign movie stars. Rouch’s freewheeling mix of improvisation, subjectivity, voiceover, documentary technique, pop-culture references, and authorial presence intersected with the evolving French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard called MOI, UN NOIR “the best French film since the Liberation” and later acknowledged its massive influence on BREATHLESS.
Rouch conducted further experimental forays into fiction in THE HUMAN PYRAMID (1960), LA PUNITION (1963), the “Gare du Nord” episode of SIX IN PARIS (1965), and the JAGUAR sequel LITTLE BY LITTLE (1971). He also continued to explore new frontiers in documentary, notably in CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961) and THE LION HUNTERS (1967). Turning his ethnographic inquiry upon a group of Parisians, Rouch made stunning use of self-reflexivity and newly developed lightweight synch-sound equipment to make CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER, a landmark film in the development of cinéma vérité--a term that he coined in tribute to Dziga Vertov’s Kino-Pravda. Ten years in the making, THE LION HUNTERS made innovative use of Rouch’s poetic voiceover track to give a fabulistic framework to a documentary account of the rituals and techniques of the Gao lion hunters of western Niger. A tirelessly active and inspirational figure in the worlds of filmmaking and ethnography, Rouch made over 100 films before his death in an auto accident in Niger at the age of 86.
Special thanks to Livia Bloom, Icarus Films; Institut Français; Jean-François Rochard,, Cultural Services at the Consulate General of France in Chicago; Sarah Finklea, Janus Films.
SUNDAY DOUBLE-BILL DISCOUNT!
Buy a ticket for the first Jean Rouch film on any Sunday in January, and get a ticket for the second Rouch film that day at this discount rate (tickets must be purchased at the same time): General Admission $7; Students $6; Members $4. (This discount rate applies to the second film only. Discount rate available only at the Film Center box office.)