Jean Rouch: The Ethnographer As Auteur

  1. Jean Rouch:
  2. The Ethnographer As Auteur

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.

—Martin Rubin


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.)



Sun, Jan 13th at 3:00pm
Wed, Jan 16th at 6:00pm
Average: 5 (5 votes)
  2. 1961, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin,
  3. France, 85 min.

Collaborating with sociologist Edgar Morin, Rouch reversed the traditional focus of ethnography by examining members of his own “strange tribe”--a group of Parisians living through the politically charged summer of 1960. At first, random pedestrians are asked, “Are you happy?”; then the focus narrows to a handful of subjects who reveal themselves--sometimes devastatingly-- to each other and to the camera. This landmark of cinéma vérité rejects the fly-on-the-wall approach of American vérité by freely acknowledging the presence of the camera and its ability to create--rather than simply observe--the truth. In French with English subtitles. Digital video. (MR)



Sun, Jan 13th at 4:45pm
Thu, Jan 17th at 8:15pm
Average: 3 (2 votes)

Imported print!

  2. 1988, Jean Rouch, Titte Törnroth,
  3. and Raul Ruiz, France/Sweden, 90 min.

This rarely screened anthology film was commissioned by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The three directors were invited to film a half-hour episode each during a cruise of a Swedish icebreaker ship through the Baltic Sea. Rouch’s episode is a poetic account of the everyday life of the crew. Törnroth concentrates on the captain and the navigator. Crossing over from documentary to fiction, Ruiz’s mind-bending episode evokes LA JETÉE, NOSFERATU, and Poe in a series of still photographs of a man who may or not be the narrator, and may or may not have turned to ice. In French with English subtitles. Beta SP video courtesy of the Institut Français. (MR)

Important Note

BRISE-GLACE, scheduled for Sunday at 4:45 and Thursday at 8:15 as part of our Jean Rouch series, is an omnibus film consisting of three half-hour episodes by different directors. The copy we received from France contains only the first two episodes, by Jean Rouch and Titte Törnroth. The third episode, by Raul Ruiz, is missing. The Institut Français is unable to locate it; it has evidently been misplaced or lost.

We will show the first two episodes as scheduled. Admission will be FREE (tickets available in person at the box office only).  We regret the inconvenience.



Sun, Jan 20th at 3:00pm
Tue, Jan 22nd at 6:00pm
Average: 5 (3 votes)
  1. 1958, Jean Rouch, France, 72 min.
  2. With Oumarou Ganda, Gambi

“The best French film since the Liberation.”
—Jean-Luc Godard

A breakthrough film in Rouch’s exploration of “ethno-fiction,” MOI, UN NOIR centers on semi-employed migrant workers in the impoverished Treichville neighborhood of Abidjan, Ivory Coast. They call themselves Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Constantine, Tarzan, and Dorothy Lamour. “Robinson” provides a memorable voiceover commentary, and fantasy sequences juxtapose his dream life with the frustrations of his hardscrabble everyday existence.

Preceded by LES MAÎTRES FOUS (1954, 26 min.), Rouch’s most celebrated (and controversial) short film, in which African workers belonging to the Hauka cult enact a bizarre ritual in which they are possessed by the spirits their colonial masters. This unsettling film influenced Jean Genet’s play “The Blacks” and was used as a model for the actors in Peter Brook’s legendary production of “Marat/Sade.” Both in French with English subtitles. HDCAM video. (MR)

Please note: The following clip of MOI, UN NOIR does not have English subtitles. Our presentations will be subtitled in English.

See video



Sun, Jan 20th at 5:00pm
Thu, Jan 24th at 7:45pm
Average: 5 (1 vote)
  2. 1967, Jean Rouch, France, 80 min.

Winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, this celebrated documentary details the techniques and rituals of the Gao, a special group of professional hunters who are called upon when the peaceful coexistence between cattle herders and lions is disrupted by a lion who kills only for pleasure. Several hunts are shown, most notably one for a lion known as “The American,” because of his exceptional strength and cunning. Rouch’s poetic commentary both signals the filmmaker’s involvement in the events and adds a legendary dimension to them.

Preceded by MAMMY WATER (1955, 19 min.), a depiction of the expert Ghana fishermen known as “surf boys” and the rituals they use to appease the water spirits. Both in French with English subtitles. HDCAM video. (MR)



Sun, Jan 27th at 3:15pm
Mon, Jan 28th at 7:45pm
Average: 4 (1 vote)
  1. 1954/1967, Jean Rouch, France, 89 min.
  2. With Damouré Zika, Illo Gaoudel

JAGUAR was Rouch’s first major venture in “shared anthropology” and “ethno-fiction.” The project was proposed by Rouch’s longtime friend Damouré Zika, and much of the material was improvised by Zika and the two other lead actors. The light-hearted picaresque story concerns three young men who leave their homes in Niger to seek their fortunes in the Gold Coast city of Accra, becoming hipsters (or “jaguars”) and eventually starting up a successful marketplace business called “Petit à petit” (Little by Little). Most of the film was shot in 1954-55; an improvised commentary was added two years later; and editing was not completed until 1967. In French with English subtitles. HDCAM video. (MR)

See video



Sun, Jan 27th at 5:00pm
Thu, Jan 31st at 6:00pm
No votes yet
  2. 1971, Jean Rouch, France, 92 min.
  3. With Damouré Zika, Illo Gaoudel

This wry sequel to JAGUAR finds the three partners of that film now running a thriving import/export business in the Niger city of Naimey. In order to get a leg up on their competitors, they journey to Paris and (in a variation on CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER’s “reverse ethnography”) study the strange habits of the people who live there. But too much exposure to the modern world brings on a backlash, and a yearning for the more traditional African ways. In French with English subtitles. HDCAM video. (MR)