Jean Rouch was born on 31st May 1917 in Paris. In his early years, the family moved often within Europe and Africa. His father was a naval officer who had been an Antarctic explorer on a ship called the Pourquoi Pas? (the "Why not?"); his mother was from a family of poets and painters. As he wrote later, this early exposure to the worlds of both art and science would influence the course of his life.
After high school in Paris, Rouch was convinced by his father that a career in Engineering would give him a measure of financial stability throughout his life. He began his studies at l'École des Ponts et Chaussées ('the school of bridges and roads'), in 1937. During this time Rouch discovered the Cinémathèque Française and began watching films there. He went often to the Musée de l'Homme, which had a growing collection of artifacts from Africa, and took a course with the anthropologist Marcel Griaule. At the same time, he was inspired by the Surrealist painters and writers, and also discovered jazz.
Rouch's education would be interrupted by the onset of World War II, when the Germans invaded France. Rouch, who once dreamed of building bridges, was now directed to blow up bridges to keep back the German army. When the Occupation began, Rouch remained in Paris to finish his studies. Later, he and two friends decided to leave France and work as civil engineers in the French colonies in West Africa. Rouch was sent to Niger in 1941.
In Niger, Rouch met Damouré Zika, who would become a lifelong friend and collaborator. Through Damouré, he was introduced to the world of Songhay religion. Rouch attended several possession ceremonies which were led by Damouré's grandmother, Kalia. He was fascinated by these encounters between man and gods, and by the possibility, as he wrote, of "living, with our body, the adventure of another..." He took notes and photos which he sent back to Griaule, and this was the beginning of his ethnographic research.
After a conflict with his boss, Rouch was sent to Dakar, where he met Théodore Monod, the director of the Institut Français d'Afrique Noir (IFAN). Monod encouraged Rouch's research and allowed him the use of the IFAN library to continue his studies. Rouch went back into the army. Returning to Paris at the end of 1944, he resumed his studies with Marcel Griaule, who agreed to be his doctoral director.
In 1946, Rouch and his friends Jean Sauvy and Pierre Ponty returned to Africa for an adventure — the descent of the Niger River in a dugout canoe. During the trip they sent articles back to France under the name Jean Pierjean, a combination of each of their names. With a used 16mm Bell & Howell camera, they filmed a hippopotamus hunt. When Rouch lost his tripod in some rapids, he continued to film with a hand-held camera. The footage from the hippo hunt would become Rouch's first film, Au pays des mages noirs.
With the support of Théodore Monod, Rouch became a researcher for the CNRS, the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique. He traveled throughout Niger and Mali with his friends Damouré Zika and Lam Ibrahima Dia, studying Songhay religion and sorcery and continuing to make films which, for him, were an integral part of ethnographic research. Back in Paris, he worked on his thesis and showed his films at the Musée de l'Homme, where they were well received by anthropologists and members of the French avant-garde.
Rouch began screening his films in Africa, and incorporating comments from his films' subjects into his work. He was developing the ideas about "shared anthropology" which he first encountered in the work of Robert Flaherty, and which would be central to his own work. He continued to make films about Songhay possession, and with encouragement from Marcel Griaule, he also made films about the Dogon.
After receiving his doctorate, Rouch published two books on the Songhay, and a travelogue of his trip down the Niger River. In 1955 Rouch presented what is now one of his best-known films, Les Maîtres Fous, at the Musée de l'Homme. The film, which depicts a ceremony of the Hauka possession cult, is filled with disturbing images. Reaction to the film was strong: it was banned in Britain and the Gold Coast, but received the Grand Prix at the Venice Biennale.
In the following years Rouch made a series of feature films in the genre he called 'ethno-fiction,' in which ethnography is combined with the staging of reality. These films, among them Jaguar, and Petit à Petit, explored the themes of colonialism and racism, and yet had a playful and poetic quality. In Moi, Un Noir, the film was shot without sound, and the commentary was improvised afterward by the central character, Oumarou Ganda. French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard called it "the best French film since the liberation." Rouch's improvisation and inventiveness continued to influence the French New Wave.
Rouch collaborated with his African friends, in particular Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahima Dia, and Tallou Mouzourane, in many of his films. He founded the IRSH, l'Institut de recherche en sciences humaines (Institute for Research on Human Sciences), at the University of Niamey, and trained many Africans in film technology. Filmmakers he influenced and worked with include Moustapha Alassane, Inoussa Ousseini, Safi Faye, and Oumarou Ganda. In Europe and the United States as well, he encouraged young ethnographic filmmakers and championed their work.
In the summer of 1960, Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin shot Chronique d'Un Eté (Chronicle of a Summer), in Paris. In Chronique, the formerly invisible barrier between the "objective" filmmaker and his subject dissolved. The filmmaker is seen approaching his subjects, inquiring, "Are you happy? How do you live?" Technically, Chronique furthered the development of a more portable, synchronous sound system that permitted the filming of longer, unbroken sequences — a breakthrough that continues to have profound influence on documentary filmmaking today. Morin and Rouch termed this new style of filmmaking "cinéma-vérité," a translation of Vertov's kino-pravda or film-truth.
From 1967 to 1974, Rouch made a series of films with Germaine Dieterlen which document the seven-year cycle of Dogon Sigui rituals that occur every 60 years. These films are considered among his most important contributions to anthropology.
From 1986 to 1991, Rouch served as Director of the Cinémathèque Française. He continued to make a vast and varied range of films throughout his life, and to support the work of other filmmakers. With his ethnographic work — films and many books and published articles — he told the stories, and thus preserved the knowledge of rituals and customs that are in many cases no longer practiced. He also served as Vice-President of UNESCO's International Council of Cinema, TV and Audio-Visual Communication, and taught a series of Summer Institutes in the United States along with Ricky Leacock, John Marshall and others.
In 1998 Jean Rouch traveled to New York to attend Docfest, where he presented a screening of Chronique and participated in a discussion about vérité filmmaking with Al Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker. Two years later, in April 2000, he was in New York again for Jean Rouch: Chronicles of African Modernities, a week long retrospective of Rouch's ethnofiction films held at NYU's Center for Media, Culture and History. Screenings were followed by conversations between Rouch and Manthia Diawara, Jean Paul Colleyn, Steve Feld, Paul Stoller, and Faye Ginsburg, along with an exhibition of Rouch's African photographs. That same year he attended Possessing Vision, a major Jean Rouch conference at the ICA in London.
Jean Rouch died in a car accident in Niger, on February 18th, 2004, at the age of 86. He was on his way to a celebration of Nigerian cinema, which was to feature a retrospective of his own films.
— Brenda Baugh
Partial list of sources:
The Cinematic Griot, by Paul Stoller
Ciné-Ethnography by Jean Rouch, edited and translated by Steven Feld;
Visual Anthropology: The Cinema of Jean Rouch edited by Jay Ruby (1989)