by Philo Bregstein
translated from the Dutch by Wanda Boeke
Writer and filmmaker Philo Bregstein traveled to Niger in 1977 to make the film Rouch and His Camera in the Heart of Africa. This article, written in 1996, describes his experiences making that film, and his long friendship with Rouch.
Chronicle of a Summer was immediately labeled "cinéma-vérité" and Jean Rouch the supposed father. Only a small circle of initiates knew that this film was the result of his years of experience in, where Rouch, an ethnologist, filmed by himself for the National Center for Scientific Research[i] (CNRS) in Paris. In contrast to most of the New Wave filmmakers, this enabled him to work outside the commercial cinema circuit. The advantages were that he could work on a single film for years, had possibilities of reshooting, re-editing, and getting feedback at viewings when those who had been filmed provided criticism and comment. This contrasted with commercial film and television productions where the product always has to be delivered as quickly as possible.
In the 1970s, I was doing interviews with "marginal" French filmmakers, like Marguerite Duras, Eric Rohmer, and Jean Eustache. I wanted to see more of Rouch's films because Chronicle of a Summer was the only one I was familiar with. This landed me at the Ethnographic Film Board, which he heads up at the Museum of Man[ii] on the Place du Trocadéro in Paris. A chaotic, crowded little office was hidden away behind a hall whose windows were filled with mummies and skeletons on display. I was led to a little makeshift projection booth, with upright boards for the backs of the chairs and empty egg cartons on the ceiling to absorb the sound: a literal underground film world. Here, I was shown not only Rouch's anthropological films, but also his improvised feature films: an eye opener! I discovered that Rouch, who was considered to be the "father" of anthropological film, was at the same time an innovator of the documentary. He had brought different styles, like that of American underground film and the Canadian Film Board, together with modern French anthropology, as it had been developed by Marcel Mauss, Claude Lévi Strauss, and Marcel Griaule.
I asked Rouch for an interview, and he arranged a "rendezvous" with me at the Film Museum set up by the father of French cinematheque, Henri Langlois, who had assembled a private collection of props and costumes from films by Eisenstein, Von Stroheim, Fellini, and Buñuel, which is now open to the public. While I was setting up my tape recorder, Rouch showed me posters for films by Dziga Vertov, the Russian post-Revolution of 1917 filmmaker, and the American documentarist Robert Flaherty, who, as early as the 1920s, had isolated himself with the Eskimo Nanouk and his family in an igloo, developed his film on site, and then showed it to the family for feedback. These were two masters who had shaped Rouch. And so I got to hear his life story: Working as an engineer building bridges and roads in Niger, he had witnessed his first possession rituals when lightning killed several road workers. After WWII, he made his first film, which was shot by hand with a 16 mm camera he had found among American army surplus goods at a flea market in Paris. Since getting an ethnology degree in Paris, he has basically been concentrating for decades on filming in Niger and Mali, discovering the possession rituals and the highly developed Dogon culture there. He told me about the improvised feature films he has been making for years now with his African friends, and I knew I was standing at the beginning of a series of discoveries. For this, I would have to see Rouch at work in Niger, where he has spent half his time over the past thirty years.
In the spring of 1977, Hollands Diep, a Dutch magazine, paid for my flight to Niamey, Niger, in exchange for an interview with Rouch. Later, Rouch told me how surprised he had been that I wanted to interview him in Niger. Journalists generally thought it sufficed to meet in Paris. At the time, he reacted as if it was just as normal as making a date with him around the corner at some Parisian cafe, and arranged to see me in April of 1977, for breakfast at the Institute of Research and Social Sciences[iii] (IRSH), which was set up in Niamey with his financial support and where Rouch had space to live and work. Consequently I became acquainted with the breakfast ritual: quarter to eight in the morning, evidently the most pleasant part of the day considering Niger's broiling heat, in the gardens of the Institute that had been built by students of Le Corbusier according to local traditional building methods — everything on a single level and made of mud, cooler than concrete, and cheap.
Rouch was sitting there eating breakfast together with his friends Damouré, Lam, and Tallou, wrapped in their traditional boubous. This is where they forged their plans every day and thought out their scenarios, improvising all the while and having a lot of fun. Rouch has been making his films with them for over thirty years.
Right away at that first breakfast, I knew that I would have to try to interview Rouch together with his three friends. However, when I suggested this, I got evasive answers, and during my entire stay, I didn't know if I would succeed or not. Meanwhile, I met other African friends of Rouch's: Inoussa Ousseini, who as a schoolboy was so impressed by the films Rouch made about Niger that he decided to become a filmmaker himself. After getting a degree in sociology in France, he made a film about the exploitation of African guest workers in France: Paris C'est Joli (Paris Is Just Great). He saw in Rouch the example of what he called "anthropology in participation" — a dialogue on equal terms between white Europeans and the black population of Africa.
Oumarou Ganda, a well-known African filmmaker, told me how he had gotten to know Rouch in the 1950s when he was a longshoreman in the city of Accra in what is now Ghana. He became a marketing researcher and in 1947, played the lead for Rouch in I, a Negro, the first film about life in Africa from the inside. The role was completely improvised. He later recorded the narration during a viewing, improvising once again. He laconically talked of how, as a filmmaker, he had been his own producer with budgets that make even the cheapest Dutch low-budget movie seem like a Hollywood production in comparison. He often played the lead himself, and full of enthusiasm he would travel with his film under his arm to all the cultural centers in Niger, because there are only three cinemas in all of Niger. My ideas about an (in many ways) underdeveloped Africa vanished like snow before the sun. I discovered the rich, spiritual culture of African society.
There was one problem, which was the political situation. Since the military coup in 1974, the former leftwing government leaders were in jail or under house arrest, including the historian and former minister of culture Boubou Hama, an intimate friend of Rouch's. Hama had written the script for the historical feature film, Babatou, les Trois Conseils, that was produced that same year by the IRSH and realized by Rouch together with his friends in Niger. The film was banned in Niger and in other countries until the death of dictator Kountché in 1987, because Boubou Hama had written the script, and the film had an antimilitaristic slant. True to his friendship, Rouch visited Boubou Hama regularly while he was in prison, which the authorities naturally did not appreciate very much. Rouch's position as a French anthropologist was the only thing that protected him. So it was decided to ask the Niger Ministry of Culture's permission to do a made-for-television movie about filmmaking in Niger in general, and not just about Rouch. This was a change that was to enrich the film, because Rouch was now placed in the middle of the world of his African friends who inspired him and who were inspired by him.
The filming in Niger, December 1977, was completely improvised in the Rouch style. In line with the African rhythm of life, I learned to wait patiently until there was a sudden burst of film activity after days of doing nothing. These lapses of time turned out to be essential for the enthusiastic, friendly contact that would lend the film its color and tone. Rouch himself participated in filming impressions of Niamey, with its mud houses and its markets, and the flat, empty, endless landscape. Over supper in the evenings, he would talk about his film experiences in Niger, his famous 1953 film about possession rituals, Les Maîtres Fous (which can be translated as either The Masters of Madness or The Mad Masters, the latter being the official English title), and the way he had increasingly discovered African possession rituals to be a central element of African culture. Despite European influence, these rituals are not dying out. Instead, they have actually seen a resurgence since the African states have become independent. Modern psychiatry has discovered their therapeutic value, and attempts are being made in clinics in Senegal and elsewhere to integrate them into psychiatric treatment.
When my dream comes true and I am once again on the roof of Damouré's house doing a collective interview, this time for the film, with Rouch, Damouré, Lam, and Tallou, the last-mentioned goes into a frenzied possession trance as Rouch is talking about how Tallou became possessed after filming The Mad Masters. Djingarei Maiga films the chaotic scene of panic sublimely in a way even the best European cameraman would not have been able to do: he knows what's happening and understands what's being said.
Now, twenty years later, illustrative of the hopeless situation everywhere in Africa, the film center Rouch helped found has been shut down, covered with dust and sand. Film in Niger has been stymied for decades now. Financial support from France and elsewhere in the rich West has stopped due to the economic realism that has won out everywhere. Oumarou Ganda died in 1980 of a heart attack at a relatively young age. Cinematographer and filmmaker Djingarei Maiga was discharged from the IRSH and had to retrain himself as a tailor, even though he continues to make his one-man films under his own steam. Moustafa Alassane, internationally recognized as one of the most original African filmmakers, has withdrawn to a tiny village faraway in the bush to patch together his visual sleight-of-hand films. Rouch has limited himself more and more to the film program he directs at the University of Nanterre in France, and to film projects outside of Niger. He shot his most important African films of the 1970s, about Dogon rituals, in Mali together with the anthropologist Germaine Dieterlen, a student of Marcel Mauss and Marcel Griaule. My filmic portrait of Rouch and his African friends was, however, the beginning of a long friendship. In 1984, when Rouch was working in Paris on the film he had been planning for years, Dionysus, he asked me to play the character of Friedrich Nietzsche, the background figure for the film. Made up to look like Nietzsche, furnished with a mustache and a cape, I orated a passage from The Gay Science while walking around in a De Chirico decor. The film, however, became a partial failure despite the interesting Rouch theme of the breakthrough of the cult of Dionysus in industrial European society. For the first time in his life, Rouch had a large budget at his disposal thanks to the socialist French minister of culture in those years, Jack Lang. Because of this, he was able, now that the situation in Niger was at a dead end, to have his African friends come to Paris. But what he had planned as a big celebration foundered on a strict, professional production schedule, and Rouch wore that straitjacket poorly.
In a later film project, Rouch found the familiar "low budget" film style of his African feature films again. In 1986, together with a team of French filmmakers from Turin, he made Enigma, a playful, whimsical quasi-documentary about the city of Turin. This became a new adventure with Rouch: as an actor, I became "Philo," sporting a hat and an umbrella, in search of Friedrich Nietzsche, who had written his last work in Turin, all the while lugging a bag full of books and citing Nietzsche. I now experienced Rouch's "cinetrance": together we discussed the scenario for the next day over breakfast and supper. Without any rehearsals, minimally planned scenarios were played out and the dialogues improvised. Each scene was filmed in a single take in sequence shots done by hand (long uninterrupted walking shots), the way Rouch was used to doing for his documentaries. Nothing was to be shot a second time. I realized this was determined not only by the low budget production, but also by Rouch's New Wave orientation as a filmmaker (Jean Eustache filmed his famous The Mother and the Whore this way). Thus, I experienced the suspense of straight-shot filming: "Either it'll work or it won't." And I finally started to understand a little about the craft of Rouch the magician. I had gone from being an observer to being a partner in the adventure.
A new stage in my experiences with Rouch began when, after years of forging plans for a feature film to be produced in the Netherlands as well as in Niger, the team Da-La-Rou-Ta (Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahima Dia, Jean Rouch, and Tallou Mouzourane) arrived in the Netherlands in July of 1991. This time the film was an idea that Rouch and I had come up with. We were "improvising scriptwriters." In the film, Madame Water, as well as in reality, I was to help them study Dutch windmills with an eye to the possibility of irrigating the fields along the Niger River. At first impression, Rouch's gang seemed to take the Netherlands by storm. The film was produced by Dutch Film Institute, sponsored by the Dutch Film Foundation as well as Dutch (IKON), British (BBC), and French television companies. In Amsterdam, there was a retrospective of feature films by the Da-La-Rou-Ta team. Introducing the retrospective, the inexhaustibly energetic Rouch, who was 74 at the time, talked about the team's collaboration and how they shared the proceeds from their films. Damouré, Lam, and Tallou entertainingly articulated their views on Rouch, while all of this was recorded in a documentary by anthropologists Dirk Nijland, Steef Meijknecht, and Joost Verheij: Rouch's Gang (De bende van Rouch).
Although Rouch had gained international recognition over the past twenty years, the interest of the Dutch media was minimal. His films, as it turned out, were not only unknown among Dutch film critics, but also disliked. "Old hat," one well-known film critic penned off-handedly as an argument for his lack of interest. I had heard this argument twenty years before, when I proposed to make a portrait of Rouch for VPRO television in 1976. Also, when my NOS Beeldspraak portrait was aired in 1978, film critics had written that "Rouch is interesting as a trailblazer for African film, but nothing more."
It happens that the tragedy of African film is that it is shown practically nowhere in its own countries because distribution there is dominated by American and European B-films. In this situation, only a few African filmmakers have had a chance to develop their own authentic style of filmmaking. Only now, a few young filmmakers, such as Idrissa Ouedragou, are succeeding in finding their own style of filmmaking, fed by their own African culture. The filmmaker Inoussa Ousseini of Niger insists that the African film should free itself from European influence and find its own language, based on oral traditions. Moreover, according to Ousseini, Rouch's films remarkably enough do express the authentic African rhythm of life and sense of time, not in the least because Rouch allows the acting, the shooting style, the rhythm of the film, and the editing to be largely determined by his African co-auteurs, Damouré, Lam, and Tallou.
For professional filmmakers, Rouch's playful predilection for patching things together and for amateurism are of course also "old hat." He was always contrary and marginal in the film world, which, for Godard, made him a New Wave pioneer. Both technically as well as esthetically, he is a great craftsman, but he has always consciously opted for an "amateur approach." This way of filming was considered innovative in Godard and Cassavetes' heyday, but nowadays "professional" norms have been restored and people speak disdainfully of "sloppy camerawork" and "jumbled sound." Film as passion, film as adventure, the real live film that Joris Ivens and the Filmliga wrote their Manifest for in 1927 has always been and will always remain "old hat" in the professional worlds film and television.
Consequently Rouch's films, just like those of Ivens, Leacock, and Cassavetes, are only known in small circles of cinemaphiles. In 1965, he won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival with Hunting Lion with Bow and Arrow, a famous documentary, although seen by only a few, about an African tradition that has disappeared since then, on which he worked seven years. The advantage of Rouch's manner of working also implies the disadvantage: his films fall outside official distribution circuits and are therefore unknown among the public at large — films such as those classics of the art film I, a Negro and Jaguar.
Rouch's double role as a filmmaker and an anthropologist also generated a typical suspiciousness: in the world of science, people don't take his playful approach seriously and in the film world he is the odd man out. He does the filming himself, with a hand-held camera and a minimal crew, preferably with intimate friends, and rejects heavy equipment; this allows him to shoot his films undisturbed, in all intimacy; his concept of the importance of feedback, often during the editing process, from those who have been filmed, so as to interpret the filmed images well, often demands years of editing. A chain of blasphemies for any professional film producer or television program director.
Another criticism of Rouch comes from the corner of the 1960s leftwing ideologues. Rouch wasn't "left enough," he didn't engage in political struggle. He was long criticized by politically militant groups in France, but also in Africa (by the Senegalese filmmaker and author Ousmane Sembene, among others) for his refusal to take a political stance against Western imperialism and neocolonialism. Due to his anthropological expertise, Rouch always resisted the importation into Africa of ready-made idealistic teachings that he felt did not fit into the complex structures of African life. Since the independence of the African states, Rouch limits himself consciously to filming old traditions. Even though The Mad Masters (originally produced in 1954) and I, a Negro (originally produced in 1958) were revolutionary films, Rouch was often considered in later years to be an old colonial lover of African rituals. When Rouch received his honorary doctorate in the Netherlands from the University of Leiden in 1980, the Dutch filmmaker Ate De Jong, who later became a Hollywood convert, attacked him in an article in Het Parool as a maker of folkloric snapshots and unworthy of even standing in the shadow of the Dutch politically militant hero Joris Ivens, who deserved the same honorary doctorate much more. However, as the condition for accepting the degree, Rouch had stipulated that the University allow him to make a portrait in film of his mentor and friend Ivens. This became Cinemafia, produced by the Institute for Cultural Anthropology at the University of Leiden, an alternative film outside the accepted channels. Together with Henri Storck, with whom he had made his famous film Borinage in 1934, long takes in sequence shots were filmed on an afternoon in Katwijk aan Zee on the coast, where Ivens had filmed Branding (Surf) in 1929. Ate De Jong of course could not foresee that nowadays; Ivens is often accused of being a political opportunist and a collaborator in Stalinist and Maoist crimes, a devaluation as equally tendentious as the earlier idealization had been.
But during a seminar dedicated to Rouch in Noordwijk, Netherlands in 1980, he was asked in what was still an inquisitorial tone, "So, are you rightwing or leftwing?" Meanwhile, many leftwing slogans have crumbled along with the Berlin Wall. Time has proven Rouch correct. After the death of dictator Kountché, he was honored in Niamey in 1988 with a great retrospective, and commended as the person who had helped retain Niger's cultural heritage: old possession rituals, hippopotamus hunts with harpoon, and hunting lions with bow and arrow are practices that have meanwhile died out.
An important theme in Madame Water was Rouch's contrary view of foreign aid. In Niger, where he started out as an engineer building bridges and roads, he himself from the outset criticized foreign aid from Western Europe as well as the new African states that wasted their budgets on American and European high tech. He called development projects in Africa "poisoned gifts" and was against charitably collected food shipments and the financing of expensive projects that can't be maintained and repaired by anybody on site. Much foreign aid is, according to Rouch, glorified imperialism. The "do-gooders" are not interested in Africa's native forms of life and culture and see the population there as pitiable, underdeveloped underdogs at best. For Rouch, on the contrary, African handcraft traditions and the African art of living are often superior to what Western welfare states have to offer, and we could learn much from them.
Madame Water defends small-scale, inexpensive foreign aid projects like those in recent more idealistic times involving wind energy, for instance, that were developed in experimental laboratories in the Netherlands, and for which the subsidies threaten to be stopped due to the prevailing economic realism. Dutch engineer Frans Brughuis, who in the film helps to build the windmill on the bank of the Niger, worked at the Enschede Technical School for fifteen years in order to make a model of a windmill from Crete applicable to irrigation methods in African. But then again, maybe wind energy really did become "old hat." The future may lie in solar energy, Rouch himself admitted. Nevertheless Madame Water is a metaphor for a form of foreign aid whereby people from the Western world help people in third-world countries find cheap, simple solutions that can be integrated into their own cultures and repaired inexpensively on site by the people themselves with their own materials. But the bridge between dream and reality that Rouch made with his film did not resonate in the Netherlands: a request for subsidy to test the windmill in Niger in a three-year project was rejected by the Dutch ministry.
This confirms the analysis that the philosopher Gilles Deleuze provides of Rouch as a filmmaker in L'image-temps (1985). Deleuze counts him among the inventors of the film craft, and posits that Rouch, generally considered the father of "cinéma-vérité," in fact belongs among filmmakers like Orson Welles and John Cassavetes, who express "la puissance du faux," the power of illusion, falsification, transformation (an idea inspired by Nietzsche's "will to power"). Deleuze quotes Godard who applies the "Je est un autre" (I is another) to Rouch: "This applies not only to the characters themselves, but also to the filmmaker. While he is a white man, he states just like Rimbaud: 'Je est un autre,' which is to say: I, a Negro" (the title of one of Rouch's most powerful films).
My experiences with Madame Water helped me to unravel the secret of this "power of illusion." I recognized Rouch the filmmaker as an inventor of mixed forms blending the real and the unreal, documentary and fiction, white and black, an adventurous camera-wielding recorder of actual events that he transforms into fables by means of the alchemy of editing. His friends Damouré, Lam, and Tallou ostensibly play themselves, brimming with burlesque jokes. In fact, similar to commedia dell'arte, they play mythical characters from African folktales as the griots (singers of folk legends and history) have sung them for centuries in the oral tradition.
[i] Centre National de Recherches Scientifique
[ii] Comité du Film Ethnographique; Musée de l'Homme
[iii] Institut de Recherches et Sciences Humaines
[iv] Beeldspraak (Imagery), a program produced by the Dutch Broadcasting Station (NOS)