Time and Rouch

Christopher W. Thompson
Professor Emeritus, University of Warwick
Editor: L'Autre et le sacré: surréalisme, cinéma, ethnologie
Paris, L'Harmattan, 1995

Rouch made a great variety of films — ethnographic, fictional, serious, comic, long, short — and characterizing their specific quality is no easy matter : crude labels such as cinéma vérité or cinéma direct clearly will not do for the whole. There is moreover something of a paradox in his work in connection with cinéma vérité/direct and time which I feel is central to our experience of many, though not all, of his films, and it is this paradox I would like to explore here. On the one hand then, Rouch is best known in Europe and the US as a master of cinéma vérité/direct, a believer in improvisation and an impassioned propagandist for the value of the "first take". All of which would imply that he was a film-maker intent above all on capturing the present in its most undiluted form — and I say that even though I am well aware that of course one cannot ever isolate a present completely from the shadows of the past and intimations of the future : the proof is in Chronique d'un été (1960) and Marceline's explosive memories of deportation. On the other hand, I would suggest that in general our experience of time in his films is rarely that of the more or less undiluted present we follow throughout most of Chronique d'un été. And I would also suggest that this is not simply because so much of his work has been the ethnographic recording and study of distant African subjects, because I hope to show that our experience of time in his African films is for several reasons quite distinctive and corresponds to a very personal sensibility evident in most of his films, a sensibility also apparent in his own devotion to certain works and artists - such as Jean Epstein's fictional film of 1947 Le Tempestaire and the paintings of the Italian Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico (I will return to these). It was entirely typical of Rouch to speak, as he did in 1999 after the showing in the Bilan du film ethnographique at the Musée de l'Homme of a documentary on the Cape Verde islands, in praise of a "caméra mélancolique", with all that such an expression can imply both of an eye seeing the present across a space of time and of an eye seeing beyond that present to other times behind.

Rouch's work presents us moreover with a cinema which tends to produce either a very intense subjective experience of time for the spectator (phenomenological durée) in rather short films or occasionally very long films : the full version of Petit à petit (1968 – 1970) runs over four hours, the last (incomplete) version of La Grande sécheresse à Simiri (1967 – 1973) only 12 minutes less and the whole Sigui series (1966 – 74) just over four and a half hours. Nor are these occasionally very long films to be seen as aberrant sports. In 1971, after Petit à petit, Rouch would go as far as to say : "Je suis pour les films lents [...]. Chez moi, il n'y aura ni début, ni fin, ni milieu. On pourra rentrer à n'importe quel moment" and in 1973, "J'aimerais faire un film de 24 heures".[1] And this attitude was to prove influential, to judge by Rivette's interviews in connection with his twelve-hour long Out One : noli me tangere (1971) as well as by the revealing tribute, in that film, by a fictional anthropologist to the boundary-breaking "reverse anthropology" planned by another specialist on communities on the Niger, a character clearly based on Rouch.[2] What we have to deal with here then, is a cinema that has sometimes been literally, and influentially, very long (with the help of course of modern equipment) and which mostly also feels long and complex with respect to time even when it actually isn't - even in the ten extraordinary minutes of the long take in Les Tambours d'avant : Tourou et Bitti (1971).

Since Johannes Fabian's Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object (1983) we are all conscious, of course, of the various ways in which anthropology has made more or less overt use of time to construct distance from its subject and create an object — whether by choosing ethnic groups for study regarded as "earlier" in developmental time, or by bracketing off their culture in a "different time" from ours, or by manipulating the real time lapses involved in the execution and writing up of field work. One way or another, Fabian showed, the Other of anthropological study is presented as not existing in a time coeval with our own — the then barely acknowledged problem which concerned him. One would therefore expect to encounter distance-creating time effects in any ethnographic film, but even with this fact in mind I suppose that everyone would acknowledge the unusual time lapses involved in the long-term work of the Musée de l'Homme with the Dogon of Mali, work to which Rouch has contributed so much. Not only have the Dogon had an unusually long continuous history since at least the fifteenth century in one particular place, the Bandiagara Cliffs NE of Mopti. They have also cultivated and kept alive an unusually intense memory of this history by means, for instance, of the itinerant ceremonies of the Sigui criss-crossing their area every sixty years, and of the masks and painted instructions for such ceremonies preserved in the caves of the cliff. In addition, the Musée de l'Homme has now been working continuously with the Dogon for over sixty years, a long-term involvement open to the criticism of producing reciprocal "distortions", both of the supposedly objective outsider's perspective and of the Dogons' view of themselves, but, I would stress, an involvement also producing by now a shared recent past which Fabian, for one, might well approve of, as producing some coeval time.[3]

Now the intense and complex preoccupation with time resulting from this particular connection between an ethnic group and an institution is foregrounded in our experience of Rouch's films on the Dogon for the following reasons. Film being particularly suitable for recording ceremonies and rituals, and the Dogon famously multiplying spectacular rituals in the life of their community, Rouch's films of slowly-evolving Damas, funerals, Siguis, etc. have naturally taken on some of the rhythm of these ceremonies, all the more so because of the scientific need to cut as little as possible in the interest of an accurate record. But in addition, these are often ceremonies in which the Dogon recall different sorts of past time within the present time of the ceremony — both recent and more distant historical time, as well as the legendary time of their original ancestors and migration to the cliffs and the mythological time of their Creation myth. So the suprised Western spectator finds himself watching in Funérailles à Bongo : le vieil Anaï, 1848 – 1971 (1972), within a contemporary African present, reenactments with ancient guns of Anaï Dolo's and the Dogons' battles against invading French colonisers at the end of the last century (1895), as well as hearing of the legendary actions of "les hommes d'avant" and the ancestors of the tribe, and of the mythical gestures of Amma the Creator, Nommo and Ogo (who became the Pale Fox), spreader of disorder and father of language.[4] The multiple presence of the long past within the present of their rituals is echoed also in the landscape of the Bandiagara Cliffs, a veritable wall of time which Rouch responds to as such in his Sigui synthèse (1981) and elsewhere. Nor is this just a matter of showing the different structures left in the cliffs by the Telem before the Dogon, the masks stored in caves (some of which date back to the eighteenth century) and the instructions painted on rocks at Songo and elsewhere for the making of masks and rituals. In the opening of Sigui synthèse Rouch reminds us that the Dogon see in the rocks and towers and caves and streams of the cliffs the symbolic places of the Original and First time of their own mythology.

This impression of multiple layers of time within the present of an African ritual is in addition reinforced by Rouch's own methods of working and the conscious and unconscious effects of these on the spectator. For financial and other practical reasons, Rouch's films have often been completed over a very long period of time, and his commentary may record this. So the eight years which it took to complete the Chasse au lion à l'arc (1957 – 1964) is echoed in the narrator's account of how his own hunt for this story was interrupted and then restarted : "quelques années plus tard nous recevons [un] télégramme". More subtly, there is often a time-gap (sometimes a considerable one) between shooting and the addition of a commentary afterwards, as in the case of Jaguar (1957 – 1967) and the Dama d'Ambara (1974 – 1980) and Rouch actually quite liked this gap and time for reflection and knew how to put it to good use, whether it is he or one of the actors who ended up effecting the secondary reading.[5] It is in particular this space set back in time from the present of the filmic image which he used for his characteristic commentaries, the lyricism of which is not unconnected with the issue of time, and which we must now analyse, taking the Dama d'Ambara and Sigui synthèse as typical examples of his style.

In the Dama, the narrator does not simply analyse and spell out for us the components and meaning of each ritual act, but adopts one or another of the persona in the rite and intones in a lyrical monologue the spoken and unspoken sense of each action in mythological time, as transmitted from the past and taken down earlier by Marcel Griaule — while all the time a splendidly masked Dogon policeman marshalls the ceremony in the present of shutter-time! In the Sigui synthèse, Rouch again gives voice to the spirit of yearning and regret embodied in the whooping and yelping processions echoing the refrains of songs and of the Sigui so, the sacred language of initiates. In other words, one of Rouch's most typical trademarks, the commentary — which he would much rather not have sub-titles distracting us from — is in many cases triggered precisely by the wish to seduce the audience into the space of mythic time alluded to by the present ritual.

What I have said so far about the multiple times at work within the present of Rouch's films and about the reinforcement of this sense of temporal depth by his working methods and commentaries holds also for many of his films set in France and Holland — the proof that all cannot be attributed to anthropology's usual distancing play with time with respect to non-Europeans.

Petit à petit (in its full 3-part format) is not an easy film to deal with, its relaxed, light-hearted narrative of three innocents abroad on a very eighteenth-century journey across the geographical and cultural surfaces of another people only revealing its more secret structure and emphases on repeated viewings. It is therefore all too easy to overlook the extent to which the first two parts — Lettres persanes and Afrique sur Seine — with their casual, improvised encounters becomes a tour of Paris full of explicit and implicit history lessons and reminders of the French past, as thick therefore in its own way with past time as Rouch's reports from the Bandiagara cliffs. A taxi driver launches the theme with his remarks on the Invalides. Damouré then does the rounds of what seem at first sight simply to be the most obvious picture-postcard landmarks until one realizes just how loaded each is with significant historical and cultural memories — the Mont Valérien with those of the Franco-Prussian war, the Buttes Chaumont with Surrealism and Aragon's Le Paysan de Paris, the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève with the Paris of Balzac's Le Père Goriot, the Étoile with Napoleon. Lam gets more history lessons when he arrives and various dialogues about street life and old houses make clear Rouch's wish to register the paradoxical weight of the past persisting even in the accelerating scramble of Western urban life. That this reading is not an over-interpretation of the accidents of improvisation is shown moreover by Madame l'eau (1993), another film it is easy to underestimate. Once again Rouch's African friends are on tour in Europe (and I will return in a moment to the effect of his use of a stock company of actors), this time to Holland in pursuit of a suitable windmill for pumping water. The greatest surprise of this visit is their time in a maritime museum, where the Dutch share in the slave trade is commented on at some length, concluding with the explicit lesson that we need to know each others' history.

I do not need to say any more about Rouch's interest in the presence of the past. And many will know from his conversation and from interviews that he was endlessly interested in recording and retelling the life-stories of others and himself and that one of his most inveterate traits was transforming the past as well as the present into story and legend. But he was equally interested in the future, as is clear from, among other things, the prominence of the forward-looking theme of adventure in all his work, a subject I have written about elsewhere in connection with his interest in improvisation, chance, the disruption of frontiers and surrealism.[6] Shifting our focus then, the present in Rouch's cinema - the present of take-one - is not only unusually strongly felt by the spectator at almost every moment as a present-coming-out-of-the-past, but also as a present-moving-into-the-future, and thick time-wise in that way too. This is not simply a question of what is inevitably true of any present and therefore of an ineluctable effect of improvisation and cinéma vérité/direct on the hoof : the theme of adventure and the future is fundamental to the revealing La Punition (1962), Cocorico! Monsieur Poulet (1974 – 1980) and Jaguar and central to one effect of Rouch's habit of using a regular cast of actors — notably Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahima Dia and Tallou Mouzourane. The opening of Madame l'eau admits as much, when we are presented with Rouch and the usual suspects meeting up and discussing the new adventure they are about to embark on, after so many others. This does not simply give us the sort of satisfaction which following the fictional characters of any serial can give us, since the three Africans always come across to us first of all as named private individuals lending themselves temporarily to performing the roles of a story and since this distance between them and their roles produces an effect on us more like that of rejoining the characters of a strip cartoon, of a bande dessinée, for an adventure, an adventure that may come to a temporary halt, but which we essentially feel in a Gidean way "pourrait être continué", could be continued.

Finally, Rouch's paradoxical interest as a master of the "first take" and cinéma vérité/direct in a present thick with time past and potential for the future is also not unconnected with his obsession with the magical time of possession in his writings and films such as Les Maîtres fous (1954 – 1957), Les Magiciens de Wanzerbé (1949), the various Yenendis and Les Tambours d'avant : Tourou et Bitti (1971). In rites such as these, the space of the rite becomes particularly charged with other temporal dimensions. These may be the parallel space-time of colonial government and everyday urban life in Les Maîtres fous, or the future time of rains called for and those appearing at the end of Yenendi, les hommes qui font la pluie (1951). But when the transformations of possession take place, the space of the rite is also invaded by the different space-time of the Spirits or the Ancestors, as these manifest themselves in the changed voices and gestures of the posssessed and in their advice for the future. And that one of the aspects of such rituals of possession which fascinated Rouch is precisely this other, magical, dimension of time is suggested by the fabulous time he evoked in two of his own Parisian films and admired in Epstein's Le Tempestaire (1947). In La Punition the "time out" of school becomes at the magical "heure la plus perdue de la matinée" the time for creative idling, the time for adventure, the time for surrealist encounters. In the extraordinary Gare du Nord (1964), the heroine enters in the second half an eerie space-time in which the roles and dialogues of the first half are repeated but reversed, one of those decisive "moments exceptionnels" beloved of the Surrealists of which the stranger speaks to her, in which people believe, most often wrongly, that they have for a moment the chance to master and change their space, time and fate. The stranger pessimistically compares such moments to the rituals of the bull-fight, in which similar but different decisive moments recur in an identical arena, in a game which is always new but always the same, between partners always other but always similar, an enactment of man's tragic need to master time, fate and space which is of course the very tragedy Rouch was himself tracking in Gare du Nord with his rentless (apparently) single take of a twice told tale (plus a final reverse shot). The magical time produced here is not that different in quality from the one enacted with a happier outcome in Epstein's Le Tempestaire which Rouch so admired, and which opposes the seething, chaotic forces of cosmic time magnificently embodied in a storm off Brittany to the powerful hieratic and timeless stillness of the fishermens' wives and the tempestaire, the sorcerer whose concentrated magic will finally still the seas.

I have said enough, I hope, to suggest that Rouch's cinema of improvisation and the first take is in fact different from much — but of course not all — of cinéma vérité/direct in the rich and varied feeling for time that it usually creates, a feeling that often makes his short films feel "slow", even when he doesn't actually make them literally long. It is a cinema appropriate to the sensibility of a man who loves the long memory of the Dogon, the slow power of the Niger river (an image of time in Rouch for sure), museums and those pictures of De Chirico such as Mystery and melancholy of a street (1914) which Rouch chose to use in Dionysos (1984), where distorted shadows of absent bodies may fall across theatrical, but mysteriously empty and anachronistic spaces. It is this sensibility which intuitively feels the need to find a place in documentary and ethnographic film for the poetic and the lyrical that can open up the feelings, memories and hopes which lurk beneath surface appearances and bring us into contact with them.

And yet I want finally to stress that despite his immersion in the seas of time, the cinema of Rouch is not at all melancholic: it is on the contrary the cinema of a man who found life amusing, who enjoyed the challenges presented by time and remained playful with its contradictions, as in the late Dionysos (1984). In an interview filmed by Philo Bregstein, Rouch said that after the fall of France, he threw away his watch and "there was no more time". Practical to the last however, instead he used to stick it in his breastpocket. In the same way, anthropology was for him a science full of serious problems (such as the question of the Dogons' knowledge of the "risings" of Sirius) but one to be pursued with imagination, zest and pleasure.

[1] Rouch in interviews with Guy Hennebelle in L'Afrique littéraire et artistique, 19 (octobre 1971) and with André Téchiné and Jean-André Fieschi in Cahiers du Cinéma, 195 (novembre 1967). Quoted in René Prédal ed., Jean Rouch, ou le ciné-plaisir, CinémAction, 81 (1996) : 61, 68.

[2]All the more clearly so as the ethnographer is played by Michel Deshayes, who had just finished acting in Rouch's epochal experiment in so-called "reverse ethnography", Petit à petit (1968 ˆ 1970), and as all his scenes are played on the roof of the Musée de l'Homme. And the tribute is even more telling in that this discussion is an essential mise-en-abyme (a miniaturized reflection) of a central theme of Rivette's film, in which two theatre companies rehearsing Sophocles and other assorted Parisians are struggling to break out of their respective routines, mindsets and circles of friends and to see other connections in this and other worlds. After Out One Rivette, who had acknowledged Rouch's importance for all French cinema of the sixties in 1968 (interview in Cahiers du Cinéma, 204), insisted again on his personal debt in La Nouvelle Critique, 63, 244 (avril 1973).

[3] Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other. How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983) : 92.

[4] See Marcel Griaule and Germaine Dieterlen, Le Renard pâle (Paris: Institut d'Ethnologie, 1991).

[5] Colette Piault, " Parole interdite, parole sous contrôle...", in René Prédal ed., Jean Rouch, ou le ciné-plaisir, CinémAction, 81 (1996) : 140-147.

[6] "Aventure, ethnologie et hasard", in René Prédal ed., Jean Rouch, ou le ciné-plaisir, CinémAction, 81 (1996) : 69 - 73.