Reflections on the Legacy of an Anthropologist-Filmmaker – A Weekend with Jean Rouch, 11 and 12 June 2022

A weekend with Jean Rouch, 11 and 12 June 2022 –
Reflections on the legacy of the anthropologist-filmmaker

Author: Katja Rieck

23 June 2022

Following the successful Istanbul edition of the Iran at the Crossways film forum, there was a revived interest in the French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch. Initiated by the French-Iranian filmmaker Mina Rad, and hosted by Institut Français Istanbul with the support of the Institut Français d’Études Anatoliennes and Orient-Institut Istanbul, a follow-up event focusing specifically on Jean Rouch’s work was held on 11 and 12 of June at the premises of the Institut Français. The event was titled Hommage à Jean Rouch and featured two of Jean Rouch’s classic works, Chronique d’un éte (with Edgar Morin, 1961) and Moi, un noir (1958) as well as two documentaries dealing with Jean Rouch’s filmmaking legacy Persian Tales: Jean Rouch en Iran (Mina Rad, 2018) and The Enigma of Jean Rouch in Turin: Chronicle of a Film Raté (Marco di Castri, Daniele Pianciola, Paolo Favaro, 2017).

Rouch’s cinematic sociology – documentary as cultural critique

The two films by Jean Rouch represented earlier works that in a paradigmatic way set out main themes and characteristics that would continue to be the hallmarks of Rouch’s work. Chronique d’un été is an almost sociological film that begins with two simple, but very existential questions: “Are you happy?” and “How do you manage your day-to-day life?”. What follows is a gripping sociological unravelling of a cast of real-life protagonists of different social backgrounds in French society. Made in collaboration with the French sociologist Edgar Morin, the film demonstrates Jean Rouch’s anthropological approach to filmmaking, the way he positions himself vis-à-vis the film protagonists as a kind of participant observer of their everyday life and a curious anthropologist who will intervene in the everydayness of life to provoke moment of self-critical reflection. But far beyond being a simple documentary and ethnographic reflection on mid-twentieth century French society, Rouch and Morin use the space of film to disturb the social relationships between the protagonists. They initiate exchanges and interactions between various protagonists confronting them with their prejudices, ignorance or social naïveté.

These scenes present a second characteristic of Jean Rouch’s filmmaking, it’s socially transformative intent. In a particularly powerful scene, Jean Rouch invites all the main protagonists to a discussion at a café. Among the members of the group are a young black man from Cote d’Ivoire (named Landry) with his (white) French girlfriend and Marceline, a French Jew and concentration camp survivor. The scene begins with a question that Rouch poses to Marceline as to whether she would ever have a romantic relationship with a black man. She proceeds to comment rather clumsily that she would not have such a relationship as black men are not to her taste. As other members of the group begin to voice accusations of racism, Rouch shifts the conversation to the numbers tattooed on Marceline’s arm and asks Landry if he knows what these numbers are. Landry has no idea and jokingly makes some silly guesses. He is obviously at a complete loss. The other members of the group see the numbers and know what they are, and now become quite uncomfortable with Landry’s ignorance of the concentration camps. Now the tables are turned, and it is Marceline who educates Landry. This scene is one example of how Rouch uses film to unsettle and provoke, to confront the violence of racism with that of antisemitism, to incite exchange and thus build bridges between a black man and a Jewish woman.

This first film by Jean Rouch was followed by the documentary Persian Tales: Jean Rouch in Iran, which highlights the impact Jean Rouch had on an early generation of Iranian documentary filmmakers following a series of workshops and the making of the documentary film in Isfahan as well as the impact that his filmmaking legacy continues to have on young Iranian filmmakers today. The film can roughly be divided into two parts. The first part engaged with the senior generation of filmmakers and their personal experiences with Jean Rouch and explored how these shaped the evolution of their own filmmaking (und thus impacted the history of Iranian documentary film). The second half turned to the students of this older generation, who themselves never met Jean Rouch, but who have been introduced to his films, techniques and cinematic philosophy through textbooks and film training courses. The discussions with these Iranian filmmakers pick up on many of the aspects of Jean Rouch’s work as introduced via Chronique d’un été. For an older generation of Iranian documentary filmmakers, the specific film techniques of allowing film protagonists to direct the film’s production and its narrative were the most influential aspect of his legacy. For a younger generation of Iranian filmmakers, Jean Rouch’s anthropological perspective resonates the strongest, in other words, the way that a documentary film holds a mirror up to society and can thereby provoke critical reflection and change. The film thus portrays the legacy of Rouch’s filmmaking in a very specific socio-cultural and political context and how his cinematic philosophy has been interpreted, adapted and made meaningful to that context.

Society through the looking glass – Rouch’s docufictions

In Jean Rouch’s docufiction film Moi, un noir, which was shown on the second day of the event, we have an example of one of many works Jean Rouch made in and about Africa. It is similar to Chronique d’un été insofar as takes a very anthropological approach by following the everyday doings of several men from Niger who have come to Cote d’Ivoir to work and settled in the Treichville quarter of Abidjan. From the perspective of film history, it is one of the works that is considered to have inaugurated French New Wave cinema. The film features the narratives of the film protagonists that drift between autobiography and fiction (and here it differs somewhat from the more sociological Chronique d’un été), thus giving a sense not only of the trials, tribulations and pleasures of daily life but also of their desires, hopes and frustrations. The film is striking because of the everydayness of the lives portrayed without the slightest hint of the exotic. Although the social scenes convey the modernist enthusiasm of society in an up-and-coming post-colonial African state, the protagonists’ lives are portrayed as being much like laborers in any capitalist port city.

The closing film, The Enigma of Jean Rouch in Turin: Chronicle of a Film Raté, documented the making of Rouch’s film Enigma, a surrealist inspired docufiction about the industrial city of Turin and its architecture. Whereas Moi, un noir avoided any kind of exoticization of the African context, and presented the lives of the protagonists in Treichville as a social reality co-eval with that of any port city in Europe or anywhere else, Enigma playfully exoticizes Turin. The Enigma of Jean Rouch shows the filmmaker to jump playfully between European philosophy and surrealism and Dogon mythology. Here we see how Rouch’s extensive engagement with Africa is made relevant to film on a European industrial city. Rouch here appears as a trickster figure, which as an anthropologist interested in myth and ritual is a mythological archetype that he would have been well familiar with. The documentary thus portrays Rouch as a playful crosser of boundaries, a sometimes cunning and sometimes foolish disrupter of the normal order of things. This highlights those aspects of Rouch’s work that are less documentary and more playful and surrealist. But still, the common theme, which ran through all the films screened during the event, and also represents a kind of unifying principle of Rouch’s work, is the transformative capacity of film. Whereas the two films in the first session featured aspects of Rouch’s work and filmmaking philosophy that effected social transformation through more sociologically/anthropologically realist work, the two films in the second session showed how a transformative impetus could be effected through films that had strong fictional elements, contrasting two modes that exist along a continuum along which Rouch moved in his oeuvre.

It seems that although Jean Rouch travelled extensively and gave workshops in many countries, he apparently never did so in Turkey. The film event closed with reflections on what kind of films Jean Rouch would have made about Turkey and how his cinematic legacy could translate in the Turkish context.

Katja Rieck is senior fellow and head of the new research focus on Iran. She is also project lead for the Max Weber Foundation’s “Knowledge Unbound” subproject 2c “Iran and Beyond: Breaking the Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration (IRSSC)“, which is being conducted at Orient-Institut Istanbul. Her research focuses on various processes of social change as they are currently transpiring in Iran.

Citation: Rieck, Katja Reflections on the Legacy of an Anthropologist-Filmmaker – A Weekend with Jean Rouch, 11 and 12 June 2022, Orient-Institut Istanbul Blog, 23 June 2022, https://www.oiist.org/reflections-on-the-legacy-of-an-anthropologist-filmmaker-a-weekend-with-jean-rouch

Iran; Europe; 21st century; OII-IRSSC; film; documentaries; Science communication and outreach; anthropology