- The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the craft of ethnographic cinema
Songhay elders in Niger and Mali sometimes say: 'The blind mongoose never strays far from its home.' Although he never tired of travelling to varied and distant places, Jean Rouch, like the blind mongoose, never strayed far from his homes: France and Niger. Even when he was in his eighties, Rouch tried to travel to Niger once a year. During one of those annual trips he died in a tragic car accident. His remains lie in a simple grave in the Catholic cemetery of Niamey, Niger's capital city.
When I travelled to Niamey in 2009 I went to the Catholic cemetery to find Jean Rouch's gravesite. The cemetery is a dry and sandy expanse just off the road to Kollo near Niamey's Terminus neighbourhood. Most of the gravesites are bare mounds marked with crosses. Jean Rouch's has a tombstone and is covered with white marble squares. It is unobtrusively situated at the southern end of the cemetery and says only: 'Jean Rouch May 31, 1917–February 18, 2004'–a modest space that marks the passing of a great scholar and film maker.
My visit to the gravesite was on the fifth anniversary of his death. In the years since his passing Jean Rouch's persona has reached mythic proportions in Niger. The French cultural centre in Niamey bears his name and its library is establishing a collection of books by and about him. A media centre is being developed. In addition La Caravane Jean Rouch, sponsored by the cultural centre, has taken Jean Rouch's films to the remote villages where they were shot, in some cases more than 60 years ago. Some of the villagers are the [End Page 680] grandchildren of people who appeared in those films. For some of them it was the first time they had seen their grandparents, which moved them deeply.
Everyone I met in Niger talked about Jean Rouch in reverential tones, as if he, as a respected ancestor, was listening to all the talk about his life and work, as if he were making judgements about us down here on earth.
'Did you know him?' people would ask me in a whisper.
'I did,' I'd say. 'If you have some time, I could tell you some good stories.'
Since his death in 2004, a wide variety of scholars, some who knew Jean Rouch personally, others who knew him through his films or books, have paid tribute to his contribution to the cinema and the human sciences. In tales recounted at conferences or in books we have tried to tell Jean Rouch's story. Narrators of the cinematic persuasion have focused on Rouch's film making. Raconteurs of the anthropological persuasion have praised the ethnographic foundation of Rouch's work on the Songhay and Dogon. Although most of these appreciative works on Rouch have made significant contributions to visual anthropology and the media studies, no one work, including my own musings, has been a truly comprehensive analysis of Rouch's work and legacy. Enter Paul Henley's magisterial The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the craft of ethnographic cinema, a book that is destined to become the most important text on one of the great figures of twentieth-century anthropology and cinema.
Many of the biographic events covered in The Adventure of Real have been discussed before, but never in such exacting detail. Many of the films that Paul Henley considers have been analysed before, but never with such perspicacity. What's more, Henley demonstrates with great lucidity how the aesthetic forces of surrealism, Russian cinema, Songhay belief and Dogon philosophy shaped Rouch's anthropological and filmic practices.
Everything about The Adventure of the Real is carefully and beautifully constructed. Two themes central to Jean Rouch's view of the world, initiation and surrealism, frame the book, the remainder of which is divided into three parts. In...