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Jean Rouch: Some Personal Memories

From: Research in African Literatures
Volume 35, Number 3, Fall 2004
pp. 6-7 | 10.1353/ral.2004.0072

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Research in African Literatures 35.3 (2004) 6-7

Some Personal Memories

Alain Ricard

One of the first articles published by Jean Rouch, in Présence Africaine, in 1948, was on a new African literature. In it, he mentioned the works of his friends from Niger, Damoure and Zika, who became the heroes of his long series of films and who truly belong to our imaginary pantheon of African artists. Jean Rouch was a true poet and his relationship to Africa is a poetic performance of the first order. He was also a colleague of mine, a member of that most unique French institution, the CNRS, which allowed him to create an œuvre bridging the fields of art and social research in a unique way. Doing so, he became one of the key figures in the history of cinema in the twentieth century, with an œuvre inspired by and entirely dedicated to Africa. His works were always an inspiration to me, and I believe they are largely misunderstood.

I was lucky to be introduced to Jean Rouch thirty years ago by Francis Bebey, then in charge of music at UNESCO. I had an appointment with Francis Bebey to discuss highlife and to show my film on concert party, Agbeno Xevi. Francis Bebey, who was very kind with young researchers, had invited Jean Rouch to the showing. Agbeno Xevi was shot with a friend who was, like myself, a great admirer of Rouch. We had even included a shot that was a quotation from Jaguar, strolling down the streets of the capital city. A year later I met Jean Rouch again. I had just gotten a position with the CNRS, to which he also belonged, and he told me that he was on the board of the audiovisual department, the SERDDAV, which became CNRS Audiovisuel. If I wanted to do another film on concert party, he would support my application. He was true to his word and the SERDDAV gave me the means to do The Asihu Principle, my 52-minute-long film on concert party,

In the eighties, Rouch was still with the CNRS helping to make films. The Rouch legacy belongs to two different fields: he is one of the founding fathers of the anthropology of performance as well as one of the key figures of twentieth-century cinema. Like Jean-Luc Godard, Rouch believed that ethics and style cannot be separated: le style est une morale! What is shown on screen results from a process of exchange: the product can be no better than the relationship. You cannot obtain pictures of men eating dogs, as in Les maîtres fous, if these men are not friends who accept having their picture taken by an empathetic eye.

The relationship is also a story. Jean Rouch, like Jean Cocteau, is the narrator of his films: the voice we hear on the commentary is his. His relation to Africa is part of what he shows us. But when he started making movies, he was frustrated. How is narration possible without conversation? Few students understand today that in the fifties, if you were doing documentary film, it was impossible to record sound in synchrony with the images. You had to post-synchronize. So Jean Rouch had to invent the synchronous (sync) camera in order to achieve his ethical project. Before that, he invented something else that Jean-Luc Godard saluted: instead of being himself the narrator, he had Oumarou Ganda, nicknamed Lemmy Caution, just back from Indochina (where he probably was with Ahmadou Kourouma), narrate his own story in a single take that lasted the length of the film. So in Moi un Noir you have for the first time a black man speaking in his own voice, telling his story, the story of his life. Amazingly, this had never been done before! The next step was to do fieldwork with a camera and 6-minute magazines, together with a Nagra synchonized tape recorder. Suddenly the movie maker was free to move with his friends—if he had any, and Jean had many!—and a new relation to Africa was possible. All his documentary cinema, his cinéma vérité comes...



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