Jean Rouch

Jean Rouch

Jean Rouch's (1917–2004) breakthrough work in cinéma vérité in the 1960's helped inspire the direct cinema movement in the U.S. and the nouvelle vague (New Wave) in France where he was a key figure in the Cinémathèque Française and the founding director of the Comité du film ethnographique at the Musée de l'Homme.

He was a director of research of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique for over 50 years; teaching at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. Rouch's long career was inextricably intertwined with the transforming world of West Africa where he first worked as a civil engineer during World War II. Far in advance of contemporary rethinking of both anthropology and filmmaking, Rouch was developing an entirely new kind of documentary film practice that blurred the boundaries between producer and subject and fiction and reality.

His African work, characterized by innovations such as "shared anthropology" and "ethno-fiction," is noted for its embrace of both the daily life and imagination of a new generation of Africans. His works capture the emergence of Africa in transformation, and the worlds of displaced migrants in Accra, Ghana (Jaguar) and in Treichville and Abidjan, Ivory Coast (Moi, Un Noir, La Pyramide Humaine); the adventures of three friends in the Niger bush (Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet); and the sensibilities and observations of Africans migrating to Paris and back, what some have called reverse ethnography (Petit a Petit, Madame L'Eau). He also played an active role in helping to launch African cinema.

According to stories widely reported, Rouch adopted the hand-held style after losing his tripod in a river in Niger. In the landmark CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER (1961), Rouch and his co-director Edgar Morin asked Parisians the simple question, "Are you happy?" The answers created a stunning document of contemporary life in the city.

In 1998, Rouch attended New York's Docfest, where he presented a screening of CHRONICLE OF A SUMMER and participated in a discussion about cinéma-vérité filmmaking with Al Maysles and D.A. Pennebaker. "A film is a thing you can touch and smell," he said at the time, "It's a sort of love affair."

"Rejecting both the idealism of Robert Flaherty and the didacticism of Joris Ivens and John Grierson, Rouch aimed for the immediacy of television, without its superficiality," wrote Ronald Bergan in The Guardian, in one of the many obituaries about the filmmaker. "He believed that the camera's intervention stimulated people to greater spontaneity, expression and truth without asking them, as in the American Direct Cinema, to act as though the camera was not there."

Continuing with a quote attributed to the director, the paper added, "The camera eye is more perspicacious and more accurate than the human eye," he said. "The camera eye has an infallible memory, and the filmmaker's eye is divided."

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Jean Rouch
  • The Human Pyramid

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1961 • 93 minutes

    At the Lycée Français of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Rouch worked with students there who willingly enacted a story about the arrival of a new white girl, Nadine, and her effect on the interactions of and interracial relationships between the wh...

  • Jaguar

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1967 • 88 minutes

    One of Jean Rouch's classic ethnofictions, JAGUAR follows three young Songhay men from Niger -- Lam Ibrahim, Illo Goudel'ize, and the legendary performer Damoure Zika--on a journey to the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana).

    Drawing from his o...

  • Jean Rouch, the Adventurous Filmmaker

    Directed by Laurent Védrine • Documentary • With Jean Rouch • 2017 • 55 minutes

    Jean Rouch first went to Niger in 1941 as a 24-year-old civil engineer, building roads in the French colony. But unlike other colonists, he came to see Nigeriens as equals, spending much of the next 60 years in West ...

  • The Lion Hunters

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1965 • 77 minutes

    Shot on the border between Niger and Mali over a period of seven years, THE LION HUNTERS is Jean Rouch's documentation of the lion hunt performed by the gow hunters of the Songhay people.

    Rouch has said that he made the film 'to try to gi...

  • Little By Little

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1969 • 92 minutes

    When we re-join Rouch's collaborators Zika and Ibrahim in Ayorou, Niger, the Little By Little company they had formed at the conclusion of JAGUAR has become a large import-export company. Hearing that a competitor is building a multistory ...

  • The Mad Masters

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1955 • 28 minutes

    The film opens on the bustling streets of Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), a major colonial port city that serves as a stage for the collision of the traditional and the modern. Among the diverse groups who populate...

  • Mammy Water

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1956 • 18 minutes

    In MAMMY WATER, Jean Rouch depicts the surf boys of the coastal village of Shama, at the foot of the Pra River. Their success is governed by water spirits ('Mammy Water'). When the catch is bad, villagers must honor the spirits with a cere...

  • Moi, Un Noir

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1958 • 70 minutes

    Winner of the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc in 1958, MOI, UN NOIR marked Jean Rouch's break with traditional ethnography, and his embrace of the collaborative and improvisatory strategies he called "shared ethnography" and "ethnofiction."

  • The Punishment

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1962 • 64 minutes

    An aimless young woman is sent home from school with nothing to do. Drifting through the streets of Paris, she comes across a variety of people.

    "Extraordinary and extraordinarily rare movie about public misogyny."—Richard Brody, The New ...

  • Six in Paris: Gare du Nord

    Directed by Jean Rouch • Drama • 1965 • 17 minutes

    A young woman has a life-changing encounter with a man she happens to meet on the street. Richard Brody of The New Yorker considers this "one of the greatest short films ever."