Close-Up on Jean Rouch's "The Lion Hunters"

Rouch plays with the truth to achieve higher meaning in his documentary about lion hunting on the borders of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso.
Ben Lambert

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Jean Rouch's The Lion Hunters (1966) is showing January 3 – February 1, 2019 in the United States as part of the retrospective, The Groundbreaking Ethnography of Jean Rouch.

The Lion Hunters

The Lion Hunters (1965) is, on the surface—on the very surface—an adventure story. A band of hunters leave the safety of their village and go into the wilderness to hunt down a pack of lions. These are not ordinary lions, who adhere to the leonine custom of only targeting the sick and eating what they kill. They are rather an outlaw band, who kill wantonly and for sport. Thus the hunters have a moral purpose: their goal is to restore balance, to fix a flaw in the natural order which has caused both human and animal alike to fall crooked. And in this they succeed. After the usual trials they kill most of the lions in question (leaving one, the leader, still alive—but that is acceptable in a tale of this nature), and return home, proven and triumphant.

Is this story true? Well.

The director is Jean Rouch, a man very concerned with truth. Rouch had arrived in Niger in 1941 as a hydrology engineer, and found some deep part of himself engaged by the country; he would return again and again over the next sixty odd years, making dozens of films. His first ambition was to record, essentially, the ritual side of life: periods of formal highly charged action—funerals, initiations, hunting expeditions. From this emerged his series of “ethnographic” films, which were documentary at root. Rouch, however, had from the beginning a complex relationship with the documentary as a discipline; he had little interest in adopting a neutral posture, or for that matter in presenting events exactly as they happened. What was paramount was, first, the relationship between the director and his subjects, which had to be one of trust, mutuality, and collaboration; and second, a fidelity to the internal experience of the people being recorded. As he pursued these ideas they would eventually lead him to develop a whole range approaches to the mixing of objectivity and subjectivity. With his film Moi, un noir (1958) he initiated the practice of working with subjects to develop a kind of fantasy life (modeled in this case on Hollywood tropes), with the film being a portrayal of both this fantasy and of the surrounding, grounding context of the everyday (he called this technique ethnofiction); and with Chronicle of a Summer he pioneered a newly intensive transparency in documentary filmmaking, one in which his own ambitions were openly discussed and dissected, and his degree of success eventually evaluated in-film.

Chronicle of a Summer came out in 1961. The Lion Hunters, which Rouch had been working on for seven years, came out in 1965, and can in the context of the dizzying shifts he was pursuing feel like a form of classicism. It is that, to an extent, but it is also a challenging film, one that both demands and benefits from the viewer’s engagement—the meeting of audience and film strikes a complex set of chords.

Its genesis was in the screening of a much earlier Rouch film, Battle on the Big River (1951), which documented a hippopotamus hunt. He had filmed Battle near the town of Ayorou, in Western Niger, and some years later was able to return with a copy, which he screened for the film’s subjects by projecting it in on a hung white sheet—Rouch was committed to sharing materials that he had shot with those appearing in them, and to soliciting feedback and correction, a practice that he traced back to Robert Flaherty. During the screening Rouch was approached by a hunter from a nearby village, who asked that he make a similar film about the lion hunts practiced locally. In time, Rouch did.

The hunter in question was Tahirou Koro, a member of the Songhai cultural group, who lived near the town of Yatakala, at the crux of the borders separating Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. Here the Songhai, who are farmers, live in close and sometimes uneasy contact with another group, the Fulani, pastoralists who follow their herds across large swaths of West Africa. Tahirou belongs to a kind of specialized interface class, the Gow, who are hunters, broadly, and it is their duty to monitor the relationship between the lions that live in the area and the Fulani cattle. The lions are typically respectful of healthy cattle; but if they fall out of line then the Fulani have the right to request assistance from the Gow, and this is what triggers a formal hunt.

This hunt is treated by Rouch as an event walled off from normal life, and as an epic, a quest that spans years and that compels hard sacrifices from the hunters. To this effect, the film begins with a circle of Songhai children, drawn up around a fire, ready to hear a story; the film is the story of the hunt. The storyteller is Rouch—which is a common thread in his ethnographic films leading up to The Lion Hunters. Rouch had an aesthetic objection to subtitles—he called them “mutilations”—and since he often had difficulty in recording synchronous sound (and since many of his subjects were non-francophone), he would record a post-production narration explaining the scenarios onscreen, even occasionally speaking out the dialogue between various characters. Thus in The Lion Hunters Rouch’s voice is a constant presence, giving context, offering explanations, describing the motivations and emotional states of the film’s subjects; and this is the first challenge for the viewer to address—how much do we trust this voice? How convinced are we that Rouch has accurately understood the experiences captured on film, and that he has accurately conveyed them to us? In the making of The Lion Hunters Rouch took care to establish that he was speaking not for himself, but as a kind of mouthpiece for the hunters portrayed. Because he filmed over a period of years, he was able to make several rough cuts, sharing these with the group of eight hunters whom he follows throughout the film and receiving their guidance; all eight are included in the film’s brief opening credits. We are meant to trust him as a representative of the community, a kind of vessel of self-explanation.

However, we are also meant explicitly not to trust Rouch. As he freely admitted, the chronology of the film is scrambled. The overall arc is accurate: the hunters are pursuing a band of livestock-killing lions, and the film’s bête noir, a large male lion referred to (wonderfully) as The American, is real enough, and is hunted a second time in a sequel that Rouch filmed. But within that arc events are compressed, footage is freely used for effect, and things are often shown out of order. In the most dramatic example, the killing of a large female lion, The American’s consort, is portrayed as the climax of the film, and the event that brings the hunt to a successful close. However, this lion was in fact killed earlier than some of the others, and the hunt continued on past her death. Again, Rouch was completely transparent about this when discussing the film, and it concerned him not at all. He was not interested in the middling truths of plot and chronology, but with the large truth of human experience, and was more than willing to manipulate the former in order to get his audience close to the latter, to meld us with the action of the film (interestingly enough, Rouch hated the Disney True Life Adventure series of documentaries, which were often accused of just this sort of narrative manipulation—he considered them inauthentic, and this perhaps gives a view as to what authenticity meant to him). The viewer of course will have to put his or her own weight on the middling and the large; and I do not mean to imply that one is obviously more important than the other.

The small truths Rouch did value, and one of The Lion Hunter’s greatest pleasures is the dense texture of closely-observed detail that makes up so much of its length, a patient examination of the material and social technology that the Gow bring to bear against their foe. Their strategy is to first trap the lions, in jawed bear traps, and then shoot them with poisoned arrows; and to put this strategy into action requires the marshaling of complex and diverse resources. The traps themselves are made in Accra (and we are giving a brief scene of their forging, highlife playing in the background), and the poison is derived from trees that only grow far to the south. The seeds of these trees, once gathered, must be intensively processed to make the poison useable; then arrow heads must be forged with a special spiraling design to hold the poison. The hunters must also navigate the social and spiritual aspects of the hunt—at one point the hunt grows cold and they consult with a seer, who tells them that an outsider is spoiling the hunt, because he shares The American’s birthdate and knows that if The American is killed he will die. The hunt is put on hold; only when this spoiler dies of other causes can it resume. Later, one of the hunters, Isiaka, is presented with his first chance to kill a lion; narrating, Rouch tells us that if he takes this opportunity, it is likely that in the coming year he will lose a son.

Three lions are shown killed in the course of the film, and these scenes have an uncanny power. We are absolutely aware of the apartness of these episodes, their great elevation against the run of common life. For the lions, it is of course tragedy. Rouch focuses his camera on their eyes, enormous and bright, then dull in death. These deaths are another of the film’s difficulties; they are not staged for us, but we also can’t go back and untangle all of the various threads leading up to them—we can’t know for certain to what extent this particular hunt may have been motivated by the camera. Perhaps not at all—for the hunters killing a lion is both glorifying and lucrative (we learn that the lions’ hearts in particular go for a high price, to rich men looking to buy puissance). At the same time it is a fraught action. They sympathize with the lions—we see one calm a lion before it is killed, and another gently rubbing a lion’s back as it dies—and they worry about the supernatural consequences of their actions, and take measures to expel and chase off the lions’ potentially vengeful spirits. All of these tensions, knotting together in the brief scenes of the killings, are intense, almost sickening. Rouch had an abiding interest in the surreal, and this is an unwhimisical surrealism achieved through force.

When The Lion Hunters came out Rouch was already admired in France, particularly by New Wave figures such as Jean-Luc Godard. To these Rouch was somewhat akin to the Italian Neo-Realists, operating in the terrain as-is, with nothing but a handheld camera and a scabrous commitment to honesty. He worked, famously, with a Bell and Howell Filmo 70—bought at a flea market—that could only shoot for around thirty seconds at a time; thus his films had to be quick and rhythmic, and this mode as well anticipated the stylistic concerns of the New Wave (he actually acquired a camera capable of shooting longer takes halfway through filming The Lion Hunters, but continued to cut relatively rapidly so as to blend this footage with what he had shot earlier). Finally, Rouch’s films often have an element of ludic coolness; they have private concerns, a hidden inner-life—all stances of extreme interest to a Godard or a Claude Chabrol.

While The Lion Hunters was wildly acclaimed in turn, it also marked a shift in Rouch’s interests.1 Going forward his ethnographic works would tend to be much shorter, more straightforward and observational; he would focus much of his energy on developing his ideas of ethnofiction, and on directing full-on fictional features. The film itself ends elegiacally, returning to the circle of listening children to inform them that when they grow up these times of present-day legend will be past, and no one will hunt the lion with bow and arrow anymore. In fact this is wrong: hunters today pay tens of thousands of dollars for the right. Yet we understand completely what Rouch means, and can judge for ourselves whether or not he was, in a deeper sense, correct.

1. As discussed in Paul Henley’s excellent The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema.

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