Thick Descriptions: Jean Rouch's Ethno-Fictions

The ethnographic films of Jean Rouch made the French director a radical innovator in how cinema can describe other cultures.
Michael Sicinski

MUBI's retrospective, The Groundbreaking Ethnography of Jean Rouch, is showing December 2018 – February 2019 in the United States.

Jean Rouch

When asked by Robert Gardner, on his TV interview program “Screening Room,” whether he primarily considered himself a filmmaker or an anthropologist, Jean Rouch gave a customarily playful answer. “Anthropologists consider me as a filmmaker. When I’m with filmmakers they consider me as an anthropologist . . . you see I’m a Gemini by birth, which means I’m in two places [at] the same time.”1 To understand how Rouch could stand so completely between chairs, one should have a bit of background in the state of ethnographic film before Rouch, and for that matter, a bit of context for his impact on the larger world of cinema. 

Ethnography has, of course, been primarily a written form, an adjunct discipline to anthropology, its humanistic or literary side, if you will. Nevertheless, ethnographers, like anthropologists generally, aspired to scientific specificity and exactitude. This was particularly the case in the 19th century, as the discipline strove to assert its legitimacy. Over time, the racist underpinnings of the discipline—its imbrication with projects of colonialism or even eugenics—exposed the inevitably subjective, if not ideological, elements that haunted the margins of allegedly objective ethnography.

Some argued that the practice should be eliminated altogether. However, the problem remained: how to learn about cultures radically different from our own? The apparent objectivity of the movie camera might be a start, but it was soon evident that filmmaking was no less subjective a practice than ethnographic writing. One need only consider the contemporary controversies over the work of Robert Flaherty, whose Nanook of the North (1922) is felt by some to impose a primitivism and a “noble savage” narrative onto his Inuit subjects. (Some Inuit viewers, by contrast, have reclaimed Nanook, seeing it as blatantly fictitious comedy.)

If ethnography of any sort was to be preserved, its practitioners would have to seriously grapple with the intellectual critiques of its methods, which came from post-colonial scholarship, especially, but also post-structuralism more generally, since the claims to objectivity clashed with the inner workings of what we now understood to be texts, not hard evidence. One of the major theorists of the “new ethnography,” Clifford Geertz, opened the door to explicit textualization of the ethnographic project. He wrote:

"Anthropological writings are themselves interpretations, and second and third order ones to boot. (By definition, only a 'native' makes first order ones; it’s his culture.) They are, thus, fictions; fictions, in the sense that they are 'something made,' 'something fashioned'—the original meaning of fictiō—not that they are false, unfactual, or merely 'as if' thought experiments."2 

In light of the inevitably textual character of ethnographic writing, Geertz proposed “thick description,” an attempted ekphrasis of the cultural event at hand that avoided broad generalizations and really described what the researcher was seeing and hearing. Theories emerge from the concretion of these smaller events. 

This leads us to an understanding of Rouch and his particular innovations. Again, not to use Nanook as a “bad object,” but it serves as a good point of comparison. Flaherty lived among the Inuit for a year prior to filming, then planned out a film that would have certain scenes and acts that would provide a wide-ranging explanation of Inuit culture. Compare this with a classic Rouch film like The Mad Masters (1955). 

The Mad Masters is a masterwork of “thick description.” For one thing, it immerses us in a very particular ritual that takes place among a specific religious sect in Accra, the Hauka. In it, Rouch shows us a possession ritual from beginning to end, with a brief epilogue that shows the participants in their everyday lives—away from the “madness” of possession. Rouch’s voiceover narration is noteworthy not only for its flat, nonjudgmental tone, but for the way he describes events from inside the ritual. (“The Captain would like to slaughter the dog, but finally Boukelakiri, the quiet priest, cuts the dog’s throat in order to avoid accidents.”) It is a subtle shift in perspective and tense, but it speaks to Rouch’s descriptive posture. He is trying to articulate the ritual as its participants experience it, moment by moment, as a series of decisions and sensations. 

This does not mean that Rouch avoids historical context. He is not a phenomenologist, bracketing out all outside knowledge. The Mad Masters relies on understanding how the Hauka religion is one that mimics the structure of British colonial society through trance, how the spirits of early colonial figures inhabit the Hauka participants. This situation is not difficult to interpret. The state of religious trance permits anti-colonial transgression, a form of Bakhtinian carnival wherein lowly civil servants and Army privates can mock those who wield power over them. But Rouch lets all of this remain implicit. 

There is an element of performance to the possession ritual, and this is something that Rouch will expand upon and exploit in his later films. One of the fundamental principles of ethnographic filmmaking is that the filmmaker has a responsibility to show the rushes, if not the finished work, to his or her subjects. But as Rouch discovered in Niger, Ghana, and throughout Western Africa in the 1950s and 60s, the “natives” had a working knowledge of cinema from their travels to the cities for work. They were sophisticated viewers.  

Partly as a result of his partnership with Nigerien Damoré Zika, who would become Rouch’s frequent collaborator, sometime assistant director and sound recordist, the use of acting and staging expanded in Rouch’s films, resulting in feature-length “ethnofictions.” The participants in Rouch’s films wanted to act, and as one sees in Moi, un Noir (1958), their relationship to commercial cinema is such that they take on nicknames like “Edward G. Robinson,” “Eddie Constantine,” and “Dorothy Lamour.” Where traditional ethnography would work to disguise this performative element, Rouch textualized it, enfolding it into the films explicitly. (After all, the subjects’ relationship to the movies is another fact of their existence, as worthy of display as any other.)  

And so, in Jaguar (1968), Moi, un Noir, and The Human Pyramid (1961), Rouch and his subject / performers work together to produce an outline of the film and its contents, from which the eventual film will be improvised. As Paul Stoller writes, “These films are stories based on laboriously researched and carefully analyzed ethnography. In this way Rouch uses creative license to ‘capture’ the texture of an event, the ethos of lived experience.”3 Rouch could produce films that revealed realities of life in West Africa because of the time he had spent there, his collaboration with natives of the region, and his willingness to follow digressions once filming had commenced.

This brings us back to cinema more generally, and Rouch’s position within its history. When one watches films like Jaguar or The Lion Hunters (1966), one is taken not just with their thick description of cultural events, their ability to “capture the texture” of things. (This is accomplished, partly, through fiction, since Rouch’s camera can land up in the right place at all times precisely by having practices and rituals “staged” for the purposes of the film itself.) One also notes that, as fictions, Rouch’s films have a very different character than even the Hollywood films that so charmed Zika and his African compatriots.

There is a sense of rambling time, of storytelling as a digressive, sometimes looping set of events, with an unpredictable structure and shape. Rouch’s films adopt the form of the griot, the African storyteller, and as such they tend to be more focused on the richness of details and the broader cosmological implications of events than on causal narrative motion. This aspect of the ethnofictions opened possibilities for filmmakers who saw them at the time, in particular the French New Wave, many of whom saw Rouch as a major influence. In 1968, Jacques Rivette called Rouch “the engine of all French cinema for ten years.” One can certainly see an influence on Rivette’s own discursive, meandering style. But even in early Godard, Truffaut, and Varda, one detects that the revolutionary decision to take the camera into the streets might have been inspired in part by Rouch’s ethnography.

Today, Rouch is less well known outside of France than he should be, but in the world of ethnographic cinema he is something of an intellectual fact, a radical innovator whose influence changed everything. We can see this in the ethnographic work that followed Rouch and took his project further, work like that of Robert Gardner, Timothy Asch, Trinh T. Minh-ha, and most obviously the filmmakers associated with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Project (which developed from Gardner’s own teaching). But one could argue that a certain strain in the avant-garde, what I have elsewhere referred to as the non-argumentative cinema of fact, has its foundation in Rouch: Mark LaPore, Peter Hutton, Robert Fenz, Ute Aurand, Kevin Jerome Everson, and others.

In his vital essay, "The Camera and Man," Rouch claims that his own practice has its roots in the earliest cinematic gestures: Muybridge, Marey, and the Lumières. He explains his filmmaking from a historical, anthropological, and technical point of view. Apart from the lucidity of its prose, what is most impressive about the essay is just how contemporary it seems. In many respects, it seems we are still only beginning to catch up with Jean Rouch.

1. Quoted in Jamie Berthe, “Disruptive Forms: the cinema of Jean Rouch.” Studies in French Cinema, Vol. 18, No. 3, 248-251.

2. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973, p. 15.

3. Paul Stoller, The Cinematic Griot. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, 143.

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