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The Groundbreaking Ethnography of Jean Rouch

MUBI Special

Ethnography has a long affair with cinema, from Robert Flaherty’s seminal Nanook of the North (1922) to the experimental Leviathan (2012), and one of its most important practitioners, influencing the likes of Werner Herzog and the French New Wave, is director Jean Rouch. At first arriving as a colonialist in Niger from France, Rouch in due time abandoned his post and challenged this identity and its associated gaze by immersing himself further into local communities and creating celebratory, inclusive films composed from daily life. Over the course of 60 years spent in various parts of Africa, his erudite cinema dissolved all notions of fiction and non-fiction into one frame to irrevocably express the various landscapes, peoples, and traditions to the rest of the world.

The Punishment

Jean Rouch France, 1962

Concluding our Jean Rouch series is this lively portrait of a young woman navigating the constant advances of men on the streets of Paris. An incisive look at what it means to be a woman in public spaces, The Punishment is realized with a colorful and, sadly, all too accurate sense of realism.

Little by Little

Jean Rouch France, 1970

We continue our retrospective of newly restored ethnographies by the trailblazing Jean Rouch with a film that characteristically upends your expectations for what a normal documentary should do. Here his Nigerian protagonists reverse the filmmaking perspective, exploring the peculiarities of France!


Jean Rouch France, 1967

This is a masterpiece of director Jean Rouch’s “ethofictions,” films that influentially blurred the line between researched documentaries and improvisational fictions. Collaborating with his actors to shape their stories, this is a deeply observational yet brilliantly playful saga of migration.

The Lion Hunters

Jean Rouch France, 1966

Set on the Niger-Mali border, Rouch’s The Lion Hunters focuses on sub-Saharan hunters and the many nuances of their craft while they prepare for and embark upon an expedition. A virtuous document of a bygone tradition, Rouch once again honors and expresses a culture not yet equipped with cinema.

Jean Rouch: The Adventurous Filmmaker

Laurent Védrine, Laurent Pellé France, 2017

Our Jean Rouch season continues, this time with a portrait of the man himself. Composed of interviews with past collaborators and subjects this doc puts cinema’s innovator of ethnography in front of the camera’s gaze as his restless artistic project receives both celebration and confrontation.

The Human Pyramid

Jean Rouch France, 1961

A true masterpiece, Jean Rouch’s utterly unique and boundary-breaking film cross-blends reality with fiction to explore the nature of race relations in the Ivory Coast. Deeply collaborating with his participants, Rouch’s influence on the French New Wave can be seen in this energetic, youthful film.

Moi, un noir

Jean Rouch Cote d'Ivoire, 1958

Before Godard could make his first jump cut in Breathless, Jean Rouch led the way with this freeform jaunt with Nigerian immigrants as they depart from home. A landmark experiment in collaboration, the subjects claim part control of their representation with an incredible, improvised voiceover.

Mammy Water

Jean Rouch France, 1953

The fishermen of the Gulf of Guinea live by an array of communal traditions in the name of being in the good graces of the titular Mammy Water, a mythic oceanic deity. The great observer Jean Rouch captures the joy, togetherness, and wisdom of the Ghanian people in but 18 spry minutes. Essential.

The Mad Masters

Jean Rouch France, 1957

We’re thrilled to present a series of restorations of one of cinema’s most innovative documentarians, Jean Rouch. An ethnographic filmmaking pioneer, Rouch boldly collaborated with his subjects in the creative process, creating playful works that blended perspectives. A favorite of Werner Herzog!

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