The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema by Paul Henley
Article first published online: 3 FEB 2011
© 2011 by the American Anthropological Association
Volume 26, Issue 1, pages 149–155, February 2011
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How to Cite
KARL, B. (2011), The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema by Paul Henley. Cultural Anthropology, 26: 149–155. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01085.x
- Issue published online: 3 FEB 2011
- Article first published online: 3 FEB 2011
The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema . . Chicago : University of Chicago Press , 2010 , 536 pages .
Exuberant, extemporaneous, determined, playful, and far-flung in his trajectories both as a filmmaker and as an anthropologist, Jean Rouch is one of those figures whose work can be maddeningly elusive to categorize in terms of practice. Paul Henley's substantial new examination of what he calls Rouch's “praxis” is far from the first book-length work devoted to Rouch and his work, but it manages well on many accounts while addressing much of the significance of Rouch's accomplishments.
Among those accomplishments include Rouch's use of nonactors in his ethnofictive films, his highlighting of ordinary individuals as individuals in his ethnographic filmwork more generally, and the commitment by Rouch to a high degree of improvisation, often in collaboration with those many individuals he recruited from the locales of his shooting. This latter attribute is part of a larger theme of his lifelong filmic project of trying to produce a kind of “shared anthropology,” which Henley appropriately stresses as one particularly significant achievement in both anthropological and filmic terms.
Less thoroughly examined in Henley's book, although mentioned in passing, is the idea of “reverse anthropology,” which for Rouch entailed the less-than-rigorous “study” of French society by some of his African collaborators reflected in his film Petit à Petit, as well as portions in the one-off experiment of Chronicle of a Summer with French Edgar Morin. Henley also touches on the issue of cinema as a representational medium for ethnographic work, although he does not dwell at any length on the failures of cinema in representing cultural others overall, nor ultimately on the limits of Rouch's attempts in this direction, where for instance, Rouch eschewed the use of subtitles almost entirely, and often apparently lacked fluency in local languages of his subjects.
Overall, Henley's volume is well organized, and it is quite thorough in investigating a number of topics. Besides its main narratives of how, when, where, of what and with whom Rouch made his various projects, two appendices offer a useful compilation describing all of Rouch's films, as well as a separate list of the films both by year and by theme. Although other volumes dealing with Rouch's work have included similar compendia (see, e.g., Steven Feld's 2002 edited collection of writings by and interviews with Rouch), Henley has taken advantage of these prior efforts, while also rescouring archives of Rouch's stored work to clarify much of the breadth of that oeuvre. Henley is also careful to state up front that he makes no claim to his list as comprehensive. In the main body of the text itself, he provides a marked contrast from other writings on Rouch by not focusing only on the most famous and major works by Rouch. Henley gives space for consideration of Rouch's unseen, seldom seen and undercommented-on film projects, and he puts each piece in relevant context with larger categories of Rouch's work historically, thematically, and methodologically.
One larger body of ethnographic work by Rouch that has been underdiscussed historically is his work on the Dogon, following the ethnographic attention long paid to the group by his thesis adviser, Marcel Griaule, as well as by Germaine Dieterlin, a later collaborator of Rouch. It is notable that Henley gives attention to Rouch's apparently ambivalent but still substantial involvement in a long-term project of documenting some of the extreme long-cycle ritual practices in the Dogon community (even going so far longitudinally as to plan for filmic documentation to follow in the generation after Rouch's own demise, given the extended gaps in the recurrence of those events among the Dogon). Henley's attention is noteworthy not simply in that Rouch's work among the Dogon represents a significant effort on the part of Rouch over an extended period of time that yielded a large amount of data, but also because the filmic results by many accounts were lacking in the qualities that so distinguished other ethnographic film work by Rouch.
As the subtitle of the book suggests, its emphasis is on film and the crafting of it above all else. Most of the book's biographical considerations are oriented toward how events and choices in Rouch's life affected that question of craft. Henley identifies early on a sort of avocational dyad that made up a formative part of Rouch's approach as a filmmaker. In keeping with this idea of craft, more attention is focused in the book on aspects of Rouch that follow the lines of his early vocation as an engineer than any of his tendencies as a filmmaker whose reference points were poetic. There does feel missing here some more sense of Rouch as an individual himself: although there is plenty of summary description of activities by Rouch, and some speculation on Rouch's motivations relating to particular works and his position in relation to various cultural formations and greater theoretical debates, there is next to no sense of Rouch's life choices after an early age, and, perhaps most tellingly, little sense of Rouch's own voice coming through, even in the handful of direct quotations offered in passing in Henley's text.
Henley does very quickly but effectively sketch some of the early background in Rouch's history as a young man that led to his eventual pursuit of both filmmaking and anthropology. Even more surprisingly effective, given the by-now many-well-rehearsed histories of that narrative from different sources already, is how Henley traces much nuance in the shifting positions of the Surrealist movement in the first half of the 20th century, and of its relation to early social scientific practice in France, along with its long-term impact for Rouch as an individual filmmaker. Perhaps most significantly as a marked achievement in studies of Rouch, Henley's awareness of and familiarity with filmmaking methods generally and historically provide solid foundations for considering the technical aspects in Rouch's filmmaking and its impact on the growth of his practice. There is something not just worthwhile but winning about providing this sort of long-term contextualization for the vagaries of Rouch's development in realms that are not only technical but ultimately aesthetic and methodological as well.
In noting one of the larger anthropological concerns of Rouch's time into which Rouch delved deeply both as an anthropologist and filmmaker, Henley points to Rouch's tracking of the large-scale migrations of rural Africans to various metropolises on the continent during the second half of the 1950s, as African nations moved toward political independence. Although he mentions the extensive series of ethnographic data that Rouch collected separately on this topic and some of the written published accounts that came out of that data, Henley's own focus is on the film documents that Rouch produced during this period. These were part of Rouch's deliberate attempt at providing a channel for Africans themselves to address more directly their own experiences in displacement. Rouch's decision to foreground these native perspectives was a bold and striking move for the time, and one that was not limited to a single gesture. At least three of Rouch's most well-known film works—Maîtres Fous, Jaguar, and Moi, Un Nègre—were fundamentally caught up with the question of what the impact of such movements entailed for rural-to-urban African migrants. Disappointingly, Henley provides next to no contextualizaion for another, related concern for anthropology: that colonial milieu that Rouch was working out of, and to whose former subjects he most often attended in his work, and that impelled much of the factors leading to accelerated migration, as well as the Hauka possession ritual, which Rouch so famously documented in Maîtres Fous.
It is in his chapter focused on the interpretation of Maîtres Fous, one of Rouch's most notable films, that Henley's ambition perhaps most noticeably exceeds the scope of what he attempts to address, setting up a bit of an argumentative straw man by overdeterminedly insisting on too exclusive interpretation of the possession ceremonies of the Hauka by Rouch and others. In the course of his own argument, Henley covers some interesting, worthwhile, and relevant theoretical points about the possible interpretation of such possession in colonial and postcolonial contexts, but in trying to critique the overstated claims of other interpreters, he seems to err himself in overgeneralizing those various arguments, and disallow the same conclusion he comes to himself: that is, that any singular read of the causes and significance of the Hauka ceremonies would be too narrow.
In terms of the more theoretical approaches to how possession in such contexts might be interpreted, there are some lacunae in his review. For instance, although he mentions Michael Taussig's elaborate theorizing on cross-cultural mimesis between Western culture and natives of distant lands, he only does so more secondarily, in passing, without delving into how that notion of mimesis purportedly works, not only from Taussig's perspective, but also that of Janice Boddy (whose extensive work on possession Henley references, but without deeply delving into), not to mention those of Homi Bhabha, Franz Fanon, and Fritz Kramer, all of whom have produced work pertaining in one way or another to manifestations of these issues in Africa.
Henley is fairly good about noting weaknesses and limits in many of Rouch's own more theoretical graspings. Rouch's late-blooming claim of the capacity to enter into a sort of “ciné-transe” is ultimately taken by Henley as metaphorical, rather than as a literal shift in consciousness by Rouch himself during his periods of filmmaking, which he proposed were somehow parallel to those changes in physiological and psychic state undergone by his ethnographic subjects during possession and trance. Henley does good work in presenting some of the competing claims and ultimate divergence among U.S. and French filmmakers’ use of the categories of “cinema verité” and “direct cinema,” although this is one area where he alludes a few too many times to an issue and some of its principle actors before giving sufficient detail on, in this case, what some of the very public resolution of these conceptual debates were among the filmmakers themselves. His unwavering focus on Rouch is made clear in this account since the information he provides on other filmmakers involved in this conversation, and on their work, are sketchy. Henley does offer a helpful concluding suggestion regarding this issue that perhaps differentiating between methodology and epistemology in Rouch's praxis might be productive for tracking the genealogy of his more intellectual claims.
Not shy about calling Rouch on some of Rouch's self-contradictions, he neither mythologizes nor overly berates but happily is not invested in making Rouch a sort of punching bag in pursuit of his failings. He does give a pass on Rouch's poor representation of differences across gender throughout his oeuvre, sidestepping also the question of how Rouch's uneven ethnographic research overall fed into his films. Even just a bit more attention to these lacks would yield some insight into the motivations and context of Rouch's times.
The appreciation by Rouch of earlier filmmakers Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov, and his continuing references to them as crucial visual anthropology precursors is examined well, in more than summary fashion. Regarding a later period, Henley also weaves in and out of an account of the cultural force of France's filmic Nouvelle Vague, giving a good sense of how Rouch was influential on several filmmakers considered part of that group (incl. notably Godard), without getting carried away with the significance of that influence. Henley points out that, however much methodological commonalities resulted between Rouch's practice and the Rouch-inspired wake of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and others, Rouch very much approached filmmaking from crucially different sets of creative interests. Although he does mention some of the incidental moments of effect on practice among French filmmakers of fiction, a more interesting focus could have examined the legacy of Rouch's work in its impact (or lack) on other ethnographic filmmakers that followed.
Looking again at Henley's address to a more cultural anthropological realm, he also provides substantial, ongoing references to West African cultural ethnographic information, highly relevant as Niger, and to a lesser degree, Ghana and the Ivory Coast were primary field areas for Rouch's fieldwork. This is pleasantly surprising given that the milieus of West Africa are self-avowedly not areas of specialty for Henley. Somewhat lacking, however, it is too often unclear what his own sources are for this information, because he usually eschews the citation of references in these sections. (In general, although Henley cites a good number and wide range of sources, the choices about what to cite and what not are overall unpredictable and sometimes erratic.)
Henley overstates a bit perhaps the still very significant achievement of Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch's and Edgar Morin's early experiment in cinema-verité as a seminal ethnographic document of reflexivity, when he suggests that it “anticipates by the best part of twenty years similar approaches by textual anthropology” (pp. 169–170). Although it is perhaps true that the most noted “classics” of reflexive ethnographic work such as Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco were published decades later, there were, nonetheless, other, much earlier ethnographic work, such as Jean Briggs’Never in Anger (1965), which integrated a substantial aspect of the author's presence as integral to the portrait of the “Others” she was trying to portray.
Some moments of repetitiveness that might have been edited out include the debates of cinema verité and direct cinema already alluded to, and the effects of developing sound equipment portability on Rouch's work, as well as the too-frequent recurrence of the sort of founding “Rosebud”-like story of Rouch's initial exposure to images of West Africa. Also repeated several times, and without the corroborating support of evidentiary details is Rouch's purportedly ambivalent relationship with his anthropological mentor Marcel Griaule, owing to the latter's wartime role as a Vichy collaborator.
In sum, Henley's book provides a detailed look at the film work particularly with which Rouch provided rare glimpses of his subjects’ lives, beliefs, and points of view. As lacking in rigor as the documents he produced sometimes prove themselves to be, they are nonetheless often brilliant for providing rare insight into what some humans at least culturally made of their world around them. “Experimental” is a word that is sometimes offered up too readily as one attribute or at least goal in contemporary social scientific practice. Rouch, for all his sometimes willful, sometimes-fuzzy approaches to his subjects, offers a rare example of a scholar of cultural activity who was also extraordinarily inventive and risk taking in his own representations of that activity of others.