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The work must go on

A Tribute to Jean Rouch
Paul Stoller
West Chester U

I first met Jean Rouch in the summer of 1976 in Niamey, the capital of the Republic of Niger, a place that he considered home, a place, where, after the tragic car accident that killed him at the age of 86, he now rests. I had arrived in Niger to begin gathering data for doctoral research on the religion of the Songhay people, the very people depicted in Jean Rouch’s books and in his celebrated films.

When we met several times that summer for coffee, he was always open and informal. In fact, he went out of his way to help someone who had just begun to walk the path of ethnography. I was very pleasantly surprised that such an important scholar would take so much time with a neophyte. During one of our encounters Jean Rouch said something that, though deceptively simple, had a profound impact on me.

“I’m happy that you are here,” he said. “It’s important that the work goes on.” With that he slapped me on the back and sent me on my way.

Jean Rouch was without question among the foremost documentary filmmakers in the world. What distinguished Jean Rouch’s films from those of other documentarians was the blending of artful narrative with scientifically grounded ethnography. This aesthetic fusion was magnificently realized in Rouch’s films of “ethno-fiction.”

Jean Rouch’s path to the felicitous fusion of art and science was a circuitous one. After receiving his baccalaureate, Rouch studied civil engineering at the prestigious École des Ponts and Chausées. The German occupation of France disrupted his studies, but he managed to take an elective course in ethnography from Marcel Griaule. The war, however, did not keep Jean Rouch from completing his engineering studies in 1941. After graduation, he managed to find work building roads in the Colony of Niger. He spent the next year supervising the construction of roads in the Nigerien countryside.

In July 1942 Rouch received a telegram from a labor boss that Dongo, the deity of thunder among the Songhay people, had killed ten of his workers. Wondering about the “real” identity of this murderer, Rouch assembled a group of his Nigerien associates and asked them about Dongo. They suggested that Dongo was, indeed, the “devil of thunder” and that the tragic fate of the workers was the result of their non-Islamic “devil worship.” One of the Nigeriens, Damoré Zika, had a different take on Dongo and “devil worship.” He told Rouch that his grandmother, Kalia, a priestess of a Songhay spirit possession troupe, could protect the workers from the ravages of Dongo. Accompanied by Damoré Zika and Kalia, Rouch witnessed his first spirit possession ceremony. Thus began a lifetime of work and reflection on spirit possession in Africa and elsewhere. Accompanied by Damoré Zika, Rouch attended other ceremonies. He wrote to Marcel Griaule, who then occupied the chair in ethnology at the Sorbonne, for advice on how to proceed on how to collect more data. With Griaule’s encouragement, Rouch began to document aspects of pre-Islamic Songhay religious life: sorcery, sacrifice and spirit possession.

After the war Rouch, Jean Sauvy and Pierre Ponty became explorers. Following the path of the 18th century Scottish explorer, Mungo Park, they decided to descend the Niger River from its obscure headwaters in Guinea to its extensive delta in Nigeria. They bought dugout canoes and, with some degree of difficulty, managed to complete the voyage between 1946 and 1947. During their travels, Rouch, a novice filmmaker, shot footage of a hippopotamus hunt near Ayrou in what is today the Republic of Niger. Due to a broken tripod, Rouch had to handhold his camera. He decided to use the same technique to film spirit possession ceremonies in and around Ayrou. This early footage was transformed into two films, Au pays des mages noirs (1946-47) and La chasse à l’hippopatame (1947).

As a provisional researcher for the Centre National de la Recherche Scientique (CNRS), Rouch embarked on doctoral research in Niger and Mali in 1947-48, gathering oral histories about the Songhay past. He also continued to film Songhay ritual life. In 1951 Rouch returned to Niger and Mali once again and shot films on Songhay as well as Dogon ceremonial life. In his early films, Rouch’s aim was to document social and religious life. In Les magiciens de Wanzerbé (1948) he presents a documentary of social life in the famed village of Songhay sorcerers, Wanzerbé. We see children playing as well as a sorcerer gathering materials central to his “science”—nothing extraordinary. And yet, in a sorcerer dance sequence, Rouch documents something not yet known to us—a dancer coughing up a sisiri, a metal chain that usually rests in the stomach of a few select sorcerers. How can a person live with a metal chain in his or her stomach? By indirectly posing this question in the film, Rouch compels us to wonder about “magical” possibilities.

In subsequent films, made during the 1950s and 1960s, Jean Rouch used his camera to provoke philosophical and political debate about the deep roots of French racism. These films of “ethno-fiction” included Jaguar (1957-67), Les maitres fous (1955), Moi, un noir (1958) and La pyramid humaine (1959). In the 1960s and 1970s Rouch produced the provocative Chronique d’un été (1960), the wonderfully humorous Petit à petit (1969) as well as a series of unforgettable films (1967-74) that documented the seven-year cycle of colorful and elaborate Dogon sigui rituals that occur every 60 years. These masterworks are Jean Rouch’s greatest legacy to anthropology and the cinema.

In all of his films, Rouch collaborated significantly with African friends and colleagues. Through this active collaboration, which involved all aspects of shooting and production, Jean Rouch used the camera to participate fully in the lives of the people he filmed as well as to provoke them and, eventually, the viewers into experiencing new dimensions of sociocultural experience. Many of the films of this period cut to the flesh and blood of European colonialism, compelling us to reflect on our latent racism, our repressed sexuality, and the taken-for-granted assumptions of our intellectual heritage. They also highlight the significance of substantive collaboration, a research tactic that Rouch called “anthropologie partagée,” in the construction of scholarly knowledge. Through these provocatively complex films, Jean Rouch unveiled how relations of power shape our dreams, thoughts and actions.

Jean Rouch never stopped making films. He pioneered the technique of cinéma vérité, which became the hallmark of documentary filmmaking in the latter part of the 20th century, and which had a profound impact on such notable filmmakers as Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut. His films fused West African mythology to European realities. Throughout his life, Jean Rouch continued to test the limits of his imagination and we are much richer for it.

In March of 2000, Jean Rouch, then 82 years old, traveled to New York University to be the central participant in Rouch 2000, a commemoration of his profound contributions to anthropology and ethnographic film. There were projections of his renowned films on the Songhay of Niger and the Dogon of Mali. Following the projections, he participated in panel discussions. Between screenings he made himself available to film and anthropology students, who, like me a generation earlier, were impressed by his openness, his accessibility and his unyielding commitment to the next generation of ethnographers and filmmakers.

During a break in the Rouch 2000 program, I proposed that Jean Rouch and Francoise Foucault, his associate at the Musée de l’Homme’s Committee on Ethnographic Film, accompany me to Harlem, where I had been conducting research on West African immigrant life in New York City. After a long taxi ride, we stood at the portal of the Malcolm Shabazz Harlem market, a place where many West African traders, including traders from Niger, had been conducting their business.

A short thin man wearing glasses approached us and said hello in Hausa and in Songhay, the two major languages of Niger. Jean Rouch beamed with delight at the sound of these Nigerien words in central Harlem. We walked into the open-air market, where scores of African traders greeted Jean Rouch with the respect that West Africans typically accord to elders. In the market’s courtyard, we sat down at a table. As often happens in West Africa, someone immediately brought us coffee. Someone else offered lunch, Senegalese rice and fish stew. Another trader recognized the French filmmaker who had spent so much of his life in West Africa and word rapidly spread through the market that Jean Rouch was in Harlem. Groups of West Africans from Niger, Mali, and Senegal came over to our table to pay their respects.

“I’ve seen many of your films,” one man said. “I really liked Moi, un noir and Jaguar.”

One Songhay man from Niger said: “You’ve always been one of us. You will always be one of us. For us, you are a griot, a storyteller.”

The traders asked Jean Rouch about his experiences in Niger. The warmth of the conversation soon dissipated the chill in the air. We joked, laughed and told stories of Africa and of Africa in New York City.

“This reminds me of the old days in Ghana,” Jean Rouch said, “when traders made so much from so little. This is Jaguar in New York City.” By now the effects of the blustery wind were beginning to fatigue the 82 year-old filmmaker and anthropologist. We decided to return to the Rouch 2000 festival. Just before leaving the market, however, Jean Rouch grabbed my arm, looked around the market and said: “This would make such a wonderful film. Someone should do it. The work must go on.”

Jean Rouch’s greatest contribution was to have created a body of work in which the limits of the ethnographic are the limits of the imagination. In Jean Rouch’s universe ethnographers participated fully in the lives of their others. Dreams became films; films became dreams. Feeling was fused with thought and action. Fusing poetry and science, Jean Rouch showed us the path of wise ancestors and guided us into a wondrous world where we not only encounter others, but also encounter ourselves. As the West African trader in New York City said, Jean Rouch was ultimately a griot who told the story of African social life so well that his words and images have enabled the young to uncover their past and discover their future.

Adieu Jean. The work will go on.

Paul Stoller is professor of Anthropology at West Chester University. He received the 2002 Robert B Textor and Family Award for Excellence in Anticipatory Anthropology. He is the author of The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch and most recently, Stranger in the Village of the Sick: A Memoir of Cancer, Sorcery and Healing.