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Glossary of Rouchian Terms

CINE-TRANCE: Rouch was profoundly influenced by the Russian filmmaker of the 1920's, Dziga Vertov. Vertov created his own theory of film in response to what he believed the camera was capable of and, in doing so, invented a sort of anatomy of film: the "ciné-eye" (the camera), the "ciné-ear" (the radio), the ciné-truth (the unique art/truth which could emerge only through film). For Vertov, the reality that the camera was able to perceive was categorically different from that of its human counterpart.

Rouch picked up on Vertov's language and used the term ciné-trance to describe the creative state which the observer-filmmaker was able to reach in certain moments of filming. Rouch describes the ciné-trance: "For me then, the only way to film is to walk with the camera, taking it where it is most effective and improvising another type of ballet with it... it is a matter of training, mastering reflexes as would a gymnast. Thus instead of using the zoom, the cameraman-director can really get into the subject. Leading or following a dancer, priest, or craftsman, he is no longer himself, but a mechanical eye accompanied by an electronic ear. It is this strange state of transformation that takes place in the filmmaker that I have called, analogously to possession phenomena, 'ciné-trance'" (Ciné-Ethnography, 39).

CINEMA VERITE: (literal translation: film-truth) This term was originally coined by Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov in the 1920s (in Russian: kinopravda).  It is now used to describe the documentary filmmaking style that emerged in the 1960's, in large part thanks to technical innovations that freed the camera from its cumbersome accouterments of the past.  The cinéma-vérité movement of the 1960s distinguished itself from earlier approaches to documentary film through its use of handheld cameras and synchronous sound, its formal innovation and its sense of spontaneity.

While many people have mistaken the label as a claim to pure objectivity or positivist truths, for Rouch the term was meant to evoke to Vertov’s desire to capture the complexity and multiplicity of reality through the particularity of cinema.   He writes: "For me, however, kinopravda... designates not 'pure truth' but the particular truth of the recorded images and sounds - a filmic truth" (Ciné-Ethnography, 99). And, in an interview with Enrico Fulchignoni, Rouch states: "With the ciné-eye and the ciné-ear, we recorded in sound and image a ciné-vérité, Vertov's kinopravda. This does not mean the cinema of truth, but the truth of cinema."(Ciné-Ethnography, 167)

For Rouch cinéma-vérité offered the now liberated filmmaker a chance to create a particular kind of cinematic truth, to capture a wholly new vision of ‘reality.’  But because of the potential for misinterpretation - the 'truth' of cinéma-vérité was often assumed to represent a claim about the film’s level of objectivity - Rouch eventually came to call his style cinéma direct (for more on this, see Steven Feld’s introduction to Ciné-Ethnography, 12-16).

DIRECT CINEMA: Direct Cinema is another name for the documentary filmmaking movement of the 1960's that was fueled by the technological advances of the time period (see also, cinéma-vérité).   Rouch’s use of the term varies markedly, however, from the way Direct Cinema came to be understood in North America. 

Rouch used the term cinéma direct to free himself from the implicit claim to truth in the French term, cinéma-vérité.  During the 1960's, technological advances like lightweight cameras and synchronous sound allowed filmmakers to record events in an entirely novel way.  For Rouch this meant that the contact between filmmaker and his/her subject would be portrayed in a new, more intimate manner; it meant the opportunity to get closer to his subjects; to be in more ‘direct’ contact with the people he was filming; to bring together the objective and the subjective aspects of documentary filmmaking.

But, whereas Rouch sought to have emergent technologies implicate the filmmaker in new ways, American documentary filmmakers were using them as a way to ‘disappear.’  Direct Cinema in the States is known for its "fly on the wall" approach and its attempt to document reality while minimizing the impact of the filmmaker's presence and remaining as unobtrusive as possible.

ETHNO-FICTION: Rouch did not believe in a strict delineation between fiction and non-fiction films. He writes, "For me, as an ethnographer and filmmaker, there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction"(Ciné-Ethnography, 185). Recognizing that cinematic objectivity was illusory and that a camera was bound to change the kind of interactions he could have with the world around him, he saw nothing contradictory in the idea of employing narrative techniques in his ethnographic films. This practice has come to be known as ethno-fiction.

Indeed, long before anthropology took its ‘literary turn,’ Rouch was tapping into the imaginative resources offered by fiction in order to engage his subjects and challenge his audiences in novel ways.  In films like Jaguar (1955) and Moi, un noir (1958), for example, the loosely constructed narratives allowed the ‘characters’ in his films to act out scenes that were true to the feel of their lives, offering viewers glimpses into a ‘reality’ that is at once palpable and ambiguous.  As Paul Stoller has written, "In this way Rouch uses creative license to 'capture' the texture of an event, the ethos of lived experience" (The Cinematic Griot, 143).

Rouch also used narrative techniques to impose some sort of structure on the huge amounts of information contained in his images. If we take The Lion Hunters (1965), for example, we see that Rouch organized the film into a narrative structure much like a bedtime story for children, which helps to preserve the mystic quality of the hunt for the viewer.

SHARED ANTHROPOLOGY: (also referred to as reflexive anthropology) Rouch's films partake in the practice of shared anthropology in various ways. First, having been influenced by the technique of Robert Flaherty, Rouch believed that feedback was a necessary ingredient in filmmaking. He would often screen the films he made to the individuals who featured in them and would make changes to the films based on their comments. This was an important practice for Rouch because he believed in the necessity of collaboration in order to come to a just portrait of his subjects. He states: "This type of participatory research, as idealistic as it may seem, appears to me to be the only morally and scientifically feasible anthropological attitude today" (Ciné-Ethnography, 44).

Second, Rouch was interested in the way his presence as a documentary filmmaker changed the events he was witnessing.  As opposed to shying away from the idea that his presence added another dimension to the events in question, Rouch attempted to understand what his role as observer/filmmaker was.  This is clearly articulated in his essay "Vicissitudes of the Self," where he explores his role within his films and examines how, as a filmmaker, he functioned as a catalyst in certain possession ceremonies.  He writes, "It is a strange kind of choreography, which, if inspired, makes the cameraman and soundman no longer invisible but participants in the ongoing event" (Ciné-Ethnography, 99).

Lastly, Rouch attempted to share his filmmaking knowledge with the people who featured in his films. As a result, Rouch trained several Africans who would go on to become filmmakers (Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye, to name just a couple).  This kind of exchange seemed natural to Rouch who hoped that, as a result, Africans would be able to find a cinematic voice of their own. "One solution I propose to [cultural ownership] is to train the people with whom you work to be filmmakers. I don't think it's a complete answer, but it has merits in that it leaves the people with something rather than just taking from them" (Ciné-Ethnography, 221).

Through these methods, Rouch was able - perhaps more than any other ethnographic filmmaker - to create a cinema that was based on collaboration and participatory methods. It would take several generations for the rest of the anthropological world to catch up with him and it is likely that it will take several more before anyone is able to match the scope of his undertaking.