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New Left Review 27, May-June 2004


Extraordinary career of Jean Rouch—surrealist, engineer, anthropologist, cinéaste—synthesizing the gains of Vertov and Flaherty, to take his camera inside the taboo. In Abidjan and Paris, ethnographical films appropriated by their subjects as springboard for the New Wave.

EMILIE BICKERTON

THE CAMERA POSSESSED

Jean Rouch, Ethnographic Cinéaste: 1917–2004

A civil engineer, and leading authority on Dogon rituals; an Africanist, who turned his ethnographer’s camera on 1960s Paris; a second-generation Surrealist, and inspiration for Truffaut’s audacious final scene in Les Quatre cents coups. Jean Rouch’s long career as an anthropologist and film-maker reads like one of Apollinaire’s poèmes conversations, sentences and verses fused from snatches overheard at café tables: separate people, events, moments in time, brought together in ways that seem to suggest a new sort of life. Rouch appears in many of his own films—there were over a hundred of them—as a mischief-making bon viveur, always ready to poke fun. André Breton and Luis Buñuel attended his early screenings—Buñuel declaring himself, after Les Maîtres fous, ‘fascinated and afraid’.A pioneering figure in the history of visual ethnography, he was also a profound influence on the Cahiers du cinéma directors, a living link between metropolitan Surrealism, African liberation and the Nouvelle vague. His thesis La Religion et la magie Songhay, published in 1960, remains a vital resource. Rouch was attending a film festival in Niger in February this year when his car crashed, killing him and injuring his wife, Jocelyne Lamothe, the actor Damouré Zika, and film-maker Moustapha Alassane. He had been active and involved to the last, giving screenings of his films from Iran to Mozambique—making his loss, at the age of 86, terribly premature.

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