Acivil 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.

Rouch was born in 1917, in Paris. His Catalan father, a meteorologist, had sailed with Jean-Baptiste Charcot’s 1908 expedition to the Antarctic, on the Pourquoi Pas? His mother was a normande artist, whose brother had also been part of Charcot’s team. Both parents were connected to the avant-garde, and Rouch was alluding as much to Breton’s mantra as to the explorer’s ship when he said, ‘I consider myself a child of the Pourquoi Pas?’ His early years were peripatetic ones, travelling with the family—his father now a French naval attaché—to ports in Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, the Balkans, Greece and Germany, before moving to Paris in the early 1930s for his baccalaureate. Rouch plunged into the cultural life of the city, hearing Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong play their first set there, catching new theatre by Cocteau and Anouilh. He discovered, more or less simultaneously, the work of the Surrealists and the African landscapes and Dogon masks that Marcel Griaule had brought back from his 1931 Dakar-to-Djibouti expedition for the new Musée de l’Homme.

If Rouch’s interest in these objects sprang in part from the cult of the artefact developed in Cubist and Surrealist circles, passionate about l’art nègre, it was also informed by lectures from Griaule and Germaine Dieterlan, early ethnographic footage screened at the Cinémathèque and articles in Minotaure that insisted on their scientific value. For Rouch, Surrealism and anthropology, art and science, were never separate worlds. Nor did he ever lose his early sense of shock and fascination with the two. As he put it: ‘For me, de Chirico’s paintings are connected with the Dogon landscape’.footnote1 The first films he saw were Nanook of the North and Robin Hood, footnote2 but as a student he was a regular at Henri Langlois’s early screenings, watching Buñuel’s Un Chien andalou, Vertov’s Enthusiasm and André Breton’s favourite film, Peter Ibbetson, in a basement on the Champs-Elysées even before the Cinémathèque was founded—as well as Chaplin, Renoir, Stroheim, Clair.footnote3

Rouch initially chose to train, though, not as an artist or anthropologist but as an engineer, enrolling at the Écoles des Ponts et Chaussées in 1937. He would later apply the rigorous disciplines of this formation—practical tasks informed by imaginative mathematical understanding—to his anthropology. Making his first inventory of the Songhay gods for his doctoral thesis in Niger, Rouch would recall the way his teacher Albert Coquot had slowly initiated the students into the apparently irrational principle of the resistance of materials to successive stresses: through precise analysis, the strangeness would slowly disappear. As an engineer, he would later explain, he had learnt that ‘everything has already been invented’.footnote4

In 1941, disillusioned by the ease with which his country had folded in the wake of Nazi invasion, and well aware of the difficulties of living in occupied France, Rouch enlisted as a civil engineer and was posted to the French West African territory of Niger. Legend has it that he left Paris with nothing in his bag but a copy of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Spirit and Michel Leiris’s L’Afrique fantôme.footnote5 Rouch’s first encounter with Africa was thus as an ‘empire-builder’—of roads and bridges—and structured by the rapidly deteriorating colonial relationship. He quickly understood the barbarity of the situation, finding the colonists ‘more Vichyssois than the Parisians’. A labour force of some twenty-thousand Africans toiled without tools or machinery, ‘mak[ing] bridges like Romans, just cutting stones’. Over them stood the ‘mad masters’ so savagely mimicked in one of his greatest films: the site bosses who routinely exploited their unconditional authority over the huge workforce. Rouch was soon deemed too close to his African colleagues—he was intrigued by the possession rituals he witnessed in the local villages—and expelled from Niger by the governor for being ‘a Gaullist’. Rouch was eventually relocated to the Senegal River, now under Allied occupation, and spent two years there, training with explosives to prepare for the crossing of the Rhine.footnote6 One of his first film scripts was written amid the ruins of Berlin, and published by Cocteau in Fontaine in 1945.

Back in Paris, Rouch approached Marcel Griaule—who would take the first chair in Ethnology at the Sorbonne in 1946—to supervise his doctoral thesis, the seminal ethnographic study of the Songhay. French anthropology had originally established itself as a colonial discipline par excellence under Maurice Delafosse, who taught the ethnographic method—concrete ways to ‘know’ Africa—to officers passing through the École Coloniale at the beginning of the twentieth century. By contrast Marcel Mauss, a nephew of Durkheim and teacher at the Collège de France from 1931, encouraged a documentary approach to fieldwork which involved amassing as complete a corpus as possible of another culture’s literature, artefacts and tools, with the aim of developing ‘total social facts’. In part a recognition of the universality of post-World War I chaos, Mauss provided his students not so much with a méthode as with ‘an enormous checklist’. His dictum, ‘You will film all techniques’, was another aspect of this undifferentiated quest. As a result, the Malinowskian ethnographies or Boasian theory that characterize early British and us anthropology did not develop a distinctive French counterpart. Mauss’s students (among them Charles LeCoeur and Leiris, as well as Griaule) would pursue radically different paths.footnote7

Although never questioning the virtues of colonial rule in Africa, Griaule possessed an acute and often ironic awareness of his own position, at a time when it was conventional anthropological practice to erase or legitimate one’s presence.footnote8 A culture ‘could be revealed only by a kind of violence: the ethnographer must keep the pressure’ on his informants.footnote9 He would confront lies, manipulation, secrets—and, using tactics of interrogation, must ‘parade across his face as pretty a collection of masks as that possessed by any museum’.footnote10 This was a rare acknowledgment of the intrusive nature of fieldwork, a recognition that the element of theatricality required on the ethnographer’s part to ‘provoke the truth’ necessarily reproduced itself in those he was supposedly observing.