CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS OF JEAN ROUCH, CONTROVERSIAL FRENCH FILMMAKER & ANTHROPOLOGIST
BY Margaretta wa Gacheru (posted april 26, 2017)
Two events have been scheduled this week at Alliance Francaise to commemorate the centenary since the birth of the renowned French filmmaker and anthropologist, Jean Rouch.
Controversial in his lifetime for filming traditional cultural rituals and ceremonies of indigenous Africans, mainly from Francophone West Africa, Rouch was a pioneer and trailblazer who is now considered a man ahead of his time. For while some colonial powers were busy smashing indigenous African cultures, calling them bestial, heathen and primitive, only to be “civilized” by their being made over into Christians, Rouch recognized the value of African culture including their values, practices, cosmologies and traditions.
Rouch was considered radical in his time. Nonetheless, he spearheaded a whole cinematic movement that took the Western world by storm. Called ‘cinema verite’, his style of filmmaking may be seen as an early form of ‘reality programming’. However, unlike reality TV, Rouch wanted to understand African peoples within their own cultural context. And because he was an academic, a cultural anthropologist and ethnographer as well as a filmmaker, his cinema was meant to serve as a scholarly form of research. He aimed to document aspects of a people’s culture which he recognized as dynamic, ever-changing and ephemeral.
The Rouch film that was shown this past Wednesday at Alliance Francaise is one of the Frenchman’s most controversial. Entitled ‘The Mad Masters’ (Les Maitres Fous’), the film documents a specific ceremony practiced by a cult from Ghana known as the Hauke. Rouch managed to gain the trust of the Hauke to such an extent that he was able to film cult followers who were put into a trance-like state where they became “possessed” by the spirits of their colonial officers.
That same night, Rouch’s film was contrasted with a contemporary ethnographic documentary entitled ‘Lukumbe’ (or ‘Knife’ in Bukusu) made by the Kenyan filmmaker, Dennis Machio. Subsequently, there was a discussion between Machio and the Deputy Director of the French Institutefor Research on Africa, Chloe Josse Durand. They explored the similarities and differences between ethnographic films, one by Rouch from the 20th century, the other by Machio from the 21st century.
Tonight, Rouch’s centenary celebrations will extend into a musical realm when two musicians from Mozambique will perform a concert called ‘A Million Things’. Its starting point the cinematic work of Rouch who died in 2004 in Niger, having spent more than 60 years making films in Africa.