JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Eight Films by Jean Rouch (Director/Writer: Jean Rouch) - May 30, 2018

Eight Films by Jean Rouch

4.5 4.5

Just as important and insightful as ever

Thanks to the magic of digital remastering and forward-thinking houses that are as intent on offering new work as preserving past masterpieces, this collection of films (and a present-day commentary) provides those of us who were literally babes in arms when the first camera was turned on (1956) with a wonderful portrait of an auteur who¾much before his time¾realized the power of personal stories as the means to an oh-so-important end.


Mammy Water
(1956) 19 mins.

Putting your trust in the powers that were

The lives of fisherman (lovingly known as surf boys) in and around the Gulf of Guinea permits Rouch to dig deep and hard into the role of religion and belief when¾simultaneously¾the Queen Shama ends up dead and the fishermen’s nets are suddenly, “vide”.

Truly, the ancient proverb, “the sea is never dry” remains true, but the necessary rituals and bloody offerings (not for the faint of heart) to appease the deities must have their full sway before the ocean harvest can resume in earnest (curiously in 2018, the full-blown sails sporting a huge red cock on one canvas and a sinisterly looking black Swastika on another, provide double chills as to their provenance).

Most inspiring of all are the fearless, scantily attired seamen who have no qualms at all about bringing home the next harvest no matter how high the oceans swells.


The Mad Masters
(1956) 29 mins.

Succinct portrait of a very distant drummer

When those languishing in rural West Africa venture to Accra for the rumours of untold riches and a better life, only to find themselves scraping by for the most menial of work, Rouch does them one better by following these displaced men (and a few women) into a faraway enclave where a metaphorically constructed Governor’s Palace and sacrificial altar give rise to some brutal rites of passage for the “possessed/penitents” who are desperate for acceptance into a culture none of them really understand.

Much dancing, music and scattered gin provide momentary release from the frothing mouths, singed flesh and lapping up of blood from sacrificial “lambs” (in this case, dogs), but the irony/parody is extra rich in today’s world of fake news.


Moi un Noir
(1959) 74 mins.

Dream a little dream with we

In this feature, Rouch documents a week in the life of a half-dozen Nigerians who have come to Treichville (seedier quarter of Ivory Coast capital, Abidjan) to seek a better life and dream of moving into the ritzy Plateau section whose nearby opulence mocks them daily.

To further stoke their hopes, American nicknames are adopted: from Edward G. Robinson (real-life Oumaru Ganda) through Dorothy Lamour (charmingly rendered by Mademoiselle Gambi) but the stark reality of struggling to make 20 francs a day as general labourers soon sets in. The Chicago of Africa is most certainly not the land of milk and honey.

Seen in 2018, the notions/issues of Islam and alcohol are as relevant then as now, as is the idea of relocating to a major urban centre bringing happiness and riches. Hearing the line, “We’re in a shit-hole” has an ugly connection with the current president of the free world…

Rouch combines his own narration (helped by Ganda) with the trials and tribulations of his engaging troupe. In its day, the frankness and honesty must have surprised some and caused others not to feel so alone in their efforts to move ahead in life.


The Human Pyramid
(1961) 94 mins.

This experiment works better if left to the imagination

Once more in Treichville¾particularly Abidjan in general¾Rouch’s self-proclaimed experiment brings together 10 students¾some black and poor; others white and well off¾under their own microscope. The filmmaker gives his charges carte blanche (ironic term) to improvise all of their scenes and dig deep into the thorny issues of racism, entitlement and superiority.

As before, many decades ahead of his time, this production feels like a reality show but overflows with even more lies and made-up situations than those currently looking for a bride or a fortune before millions of viewers very week.

Naturally, affairs of the heart and international politics spark most of the memorable debates, but the feeling of “of course this isn’t really true” is never far from the surface¾especially when the troupe is forced to deal with a tragedy whose roots go back to all of the themes being explored. The magic of poetry is artfully woven into the discussion: these very scripted moments stand head and shoulders above the “scenes”.

Best of show are the few moments of music and dance when the improvised words take a back seat to sound and movement. Perhaps a further experiment could be attempted to probe the seemingly unending situations of “Why can’t we all get along?” (cross-reference below) and see whether or not actions can speak louder than words.


The Lion Hunters
(1967) 81 mins.

Hunting lions in the Land of Nowhere

Shot in remote Africa near the Niger River over a number of years, this film is like time travelling to an era where those who lived by and on the land used bows and poisoned arrows to stalk and kill their prey. Sadly, traps were also employed, leaving the four-legged animals in brutal agony until found and put out of their misery. Naturally, making the poison and being a sharp shooter are occupations in the exclusive domain of the men; a caste system ranks hunters far ahead of mere herdsmen.

Most of the music is also provided by a kind of gourd instrument that¾similar to the hunt¾comes to artistic life with a bow. Towards the end, a trio of drums summons the villages largely naked boys to learn the story of the hunt¾dutifully acted out by the esteemed hunters, instilling future glory into the minds and hearts of very young minds who long for their first kill in the brush. Seen in 2018, it is fascinating to learn of a lifestyle that no longer exists: guns being far more efficient, whether wielded by the Indigenous population or by greedy poachers wreaking havoc on the continent’s eco system.


(1967) 93 mins.

An umbrella and a lance

Here is a chronicle of four young men from rural Niger variously making their way to the Gold Coast (Ghana) and experiencing life differently in Kumasi and Accra. Told largely in their own words, the screen is filled with all manner of creatures, people and places; told with an honesty that is compelling.

There is a marvellous sense of full circle as the friends pay for their trip by selling their possessions and upon returning (and going back to their vocations), give everything they’ve bought or found to family and friends. “All I need is an umbrella and a lance” we hear, but also realize their mature understanding that good health is the finest possession of all.

Along the route the notion of religion (Islam) versus politics (the CPP in Accra) gets a hearing but never threatens to turn the production into an ideological statement or battle. And like all good movies, the film ends with a proposal of marriage, vivacious drum-duelled music and energetic dancing that will bring a smile of contentment and satisfaction to all. If only this sort of lifestyle could find its way into more minds and hearts: what a different world it would be.


Little by Little
(1971) 96 mins.

Failing to cross the cultural divide

In his most fanciful film of the lot, Rouch steps out of the all-seeing narrator’s domain and lets his subjects speak for themselves (but most assuredly under the filmmaker’s particular guidance).

It’s a masterful, full-circle sequel to Jaguar. We meet the back-to-earth, penniless amigos now running a very successful import/export business: Little by Little. Business for Damouré, Lam and Illo is going so well that they decide to build a multi-storey HQ (complete with living quarters for all of Damouré’s 8 wives) before the competition does.

Then there is an extended sequence which might well be called, An African in Paris, as Damouré visits the City of Lights to learn its customs, mores and commercial strategies. For some, the send-ups might be lost or found too slow (from the “living dictionary” taxi driver to measuring the bodies of various passersby “to get my diploma”¾general conclusions: the torsos are fine but anything below the waist is not!¾through eating chickens that have not been properly bled). Going first class at every opportunity, a small fortune is being whittled away, prompting the home team to send along Lam to quell the cash hemorrhaging and bring his partner back.

After the pair purchase a one-of-a-kind vintage car, they conveniently come across the voluptuous Salvi in traffic (unabashed owner of My Bottom, where big bumps and small bumps are offered at, well, rock bottom rates¾all meanings appropriate).

Salvi’s amis, ostensibly a typist, is soon brought into the picture and the instantly enamoured men decide to bring both women back home: to work for the company, of course. (A French-Canadian “hobo” is also added to the troupe before heading back to Niger.)

Once there, yet another wedding scene fills the screen and will bring the notion of wet bar to a hilarious higher level.

After yet another honeymoon is over, there’s trouble in paradise: the locals (men and women) fail to take a shine to the stylish foreigners and the newcomers yearn for the excitement of the big city and a much more predictable wine supply.

The loss of the exotic trio fuels some rash decision-making, prompting the three entrepreneurs to, once again, abandon their wealth and “change civilization” by habituating straw huts and live off the land¾rather than by (at one time described as legal robbery) buying all manner of goods cheaply then selling them at extravagant prices: the very heart of good old-fashioned capitalism.

Bringing everything virtually back to square one, Rouch has left us with a production that speaks to many of the problems related to one culture forcing its ways, practices and values on another for “the good of all.” Yet again, he has hit many societal nails/ills directly on the head, but, collectively, the world seems in no hurry to alter its overriding materialism as proof of superiority anytime soon (er, hello there U.S. embassy in Jerusalem)¾much less, little by little.


The Punishment
(1964) 64 mins.

Let the punishment fit the crime

This three-act essay about Nadine (whose tardiness and forgetfulness for a high school philosophy class grants her a day of unexpected freedom) is a fascinating look at the hopes of a 17-year-old woman who longs to escape from the tedium of everyday life in Paris.

Along with his typical¾happily sparse in this instance¾narration, Rouch also makes good use of a half-dozen excerpts from Johann Christian Bach’s Quintet in F Major: viewers can decide for themselves whether the oboe or lead violin represent the suddenly “liberated” heroine.

At various times, Nadine flirts¾literally¾with the idea of abandoning Paris with a new-found love, escaping to Africa with a longtime friend in search of a high school, or moving on up with a wealthy scientist, even understanding that “there are waterproof partitions in society you can’t avoid.”

In the coda, a few unwelcome advances¾one same-sex to round out the offerings¾send this “free” day into the unhappy sunset¾“be careful what you wish for”¾even as the usual dullness of tomorrow will rear its ugly head.

Filmmaking as essay of the highest order, indeed.


Jean Rouch: The Adventurous Filmmaker
Laurent Védrine 2017) 55 mins.

None of the arches are the same

This heartfelt tribute to the filmmaker/enthnologist is well worth a look despite so many scenes repeated from the films above. JWR

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Director/Writer - Jean Rouch
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