Jean Rouch

Jean Rouch
Born Jean Rouch
(1917-05-31)31 May 1917
Paris , France
Died 18 February 2004(2004-02-18) (aged 86)
Birni-N'Konni , Niger
Cause of death Automobile Accident
Nationality French
Occupation Filmmaker , Anthropologist
Years active 1947-2002
Notable work
  • Moi, un noir (I, a Negro)
  • Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer)
  • La Chasse au lion à l'arc (Hunting the Lion with Bow and Arrow)
  • Petit à petit (Little by Little)
Spouse(s) Joselyne Lamothe (? - 18 February 2004)
  • Jules Rouch
  • Luce Gain
  • Geneviève Rouch (sister)

Jean Rouch (French: [ʁuʃ]; 31 May 1917, Paris – 18 February 2004, Niger) was a French filmmaker and anthropologist.

He is considered to be one of the founders of cinéma-vérité in France, which shared the aesthetics of the direct cinema spearheaded by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles. Rouch's practice as a filmmaker for over sixty years in Africa, was characterized by the idea of shared anthropology. Influenced by his discovery of surrealism in his early twenties, many of his films blur the line between fiction and documentary, creating a new style of ethnofiction. He was also hailed by the French New Wave as one of theirs. His seminal film Me a Black (Moi, un noir) pioneered the technique of jump cut popularized by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard said of Rouch in the Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema) n°94 April 1959, "In charge of research for the Musée de l'Homme (French, "Museum of Man") Is there a better definition for a filmmaker?" Along his career, Rouch was no stranger to controversy.


He began his long association with African subjects in 1941 after working as civil engineer supervising a construction project in Niger. During his work in Niger Jean Rouch came to experience the rituals and ceremonies of the Songhay. He documented the events and sent his work to his teacher Marcel Griaule, who encouraged Rouch to continue his work with the Songhay and go even deeper into his studies. However, shortly afterwards he returned to France to participate in the Resistance. After the war, he did a brief stint as a journalist with Agence France-Presse before returning to Africa where he became an influential anthropologist and sometimes controversial filmmaker.

Jean Rouch is generally considered the father of Nigerien cinema.[1] Despite arriving as a colonialist in 1941, Rouch remained in Niger after independence, and mentored a generation of Nigerien filmmakers and actors, including Damouré Zika and Oumarou Ganda.

Arriving in Niamey as a French colonial hydrology engineer in 1941, Rouch became interested in Zarma and Songhai ethnology and began to film local people and their rituals. In the 1940s he met Damouré Zika the son of a Songhai/Sorko traditional healer and fisherman, near the town of Ayorou on the Niger River. After ten Sorko workers in a construction depot which Rouch supervised were killed by a lightning strike, Zika's grandmother, a famous possession medium and spiritual advisor, presided over a ritual for the men, which Rouch later claimed sparked his desire to make ethnographic film.[2]

By 1950, Rouch had made the first films set in Niger with au pays des mages noirs (1947), l'initiation à la danse des possédés (1948) and Les magiciens de Wanzarbé (1949), all of which documented the spirit possession rituals of the Songhai, Zarma, and Sorko peoples living along the Niger river.[1]

Damouré Zika and Rouch became friends, and Rouch began in 1950 to use Zika as the focus of his films demonstrating the traditions, culture, and ecology of the people of the Niger River valley. The first of 150 in which Zika appeared was "Bataille sur le grand fleuve" (1950–52), portraying the lives, ceremonies and hunting of Sorko fishermen. Rouch spent four months traveling with Sorko fishermen in a traditional Pirogue filming the piece.[3][4]

During the 1950s, Rouch began to produce longer, narrative films. In 1954 he filmed Damouré Zika in "Jaguar", as a young Songhai man traveling for work to the Gold Coast.[5] Filmed as a silent ethnographic piece, Zika helped re-edit the film into a feature-length movie which stood somewhere between documentary and fiction, and provided dialog and commentary for a 1969 release. In 1957 Rouch directed in Côte d'Ivoire "Moi un noir" with the young Nigerien filmmaker Oumarou Ganda, who had recently returned from French military service in Indochina. Ganda went on to become the first great Nigerien film director and actor. By the early 1970s, Rouch, with cast, crew, and cowriting from his Nigerien collaborators, was producing full length dramatic films in Niger, such as Petit à petit ("Little by Little" : 1971) and Cocorico Monsieur Poulet ("Cocka-doodle-doo Mr. Chicken": 1974).[1]

Still, many of the ethnographic films produced in the colonial era by Jean Rouch and others were rejected by African film makers because in their view they distorted African realities.[1]

He is considered as one of the pioneers of Nouvelle Vague, of visual anthropology and the father of ethnofiction. Rouch's films mostly belonged to the cinéma-vérité school – a term that Edgar Morin used in a 1960 France-Observateur article referring to Dziga Vertov's Kinopravda. His best known film, one of the central works of the Nouvelle Vague, is Chronique d'un été (1961) which he filmed with sociologist Edgar Morin and in which he portrays the social life of contemporary France. Throughout his career, he used his camera to report on life in Africa. Over the course of five decades, he made almost 120 films.

With Jean-Michel Arnold he founded the international documentary film festival, the Cinéma du Réel at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1978.[6]

He died in a car accident in February 2004, 16 kilometres from the town of Birni-N'Konni, Niger.

Main films



  1. 1 2 3 4 Alfred Adler and Michel Cartry, Jean Rouch (1917–2004), L'Homme, 171–172 July–December 2004, [Online 24 mars 2005]. Consulted 7 April 2009.
  2. Damouré, secret bien gardé. Le Courrier (Switzerland) 11 August 2007
  3. Niger mourns film and radio star. BBC News 7 April 2009.
  4. Bataille sur le grand fleuve. Hommage à Jean Rouch, France-Diplomatie (2008).
  5. Three men dramatized their real life roles in the film, and went on to become three of Nigerien cinema's fist actors. See: Jean Rouch. Notes on migrations into the Gold Coast. (First report of the mission carried out in the Gold Coast from March to December 1954) Tr. into English by P.E.O. and J.B. Heigham. Accra, (1954) OCLC 11092127 and Jean Rouch, Steven Feld. Ciné-ethnography. University of Minnesota Press, (2003) ISBN 0-8166-4104-8 pp. 352–353
  6. French Government site


Further reading

Further reading

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