Jean Rouch

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

Jean Rouch
Jean Rouch - film frame from Paroles, interviews with Jean Rouch
Jean Rouch

(1917-05-31)31 May 1917
Died18 February 2004(2004-02-18) (aged 86)
Cause of deathAutomobile accident
OccupationFilmmaker, anthropologist
Years active1947–2002
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)
  • Geneviève Rouch (sister)

He is considered to be one of the founders of cinéma vérité in France. Rouch's practice as a filmmaker, for over sixty years in Africa, was characterized by the idea of shared anthropology.[1][2] 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: ethnofiction. He was hailed by the French New Wave filmmakers as one of their own. His seminal film Me a Black (Moi, un noir) pioneered the technique of jump cut popularized by Jean-Luc Godard.

Commenting Rouch's work, someone "in charge of research for the Musée de l'Homme" in Paris, Godard questioned: “Is there a better definition for a filmmaker?".[3][4][5][6]


Jean Rouch began his long association with African subjects in 1941, when he arrived in Niamey as a French colonial hydrology engineer to supervise a construction project in Niger.

There he met Damouré Zika, the son of a Songhai traditional healer and fisherman, near the town of Ayorou, on the Niger River.[7] After ten Sorko workers were killed by a lightning strike in a construction depot which Rouch supervised, Zika's grandmother, a famous possession medium and spiritual advisor, presided over a ritual for men, which Rouch later claimed sparked his desire to make ethnographic film.[8] He became interested in Zarma and Songhai ethnology. He filmed the rituals and ceremonies of the Songhai people. During his work in Niger, Jean Rouch documented such events and sent his work to Marcel Griaule, his teacher, who encouraged him to continue his work with the Songhai and go deeper into his studies.

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.[9]

Damouré Zika and Rouch became friends. In 1950, Rouch started to use Zika as the central character of his films, registering the traditions, culture, and ecology of the people of the Niger River valley. The first film in which Zika appeared was Bataille sur le grand fleuve (1950–52), portraying the life, ceremonies and hunting of Sorko fishermen. Rouch spent four months travelling with Sorko fishermen in a traditional pirogue.[10][11]

His early films – such as Hippopotamus Hunt (Chasse à l'Hippopotame, 1946), Cliff Cemetery (Cimetière dans la Falaise, 1951), The Rain Makers (Les Hommes Qui la Pluie, 1951) – were traditional, narrated reports, but he gradually became an innovative influence.[12]

Rouch made his first films in Niger: Au pays des mages noirs (1947), Initiation à la danse des possédés (1948) and Les magicians de Wanzarbé (1949), all of which documented the spirit possession rituals of the Songhai, Zarma, and Sorko, peoples living along the Niger River. Jean Rouch is generally considered the father of Nigerien cinema.[13] 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.

During the 1950s, Rouch began to produce longer ethnographic films. In 1954 he filmed Damouré Zika in Jaguar, as a young Songhai man traveling for work to the Gold Coast. Three men dramatized their real-life roles in the film, and went on to become one of the first three actors of Nigerien cinema. Filmed as a silent ethnographic piece, Zika helped re-edit the film into a feature-length movie which stood somewhere between documentary and fiction (docufiction), and provided dialogue 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 co-writing 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).

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

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 the Kino-Pravda newsreels of Dziga Vertov. 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.

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

In her 2017 essay "How the Art World, and Art Schools, Are Ripe for Sexual Abuse", contemporary artist Coco Fusco details an early encounter with Rouch: "I was sexually accosted by the renowned ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch, who is credited with having invented a better way to look at Africans."[14]

Main films

  • 1947: Au pays des mages noirs (In the Land of the Black Magi)
  • 1949: Initiation à la danse des possédés (Initiation into Possession Dance)
  • 1949: La Circoncision (The Circumcision)
  • 1950: Cimetière dans la falaise
  • 1951: Bataille sur le grand fleuve (Battle on the Great River)
  • 1953: Les Fils de l'eau
  • 1954: Mammy Water [15]
  • 1954: Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters) [16]
  • 1957: Baby Ghana
  • 1958: Moi, un noir (Treichville) [I, a Black (Treichville)][17]
  • 1961: La pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid) [18]
  • 1961: Chronique d'un été (Paris 1960) (Chronicle of a Summer) [19] — co-directed with Edgar Morin
  • 1964: La punition, ou les Mauvaises rencontres [Punishment, or: Bad Encounters] [18]
  • 1964: Gare du Nord (segment of Paris vu par — aka: Six in Paris)
  • 1965: La chasse au lion à l'arc [Lion Hunting with Bow and Arrow] (aka The Lion Hunters) [20]
  • 1966: Sigui année zero
  • 1966: Les veuves de 15 ans (The 15-Year-Old Widows)
  • 1967: Sigui: l'enclume de Yougo
  • 1967: Jaguar [21]
  • 1968: Sigui 1968: Les danseurs de Tyogou
  • 1969: Sigui 1969: La caverne de Bongo
  • 1969: Petit à Petit [22] [the title translates in English to "Little by Little"; in the film "Petit à Petit" is the name of an import-export company in Niamey, Niger]
  • 1970: Sigui 1970: Les clameurs d'Amani
  • 1971: Sigui 1971: La dune d'Idyeli
  • 1971: Tourou et Bitti, les tambours d'avant (Tourou and Bitti: The Drums of the Past)
  • 1972: Sigui 1972: Les pagnes de lame
  • 1973: Sigui 1973: L'auvent de la circonsion
  • 1974: Cocorico M. Poulet
  • 1976: Babatu
  • 1977: Ciné-portrait de Margaret Mead
  • 1977: Makwayela (1977)
  • 1979: Bougo, les funérailles du vieil Anaï
  • 1984: Dionysos
  • 1986: " Folie Ordinaire d'une fille de Cham " co-directed with Philippe Constantini avec Jenny Alpha et Sylvie Laporte
  • 1990: Liberté, égalité, fraternité et puis après (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity—And Then What?)
  • 2002: Le rêve plus fort que la mort co-directed with Bernard Surugue


  • Rouch, Jean. Ciné-Ethnography, edited and translated by Steven Feld. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
  • Rouch, Jean. La Religion et la Magie Songhay. Presses Universitaires de France, 1960. 2nd revised edition published by Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1989.


  1. Jean Rouch is an inspiration for the project… though at the epicentre of auteur culture he saw his film-making practice as a collaborative venture, a ‘shared anthropology’ as he called it – note by Mandy Rose (2010)
  2. Anthropological Film, Adventures with Jean Rouch – article by Philo Bregstein at DER, 2005
  3. Cahiers du Cinéma, 94 (April 1959)
  4. Jean Rouch at the Comité du film etnhographique
  5. Quotes on Jean Rouch at Googreads
  6. Jean Rouch and D. W. Griffith – article by Richard Brody at The New Yorker
  7. Damouré Zika - collaborator with Jean Rouch on more than 80 ethnographic films, article by Ronald Bergan, The Guardian, 21 April 2009
  8. Damouré, secret bien gardé, at Le Courrier (Switzerland), 11 August 2007
  9. Jean Rouch, an Ethnologist And Filmmaker, Dies at 86 – article by Alan Riding at The NY Times, Feb. 20, 2004
  10. Niger mourns film and radio star, BBC News, 7 April 2009
  11. Bataille sur le grand fleuve, hommage à Jean Rouch, France-Diplomatie, 2008
  12. Barnouw,Erik. 1993. "Documentary A History of the Non-fiction Film. 2nd Edition. Oxford University Press.
  13. Jean Rouch (1917–2004) Archived 4 March 2010 at the Wayback Machine, L'Homme, 171–172 July–December 2004, Online 24 mars 2005. Consulted 7 April 2009
  14. Fusco, Coco (14 October 2017). "Hyperallergic". Retrieved 14 March 2018.
  15. "Icarus Films: Mammy Water". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  16. "Icarus Films: The Mad Masters". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  17. "Icarus Films: Moi, Un Noir". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  18. "Icarus Films: Eight Films by Jean Rouch". Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  19. "Chronicle of a Summer". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  20. "Icarus Films: Human Pyramid, The". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  21. "Icarus Films: Jaguar". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  22. "Icarus Films: Little By Little". Retrieved 28 January 2018.


Further reading

  • Adams, John W. Jean Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams. American Anthropologist 80:4. December 1978.
  • Beidelman, Thomas O. Review of Jaguar. American Anthropologist 76:3. September 1974.
  • Bruni, Barbara, Jean Rouch: Cinéma-vérité, Chronicle of a Summer and The Human Pyramid, Senses of Cinema', March 2002
  • Costa, Ricardo, The Other Side of the Mirror: Jean Rouch and the Other – article (2000/17) and Jean Rouch in reverse (2017), both by Ricardo Costa
  • Deleuze, Gilles – NOTES ON : Cinema 2 – the time-image, Athlone Press London,1989.
  • Fieschi, Jean-André, Jean Rouch, Cinema, A Critical Dictionary, Richard Roud (editor), Vol. 2, pp. 901–909. Secker & Warburg and Viking Press, 1980.
  • Georgakas, Dan and Udayan Gupta, Judy Janda. The Politics of Visual Anthropology: An Interview with Jean Rouch. Cineaste 8:4. 1978.
  • Henley, Paul. The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • Muller, Jean Claude. Review of Les Maîtres fous, American Anthropologist 73:1471–1473. 1971.
  • Papanicolaou, Catherine. Petit à petit de Jean Rouch : montages et remontages, Cinema & Cie IX, Fall (13):19-27. 2009.
  • Portis, Irene – Jean Rouch: The Semiotics of Ethnographic Film Irene Portis – Winner Cambridge, MA August 7, 2011
  • Rothman, William (editor). Jean Rouch : a celebration of life and film (Transatlantique 8). Fasano, Italy: Schena Editore, 2007.
  • Stoller, Paul. The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  • Tailor & Francis. Disruptive forms: the cinema of Jean Rouch at Tailor & Francis online
  • Vigo, Julian. Power, Knowledge and Discourse: Turning the Ethnographic Gaze around in Rouch's Chronique d’un été. Visual Sociology, 1995.
  • Ricard, Alain "Jean Rouch: Some Personal Memories" In Research in African Literatures, 35, Fall (3), 6–7. 2004. [10.1353/ral.2004.0072]

See also

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