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Migrations, déplacements

Jean Rouch and the Question of Mobility Notes on Petit à petit and the globalization of Afro-American religions

Jean Rouch et la question de la mobilité. Notes sur Petit à petit et la globalisation des religions afro-américaines
Roger Canals
p. 136-155


« Mouvement » et « mobilité » sont deux concepts clés de l’anthropologie sociale contemporaine. L’idée principale de cet article est que la question de la mobilité est, de façon explicite ou implicite, présente dans une grande partie de l’œuvre de Jean Rouch, dont elle constitue l’un des aspects les plus récurrents et novateurs. La relation entre Rouch et le mouvement peut être abordée à partir de trois perspectives intimement liées : le mouvement considéré comme objet de recherche, le mouvement défini comme une méthode de recherche et, finalement, le mouvement comme une sorte de « condition existentielle » inhérente au métier d’anthropologue. Dans la dernière partie de l’article, je mets en évidence comment l’héritage de Rouch peut être utilisé comme source d’inspiration pour réaliser des recherches en anthropologie visuelle sur la mobilité dans le monde contemporain et, plus concrètement, sur la globalisation des « religions afro-américaines ».

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1In 1971, Jean Rouch released Petit à petit, an unclassifiable and provocative film, based on the voyage of two Nigerien men to Paris, and of two Parisian women to Niger. It has an explicitly fictionalised plot, the result of a constant game of improvisation and self-representation. In this masterpiece, Rouch uses clever and sharp humour to tackle some of the main themes of anthropology – the relationship with the other, racial prejudice in both Africa and France, and the Nature-Culture dichotomy, among others – while strongly criticising the foundations of colonialism and the Western notion of “progress” defined solely as technical and industrial growth.

2One of the key ideas emerging from this film – which is also found in Rouch’s other works – is that of “movement”. I regard “movement” as an inspiring, and yet relatively unexplored, conceptual tool for analysing Rouch’s work and assessing its relevance in relation to contemporary debates, particularly about social anthropology and ethnographic cinema. In short, my position is that Rouch was an anthropologist of movement who strived incessantly to capture – mainly through cinema, but also in texts and photographs – the inherent historical and creative nature of social life. More specifically, I am convinced that Rouch’s decision to use cinema as a methodological device for his research was based, at least partially, on the capacity of cinema to capture life in movement or, more precisely, life as movement.

3Inspired by these ideas, this article has three different, yet closely interrelated, objectives. Firstly, I will analyse Rouch’s work, and Petit à petit in particular, in light of contemporary theoretical debates about movement and mobility. Secondly, I will suggest how certain ideas emerging from Petit à petit, which are also present in Rouch’s other works, can serve as a source of inspiration for the theoretical and ethnographic study of contemporary phenomena linked to migration and diaspora – two of the key concepts that appear regularly in the literature about human movement in the contemporary world. By way of example, I will use the globalization of the so-called “Afro-American religions” and, more specifically, of the cult of María Lionza (Venezuela), on which I have been working as a visual anthropologist for more than 10 years. Finally, in the last section of the article, I will briefly reveal how Petit à petit inspired me, as an ethnographic filmmaker, to make a film about the introduction of the cult of María Lionza to my native city of Barcelona.

4With regards to the latter, I believe that one of the best ways to pay homage to an author such as Rouch – who insisted on the need to experiment and continuously devote oneself to new personal and intellectual adventures – is by showing how his work is still an inevitable point of reference when undertaking new projects in ethnographic cinema.

5Having said this, before exploring the subject matter, it is important to briefly introduce the plot and the formal particularities of Petit à petit in order to provide essential information about the film to those readers who are not very familiar with it and to establish the foundations for the ensuing theoretical and methodological reflection.

Difference in motion

6Following the path marked by the film Jaguar (1954), but with a much more amusing tone, Petit à petit appears as a complex game of mirrors that revolves around the question of cultural distance and the possibility of “becoming other” (devenir autre). These themes are evoked by an explicitly fictionalised plot based on a series of trips between Africa and Europe. The film begins in a village in Niger, where the company Petit à petit plans to construct a multi-storey building that is higher than the one that a rival company is planning to build in Niamey. Faced with this challenge, Mr. Damouré, the company’s director, decides to go to Paris to see with his own eyes how multi-storey buildings are constructed and to hire architects capable of carrying out the project. In the French capital, Mr. Damouré discovers a way of life that is foreign to him: the rivers and trees are “imprisoned” behind walls or enclosures; the girls, dressed in mini-skirts, show their legs; the chickens are sold and then eaten without their throats being cut. The anthropometric inquiries that he conducts on Parisians, in the style of nineteenth-century biological anthropology, “reveal” that the inhabitants of the French capital are “malnourished”, rather “ugly” and, especially, that they lack “education” and thus civility. The postcards that he sends to Africa, relating his adventures, amaze his Nigerian colleagues who, thinking he has gone crazy, decide to send Lam, one of the office employees, to bring him back from Paris.

7However, from the moment he arrives in Europe, Lam realises that his boss’s descriptions were not false and that the Parisian lifestyle is the opposite of that with which he is familiar. After visiting the Alps, Italy and, allegedly, the United States, Damouré and Lam return to Niger with their building plans, accompanied by three other characters: a young Parisian secretary, a Senegalese prostitute who had been living in France for a long time, and a man from Quebec who Lam met on the quays of the Seine. After returning from Africa, things become more complicated: the three Westerners do not adapt to Nigerian life and decide to leave Africa. Lam and Damouré decide to abandon the construction of the building to return to live near the African river in a simple hut.

8Through the story of the meeting and separation of these five characters, this film is a marvellous example of reverse anthropology, in which Rouch evokes the question of confrontation with otherness and the possible passage between culturally different contexts. At the beginning of the film, the members of the Petit à petit company express their wish to become like “others”, that is, like the inhabitants of the city or, more generally, like those from the Western world. This project suggests that Africans might start to incorporate a notion of progress as technical development, as well as a competitive mindset usually associated with Western and capitalist society. Once in Paris, confronted by a way of life that is not theirs, and of which they now see both the virtues and the flaws, Damouré, and especially Lam, have the experience of otherness – a situation that repeats itself, but the other way around, when the three French speakers go to Niger. The character of the African woman living in Paris constitutes a particular case in this movement of exchange and contact with that which is foreign. She represents the culmination of the passage from one culture to another, a movement depicted as distressing, since she will remain an African woman in France (where she must prostitute herself to make a living) and a French woman in Africa (a continent whose traditions or way of life she no longer understands). Through this character, Rouch also shows how personal identity is variable, and at times multiple, and – without ignoring the political and racial element of the phenomenon – lays the path for an anthropology of migration that integrates a personal and emotional dimension.

  • 1 Paul Henley (2009: 217) suggests that this could be one of the reasons why Petit à petit is a film (...)

9From a technical perspective, one of the novel features of Petit à petit as compared to Jaguar is the use of synchronic sound. This was an added challenge for the characters who, in improvised scenes, had to concentrate not only on what they were doing in front of the camera, but also on the content of the dialogue.1 Thus, in strictly cinematographic terms, the final result of Petit à petit is certainly unbalanced. Even though some scenes are extremely clever, critical and entertaining – for example, when Damouré and Lam conduct an ethnography of Parisians – the final section of the film, set in Africa, is, from a scriptwriting perspective, somewhat forced and overacted. Whatever the case, Petit à petit is a ground-breaking and original experiment that continues to surprise us today because of its freshness and irreverence.

10For this article, it is worth noting that the idea of “movement” underpins, in one way or another, the entire film. Firstly, Petit à petit explores the consequences of the physical movement of the characters (and of the ethnographer) between Africa and Europe. Secondly, from a theoretical standpoint, the film is based on the notion of “progress” as the linear and teleological movement of history. Thirdly, in this film Rouch repeatedly suggests that personal identity is constantly in motion. Indeed, by travelling from one context to another, the different characters must face cultural otherness and, consequently, experience how their “epistemic categories” – that is, the way they understand the world – are profoundly affected.

11It is evident that the three senses of the term “movement” that I have just evoked, and which I will develop later, are quite different: the first is synonymous with “migration”, the second with “historicity”, and the third with “inner-self transformation”. Nonetheless, I find it interesting to conceive of them as a whole and as instances of the general idea of “movement”, for two main reasons. On the one hand, in this film the three senses are all connected and appear to be mutually dependent – that is, if the characters move from one place to another, thus changing their point of view, it is because they have in mind a certain sense of progress. On the other hand, all these concepts evoke the ideas of change, transformation and displacement that the general notion of “movement” encapsulates particularly well.

12Having said this, it is now worth exploring the meaning of “movement” and defining how it is addressed in contemporary anthropological debates.

Jean Rouch and the question of mobility

13Since the mid-1990s, “mobility” has been one of the key concepts of social anthropology. The appearance in 2010 of the magazine Mobilities – the plural is relevant, for it shows that there is not a unique pattern of being in motion – is a good example of this. This journal was introduced as a publication devoted to examining “the large-scale movements of people, objects, capital, and information across the world, as well as more local processes of daily transportation, movement through public and private space and the travel of material objects in everyday life”.2 It is a magazine concerned with what is known as the “mobility turn”3 and, more generally, with the so-called “new mobilities paradigm”. In the words of Urry and Sheller, “the mobilities paradigm is not simply an assertion of the novelty of mobility in the world today [...] nor is it simply a claim that nation-state sovereignty has been replaced by a single system of mobile power [...]. It is, rather, part of a theoretical project aimed at going beyond the imagery of terrains as spatially fixed geographical containers for social processes” (2006: 209).

14Interestingly, this “new” paradigm, which can be traced back to “the critique of the colonial modes of ordering and knowing that informed many twentieth-century human sciences” (Urry & Sheller 2006: 211), not only provides a theoretical framework, but also implies a methodology for empirical research. As such, the authors argue that, in order to tackle mobility (of people, images, objects or messages, among other things), methods must also be “on the move”. This means ceasing to understand “methods” in a positivistic way, that is, as a set of more or less fixed rules that have to be applied in one specific place. In accordance with their subject of inquiry, research techniques have to be in permanent change and have to include issues such as “memory” or “imagination” – which also happen to be two of Jean Rouch’s main concerns. An anthropologist of movement must also “move” with the people he or she is observing, thus undertaking a “mobile ethnography”. In methodological terms, this entails not only an ethnography of movement but rather an ethnography in movement.

15In a more recent contribution to this field, Salazar and Jayaram (2016) argue that “mobility” is a concept that entails much more than mere physical motion. They understand this term as an assemblage of movement, imaginaries and experiences with both self-ascribed and attributed meanings. In this sense, the study of mobility encompasses the fact of moving, the meaning given to that movement, and its social consequences both in “symbolic” and “material” terms. Thus, “mobility” shapes how people “imagine” or “conceive” the world, and it has clear consequences regarding the concrete and tangible conditions of existence – for instance, the global food market or the impact of money transfers between migratory communities. In general, this theoretical trend seeks to break with the conception, inherited from “sedentarist metaphysics” (Malkki 1992), of movement as an occasional, ephemeral and episodic state of the human condition. Thus, what this “new” paradigm proposes – which, one may argue, is not that new in many respects – is that we understand movement as a permanent state inherent to social life.

16As I mentioned above with respect to the film Petit à petit, the subject of mobility can be linked to Rouch in at least three different and complementary ways: movement as a research object, movement as a research method, and movement as an “existential condition” inherent to the work of the anthropologist. While these notions of mobility are rather heterogeneous, I propose to think of them as a whole and to include them in the same category of «movement» (at the risk of turning it into an overly vague and abstract concept). By doing so, it is possible to highlight the consubstantial relationship that Rouch, however implicitly, establishes between them in theoretical, methodological and narrative terms.

17Firstly, in Petit à petit Rouch approaches mobility as an object of anthropological research. This interest in human movement is particularly clear in the series of films that constitute the so-called “migration studies” (Henley 2009: 67-91) – that is, films like Moi, un noir (1957) or Jaguar (1954), in which the author explores the displacement of individuals between one cultural context and another. Beyond the originality of the subject matter, what is interesting about these works is the fact that Rouch shows how spatial displacement leads to a transformation in the subjects’ way of seeing the world. The movement that Rouch portrays in films like Moi, un noir is presented as a forced emigration in search of employment and a better life. Having said this, it is a movement imbued with agency, that is, with autonomy, initiative and creativity. Faced with a new situation as the result of their movement, the protagonists therefore invent, tell stories and struggle, sometimes from a position of happiness and sometimes from a position of some nostalgia and desperation.

18It is important to highlight that this movement of characters in Rouch’s work – both in a physical sense and in relation to identity, as I will show below – acquires a contextual dimension. Thus, in Rouch’s films, it is not only the characters that move, but the whole of West Africa. This is clear in the sequences in which Rouch shows the Africans’ appropriation of Western influences such as cinema, boxing or jazz music, or when he portrays ritual innovations invented by the Africans to understand modernity and, in some cases, to subvert it. In all these examples, the author underlines the historical dimension of the continent – a continent subject to perpetual change, to an incessant transformation that does not take the form of a simple acculturation, but rather of a constant process of creating meanings and strategies of resistance.

  • 4 The importance of the car is demonstrated in some of Rouch’s other films, such as Jaguar or Petit à (...)

19In addition to the migration studies, the subject of mobility re-emerges in some of Rouch’s other projects, such as La chasse au lion à l’arc (1965) or Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet (1974). Both films are presented as a journey, as an adventure, as research about movement – and, methodologically speaking, as an example of research in movement. The case of La chasse au lion à l’arc is particularly interesting because it is a film about a double journey. On the one hand, it depicts the complicated journey by car needed to arrive to where the Gow live – to “the country that is farther than far” (le pays qui est plus loin que loin) – and, on the other hand, it shows the Gow’s odyssey in crossing the desert in search of the lion that broke a pact with the people. Likewise, Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet reveals Rouch’s fascination with the idea of travel or transit, a term closely linked – not coincidentally – to possession rituals, another of the essential topics addressed by Rouch’s work. Regarding the subject of travelling, it is interesting to highlight that the car is one of the main characters of Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet4 – and in other films by the author, and particularly in Petit à petit. The car is one of the core themes of the so-called “mobility studies” and has been the subject of a vast body of ethnographic work in recent years. From a technical standpoint, and following in the footsteps of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film The man with the movie camera, Rouch not only filmed cars, but on many occasions filmed from cars, thereby converting the vehicle into a central narrative element in many of his works.

20In my opinion, Rouch’s interest in migration, adventure and travel can be explained by several factors. One of these is simply because it is an important anthropological topic, and one that was relatively unexplored at the time, at least as far as the African continent is concerned. Through the study of migration, Rouch could oppose essentialist, ahistorical and primitivist views of colonial Africa, instead portraying it as a dynamic and active continent made up of a network of relationships between people and ethnic groups. Having said this, the study of travel also gave Rouch great advantages from a strictly cinematographic perspective. In narrative terms, the subject of travel offers the advantage that, in itself, it forms an argumentative plotline. In other words, travel – like ritual – is presented as an “objective” plot that facilitates the construction of a linear story, thereby freeing the filmmaker from having to impose an external plot on the images during the editing process – a method that Rouch, despite his fascination for Vertov, rarely used. In short, Rouch adopted travel as one of his core themes because it enabled him to approach the topic of movement (understood mainly as human displacement, cultural change and personal innovation) through movement. Travel thus becomes a lens for exploring contemporary Africa and, from a broader perspective, social life in general. For Rouch, living means being in movement. Here “movement” implies much more than physical displacement: it points to the notion of “practice” – that is, to the idea of engaging in creative actions aimed at subverting reality, actions than cannot be reduced to any transcendental “cultural pattern” or static “thought system” (système de pensée). Movement entails a corporeal, material and, especially, relational aspect; it is a way of making history, of re-enacting the sense of the world in which we live.

Moving the camera/moving the self

21Indeed, Rouch understands mobility as one of the social facts of contemporary Africa and, more generally, as the driving force of social life. Still, as I have suggested, movement may also be defined as one of the foundations of Rouch’s research methodology, mainly because, for Rouch, anthropology is based on the anthropologist’s double movement: first towards a foreign context, and then returning to his or her “own” context to analyse it with fresh eyes, as if it were a foreign country. The to-ing and fro-ing Rouch performs between Africa and France throughout his life, of which Petit à petit is one of the clearest examples, reveals this idea of the anthropologist as a subject who is permanently “on the move”.

22Beyond these general methodological principles, movement is also one of the pillars of Rouch’s cinematographic technique. The most obvious example is perhaps Rouch’s decision to film without a tripod, with a view to achieving greater freedom of movement; another is the fascination he had for long takes (plan séquence). In fact, if Rouch did ultimately choose cinema over other expressive techniques at which he also excelled – such as photography or the written text (Colleyn 2009) – it is precisely because he saw in film the ability to capture life in movement, to understand and store the evolution of social life “in real time”.

23In short, Rouch is convinced that the force and creativity of the human experience cannot be reduced to the necessarily abstract dimension of the written word or the fixed image of photography. However, Rouch also seems to suggest that to capture this movement, the filmmaker-ethnographer must also film in movement – and this is where the relation with the cinematographic technique comes into play – moving around the space and thereby drawing visual itineraries within the social processes being studied. All the terms used by Rouch to refer to the act of filming (ritual, ballet, choreography) are related to the idea of movement.

24Lastly, the concept of “movement” can be employed to analyse Rouch’s vision of the “existential condition” of the anthropologist – and, by extension, of any individual or collective facing a process of cultural alterity. Indeed, Rouch believed that ethnographic experience entails a process of depersonalization or displacement of the self that is similar, for example, to the process experienced by a medium during episodes of spiritual possession. But this experience of otherness does not only concern the anthropologist; it is experienced by many of Rouch’s characters, and especially those who appear in his series of films about migration. This displacement or problematization of the self affects the way in which we conceive and imagine the world, and it thus acquires a cognitive dimension. What Rouch hints at is that many of the characters in his films act as if they were anthropologists. Essentially, what the author is saying is that, since the ethnographic situation is always a shared one, the anthropologist can only achieve his or her task if the people he or she works with also become anthropologists; they must become part of a process of epistemic relativisation, or, in other words, of the “internal movement” of the self.

25This to-ing and fro-ing in physical, identity-related and cognitive terms is especially obvious in Petit à petit, where the situation of passage between a familiar context and a foreign context faced by all the film’s characters appears partially comparable to the anthropologist’s experience during fieldwork. Rouch particularly evokes this analogy when Damouré visits his partner in Paris and the latter says to him that, to live in Paris, he must learn “the traditions and customs” of the people who live there. In other words, to understand the new context in which he finds himself, Damouré must also become an anthropologist. Petit à petit also incorporates a reflective dimension that can be observed in the majority of Rouch’s work. In this piece, the ethnographic method and experience become inherent topics in the film, or, better still, the film ends up being a reflection on the anthropological project itself. But then, what type of anthropology is it?

26In Petit à petit, Rouch sets out two opposing orientations. The first is inspired by colonial principles: when Damouré conducts anthropometric tests on Parisians with the excuse that he is doing anthropological work for school, Rouch reveals, with cynicism, the stupidity of a study of human beings built solely on the foundations of old-fashioned natural sciences. Anthropology thus becomes ridiculous and contemptuous. Via this staging on the streets of Paris, Rouch shows the need for an anthropological project based on recognition of the other as the subject, as an interlocutor, as a historical being. This second orientation, proposed and chosen by Rouch, involves a methodological shift – from the notion of ethnographic research as a simple, externally-performed analysis to an understanding of it as a shared experience (Piault 2000: 207-211), a social relationship that gives rise to unprecedented situations and that seeks a mutual understanding, and thus a mutual effort at epistemological movement. It is this anthropology that enables us to overcome prejudices, whether these are about Africa or Europe.

27With this game of coming and going and this reflection on anthropology itself, in Petit à petit Rouch creates a reflection on relations with the other and on the possibility of understanding a foreign way of life through participating in it. Through his severe criticism of colonialism and of any notion of cultural superiority, the author seems to suggest that if studying the other is possible (and thus, if the anthropological project has meaning), it is because the other, while remaining foreign, is not composed of an elusive otherness. For Rouch, recognition of the other as a subject also entails recognizing both their difference and the possibilities for overcoming it.

28In short, Rouch was fascinated by movement. This term connects with his theoretical interests, with his methodological decisions, and with his vision about the essence of anthropology and human life in general. Having said that, the final part of this article aims to show how Rouch’s legacy on the subject of movement – and of migration, in particular – can be a source of inspiration for new research.

Rouch and the “afro-american religions”

  • 5 The anthropology of globalization focuses essentially on using specific ethnographic research to an (...)

29In Petit à petit – and in the films making up his “migration studies” – Rouch introduces a set of theoretical and methodological pathways that I consider particularly suitable for conducting ethnographic research linked to what has been called, since the 1990s, “the anthropology of globalization”.5 As an example of this, I will explore the case of the so-called “globalization of Afro-American religions”.

  • 6 There is a vivid debate regarding whether these sacred practices can be defined as “religions” or n (...)

30The term “Afro-American religions” is both controversial and ambiguous. Generally, it refers to the set of religious practices originating in American soil (and especially in the Caribbean region and along the coast of Brazil) as a result of the encounter between indigenous communities, African slaves and European colonists. The sacred cults brought by Africans to America, and often practised in secrecy, gradually mingled over time with elements from Christianity (mainly Catholicism), and in some cases incorporated certain original sacred practices from the indigenous world. From the nineteenth century onwards, esoteric trends such as Kardec’s spiritism and occultism also had a notable influence on the development of these religions6. Within this set of Afro-American religions we find Cuban Santería, Candomblé, Voodoo, Palo Mayombe and Umbanda, among others (Rougeon & Santiago 2013; Johnson 2014). If academia has, in recent years, demonstrated a growing interest in these religious phenomena, this is for the same reasons that they were ignored and rejected at the beginning and middle of the twentieth century, namely because of their explicitly hybrid, dynamic and creative nature.

31To the best of my knowledge, Rouch never explicitly made films about Afro-American religions. I am also unaware as to whether he directly attended religious rituals of this type, although he was probably in contact with the Voodoo practised by Haitians living in France. What is certain is that there is an obvious affinity between this type of practice and the religions of West Africa, which constitute one of Rouch’s core research areas. This affinity operates on various levels.

32Firstly, as a consequence of slaves’ deportation, the group of religions that originated in America involve holy figures and ritual techniques that are very similar – and in some cases identical – to some of the religious practices that Rouch studied in Africa for over 50 years. Mammy Water and the divinities of the Yoruba pantheon, both of West African origins, are probably the most obvious examples of the movement of African divinities to America. The former is a goddess to whom Rouch dedicated a film – Mammy Water (1966) – and who is found in several Caribbean cults, such as Voodoo; the Yoruba divinities, in turn, constitute the most important figures of Cuban Santería, although they are present in many other sacred manifestations, such as Dominican Spiritism, Umbanda or the cult of María Lionza. It is also important to highlight that most Afro-American religions are based on spiritual possession, which is one of Rouch’s main themes. Much has been written about the relationship between Rouch and possession rituals, especially regarding the Hauka cult (Stoller 1992). Here I would simply like to mention that some of the author’s interest in this type of ceremonies can be explained, primarily, by the implicit criticism of personal identity, which is may be understood as an individual unit of a fixed and univocal nature. Possession rituals are thus presented as a paradigmatic (and often extreme) example of the composite and plural nature of the self – that is to say, of its internal movement. Possession rituals point to the idea that otherness is found within ourselves, rather than externally.

33Secondly, this type of ceremonies reveals another of Rouch’s theoretical and methodological foundations. This argues that things which we call “fictional”, “ideal” or “imaginary” do not form a separate category located on a different level from everyday experience. Rather they drive social reality, even becoming, in some cases, truer than the truth (plus vrai que vrai), or more determining and constitutive of reality than the apparent “objectivity” of actual day-to-day life.

34Finally, I would like to highlight one last element that is highly present both in Afro-American religions and in the West African belief systems studied by Rouch: the importance of material culture and of what have been called “sensory landscapes” (Pink 2009), i.e. the set of sensory elements (scents, sounds, textures) that make up social life. This importance is particularly clear in the context of rituals. In many of his films, Rouch therefore places great emphasis on showing the ritual objects and the sensory aspects – not as additional or secondary aspects of the ritual, but as structural and foundational elements of it. Indeed, if Rouch considered film a privileged tool for exploring religious ceremonies, it is partly because no other medium enabled him to capture with such depth the material and sensitive dimension of human experience, which he felt was as decisive as the mental or cognitive one. In fact, Rouch always suggests that both dimensions are always closely interwoven.

35In short, although Rouch never directly studied Afro-American religions, these make up a body of holy expressions that are very familiar to those that were the subject of his interest. It is on this basis that the author’s legacy can be used as a reference for the study of Afro-American religions today. What characterizes the current practice of these religions? One of the most determining aspects is its global expansion and its growing transnational nature (Matory 2005; Capone 2012). In fact, with migration processes, the emergence of a global esoteric industry and the development of new technologies, among other causes, Afro-American cults have become global cults, making up a worldwide network in constant transformation. Evidence of this network may be found in the globalised esoteric industry, in the cults’ strong presence on the Internet (where virtual forums and on-line rituals have gained importance) and, especially, in the mobility of many of their followers who travel from one country to another to contact new mediums and cult groups.

36The same may be said for the cult of María Lionza, a religious practice originating in Venezuela (Clarac de Briceño 1996), which I have defined in another text as an “Afro-Americanized cult” instead of an “Afro-American cult” (Canals 2017). The concept of “Afro-Americanized cult” refers to the fact that, within the set of religious practices that emerged from America as a result of the contact between indigenous, African and European people, the cult of María Lionza is a unique case. It is a religion that initially emerged from the contact between Catholicism and indigenous religious practices and which then – gradually and unequally depending on the region – incorporated elements of Afro-American origin. Indeed, the great “Afro-Americanization” of the cult of María Lionza did not take place until the mid-twentieth century, as a result of the impact of Cuban Santería and, to a lesser extent, Umbanda and Voodoo.


Fig. 1: María Lionza as white queen

Fig. 1: María Lionza as white queen

Quivayo, 2016

Author: Alexander Gómez Medina. woman

Fig. 2: Holy Card (Estampa) of María Lionza as indian

Fig. 2: Holy Card (Estampa) of María Lionza as indian

38María Lionza, the central focus of this possession cult, is a greatly complex and plural figure (Manara 1995; Taussig 1997). This plurality is related to three aspects of her character. Firstly, María Lionza has an ethnic plurality: she is described as an indigenous (Fig. 1), white (Fig. 2), mixed-race and black woman. Secondly, she has a moral ambivalence: some believers think that she is a benevolent divinity, while others describe her as malevolent and capable of making pacts with the devil. Finally, there is plurality surrounding her femininity: in certain cases she embodies an ideal of physical beauty, in others she is compared to the figure of universal mother, similar to the Virgin Mary, and in others she is depicted as a mature and serene woman lacking in sexual attributes. Furthermore, it is important to highlight that new representations of María Lionza are constantly appearing, whether in the religious sphere, in the art sphere, in publicity, or in written literature and myths. María Lionza is thus in constant movement; she is a goddess in motion. From a ritual perspective, the cult of María Lionza is based on a multiplicity of divinities, also called “spirits” (espíritus) or “brothers” (hermanos), with different origins (Ferrándiz 2004). These are considered to be the spirits of individuals who really existed (for example, of deceased relatives, former soldiers and political or popular figures), divinities or mythical characters (God or María Lionza, for example), or characters inspired by comic strips or television (such as the Vikings or Tarzan). These divinities “descend” into the mediums’ bodies during episodes of spiritual trance or possession.

39As I mentioned above, the cult of María Lionza, founded in Venezuela and now considered an autochthonous religion that represents the nation (Barreto 1989-1990), is now present throughout the Caribbean, Brazil, the United States and Europe. There are countless Internet pages devoted to María Lionza and to the religious practices associated with her. Apart from their global and decentralized nature, it seems clear to me that studying the cult of María Lionza – and Afro-American cults in general – is only possible by adopting a comparative approach, and by performing a multi-situated and decentralized ethnography that incorporates mobility as one of its structural and defining characteristics and not merely as a secondary or optional factor. In fact, it is only by relating the different practices of these cults in different places and the discourses that are generated about them that we can capture their meaning and the roles they play in contemporary society. This comparative and dynamic approach – which has a long tradition within anthropology and within Afro-American studies in particular (Bastide 1960; Verger 1968) – places the idea of movement at the centre of ethnographic research and the theoretical problems to be addressed.

  • 7 For example, in several films Rouch mentions the presence of Islam in West Africa and the contact b (...)

40This approach can be found, at least potentially, in Petit à petit, in the concern the author expresses about studying Africa in Europe and Europe in Africa. It is important to point out that this comparative perspective must not only tackle the opposition of different expressions of the same cult, but also the association of different religious expressions, which are, from that point on, interconnected. For example, as I have mentioned, nowadays the cult of María Lionza appears to be closely linked to Cuban Santería, Palo Mayombe, Umbanda and Voodoo. This intrinsic relation between different religions is a fully valid theoretical viewpoint that is opposed to any cultural essentialism – that is, to viewing societies as homogeneous and discrete units – and this appears, at least incidentally, in many of Rouch’s works.7

41As Rouch indicates, religious expressions (and social life in general) must be studied not as a static system, but as a dynamic and creative process, in a constant state of movement or change. What Rouch shows us is that, in certain times of great transformation (such as migration), these properties of any social process accelerate and become particularly evident. The practice of the cult of María Lionza in Barcelona, on which I have been conducting fieldwork over the past four years, perfectly illustrates the validity of Rouch’s approach. A good example of the creative nature of the cult of María Lionza in Barcelona is what I have called “diasporic altars” (Canals 2014). I use this term to refer to the religious altars that believers in this goddess erect outside their country of origin, which mix “autochthonous” elements with icons from the new cultural context in which believers find themselves. Thus many religious altars constructed in Catalonia include – in addition to María Lionza, Yoruba divinities and Catholic saints – images of mythical figures from Catalan culture such as the Virgin of Montserrat (Verge de Montserrat), patron saint of Catalonia, or the knight Saint George (Cavaller Sant Jordi), the protagonist of a renowned legend that gives rise to one of the country’s most popular celebrations. Some followers of the cult of María Lionza even incorporate Catalan language into their rituals to make the prayers more “effective” in their new context.

42Following Rouch’s steps, we can interpret these compositions of material culture in diaspora as the clearest example of the intrinsically composite and changing nature of these religious practices. When analysing these altars, it is important to bear in mind that their function is essentially performative, another of the key terms in Rouch’s project; that is, they are mainly made to act on reality. The same is true of the ritual. When I started to do fieldwork on the cult of María Lionza in Barcelona, I thought that ritual in diaspora was an essentially “nostalgic” strategy, enabling believers to maintain a sentimental link with their country of origin. This premise has been proven to be at least partially false. In fact, most ceremonies that take place before these diasporic altars during the migratory experience have very practical goals aimed at resolving specific matters in everyday life, such as being granted nationality in a country, obtaining residency papers or improving one’s love life.

43In short, in a globalised world such as ours, it is important to study AfroAmerican cults (and the cult of María Lionza, in particular) as a set of cults in movement, in the double sense of the word “movement” that I have referred to throughout this article: on the one hand, spatial movement (these cults travel from one country to another, either physically or via the Internet and new communication technologies); and, on the other hand, movement as a permanent process of transformation and reinvention that has an effect on the way in which believers conceive and imagine the world.

A goddess in motion. María Lionza in Barcelona

  • 8 This research began in 2003 and has led to the production of two short films and one long film: Vis (...)

44Based on the pathways opened up by Jean Rouch in Petit à petit, in 2016 I produced the film A Goddess in Motion. María Lionza in Barcelona, the second section of my visual anthropology study on the cult of María Lionza.8 This film, recorded using an explicitly reflective and performative method, combines images filmed in Venezuela with images filmed in Barcelona. However, unlike what Rouch does in Petit à petit, this relation between the two spheres is structured using a strategy that, to the best of my knowledge, Rouch did not use. This is visual composition based on a multitude of screens (Image 3) and the simultaneous use of a dialectic montage or, rather, what has been called a “transcultural montage” (Suhr & Willerslev 2013).

45From the outset, I considered A Goddess in Motion as a type of return journey: the Catalan anthropologist who had studied the cult of María Lionza in Venezuela returned home to analyse it in his home city. It is for this reason that I decided to appear as one of the characters in the film – something that Rouch did, not in Petit à petit, but in other larger-scale films such as Chronique d’un été (1961) and La Pyramide humaine (1961). The aim was to make the figure of the researcher explicit, in order to reveal all those aspects of ethnographic research that usually remain invisible in anthropological films. Thus, in one of the first scenes, I show all the ritual steps that I must follow as an anthropologist in order to be able to film a sacrifice ritual. What I wanted to convey in this sequence is that the tests that the anthropologist must overcome to access religious ceremonies should not be regarded as something external to the ritual, but rather as an inherent part of it. In other words, the researcher is not situated outside the logic of the event that he or she is studying, but within it. Lastly, from a theoretical perspective, I wanted to highlight another of the lessons that I learned from Jean Rouch: the creative dimension of religion in diaspora; that is, the fact that religion in another context should be understood in terms of reinvention and not in terms of direct transposition or as a form of cultural resistance.

46In short, in this film I have endeavoured to show how the believers of the cult of María Lionza in Barcelona see Catalan culture, and the city of Barcelona in particular. Inversely, I have sought to demonstrate how the anthropologist, through contact with informants in his own context, rediscovers his own city through the eyes of others, stepping foot inside places that he did not know of before and that, had it not been for his ethnographic research, he probably never would have discovered. This exercise of different perspectives seems to me to be one of the most original, innovative and valid aspects of Petit à petit, and of Rouch’s work in general.


47Rouch was an anthropologist of movement. This is one of the things that makes him so contemporary, both from a theoretical and methodological perspective. Before concluding this text, I would like to introduce a final element in my reflexion, which is technology. Rouch was always interested in light cameras and in filming everything by moving around the space in question. His major aspiration was to film movement by being in movement. Nowadays, we see how the appearance of what are known as “embodied cameras” (GoPro type cameras that can be placed on top of objects or on certain parts of the body). These facilitate filming while in movement, a type of filming which Rouch experimented with to the limit. Evidently, all of the new devices associated with image technology are quite far-removed from what Rouch did – and I am not sure whether he would agree with using them for ethnographic research, partly because they dissociate the act of filming from the question of the gaze (regard). What is clear however, is that the Rouchian dream of filming in movement by establishing a physical connection between the camera and the body of the filmmaker did end up at the centre of current technological innovation – and I believe that, as visual anthropologists, we cannot avoid the potential of these innovations for our future research. To sum up, in technological terms, Rouch was a pioneer too, for he anticipated the increasingly mobile character that filming devices were about to adopt.

Fig. 3: A Goddess in Motion (María Lionza in Barcelona). Roger Canals, 2016.

Fig. 3: A Goddess in Motion (María Lionza in Barcelona). Roger Canals, 2016.

48In conclusion, Petit à petit is a fascinating study in which Rouch passes on a set of pathways for conducting ethnographic film research in the contemporary world; a world where movement, transformation, hybridity and the interconnection between individuals and cultures have acquired a primordial position. Having said this, there would be no sense in trying to imitate Rouch or to endeavour to follow “his principles” as if they were a sort of dogma or style guide. Rather, the best homage we can pay to this ground-breaking and humanist poet is to allow ourselves to be inspired by his courage, his perseverance and his imagination, and to take seriously the words that he constantly repeated: “life, like cinema, is something that one invents” (la vie, comme le cinéma, c’est quelque chose que l’on invente).

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bastide Roger, 1960, Les Religions africaines au Brésil, Paris, PUF.

Canals Roger, 2014, Global Gods and Local Laws. Venezuelan Migrants in Barcelona, in Engin F. Isin and Peter Nyers, Routledge Handbook of Global Citizenship Studies, London, Routledge.

Canals Roger, 2017, A Goddess in Motion. Visual Creativity in the Cult of María Lionza, New York, Berghahn Books.

Capone Stefania et al. (eds.), 2012, Religions transnationales des Suds. Religions transnationales des Suds. Afrique, Europe, Amériques, Louvainla-Neuve, Academia-L’Harmattan.

Clarc De Briceño Jacqueline, 1996, La enfermedad como lenguaje en Venezuela, Mérida, Universidad de Los Andes.

colleyn Jean-Paul (ed.), 2009, Jean Rouch. Cinéma et anthropologie, Paris, INA.

Ferrándiz Francisco, 2004, Escenarios del Cuerpo, Bilbao, Universidad de Deusto.

henley Paul, 2009, The Adventure of the Real. Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

inda Jonathan Xavier, rosaldo Renato (eds.), 2007, The Anthropology of Globalization, USA, Wiley-Blackwell.

Johnson Paul C., 2014, Spirited Things. The Work of “Possession” in AfroAtlantic Religions, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Malkki Liisa H., 1992, National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees, Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 24-44.

manara, Bruno, 1995, María Lionza: Su identidad, su culto y la cosmovisión anexa, Caracas, Universidad Central de Venezuela.

matory J. Lorand, 2005, Black Atlantic Religion. Tradition, Transnationalism and Matriarchy in the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé, Princetown, Princetown University Press.

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1 Paul Henley (2009: 217) suggests that this could be one of the reasons why Petit à petit is a film that, especially in the final section, lacks the naturalness and dynamism of previous works by the author, such as Jaguar or Moi, un noir.

2 URL: [consulted December 2016].

3 The “mobility turn” is an intellectual trend which emerged in the 1990s. It originally focused on the study of the social consequences of mass transport of people and goods.

4 The importance of the car is demonstrated in some of Rouch’s other films, such as Jaguar or Petit à petit, in the scenes where characters drive through Paris in a Bugatti convertible.

5 The anthropology of globalization focuses essentially on using specific ethnographic research to analyse the link between the global and the local in an increasingly interconnected world (Inda & Rosaldo 2007).

6 There is a vivid debate regarding whether these sacred practices can be defined as “religions” or not. The problem is that the term “religion” seems to evoke the idea of coherence and stability, whereas these Afro-American cults are characterized precisely by their dynamic and composite nature. Moreover, Afro-American cults are not built upon a holy book or similar, which make their practice extremely heterogeneous (Palmié 2013).

7 For example, in several films Rouch mentions the presence of Islam in West Africa and the contact between different religious expressions from Black Africa, as shown in the renowned prologue of Les Maîtres fous (1954).

8 This research began in 2003 and has led to the production of two short films and one long film: Visages d’une déesse vénézuélienne (CNRS-Images, 2007). See:

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: María Lionza as white queen
Légende Quivayo, 2016
Crédits Author: Alexander Gómez Medina. woman
Fichier image/jpeg, 304k
Titre Fig. 2: Holy Card (Estampa) of María Lionza as indian
Fichier image/jpeg, 520k
Titre Fig. 3: A Goddess in Motion (María Lionza in Barcelona). Roger Canals, 2016.
Fichier image/jpeg, 500k
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Roger Canals, « Jean Rouch and the Question of Mobility Notes on Petit à petit and the globalization of Afro-American religions », Journal des africanistes, 87-1/2 | 2017, 136-155.

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Roger Canals, « Jean Rouch and the Question of Mobility Notes on Petit à petit and the globalization of Afro-American religions », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 87-1/2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2019, consulté le 21 août 2019. URL :

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Roger Canals

University of Barcelona

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