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Jean Rouch, ethnologue et cinéaste
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Indian Summer School: Rouch in New England

Indian Summer School : Rouch en Nouvelle-Angleterre
Emilie de Brigard
p. 262-281


En 1977, Jean Rouch est venu présenter ses films au premier Festival du film Margaret Mead, à New York. La production de son ciné-portrait de Mead l’a ramené aux États-Unis par la suite, où il a été invité à animer des ateliers de cinéma dans la région de Boston. Il a inventé, pour ces programmes, le terme d’« Indian Summer School ». J’ai enseigné l’anthropologie visuelle avec Rouch à l’école d’été de Harvard, de 1980 à 1986. L’Amérique fascinait Rouch ; lui, conjointement, déconcertait ses étudiants. Dans les années 1980, l’Afrique était éloignée de la conscience de la plupart des Américains, et l’œuvre des cinéastes de couleur n’était pas connue. Les films et les inventions cinématographiques de Rouch ont ouvert les étudiants à de nouveaux champs, en même temps qu’il leur a fait prendre conscience de la possibilité de voir et de représenter les sociétés africaines.

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Rouch accidentally conquers New York

1Rouch’s presence in America was improvised, like his films. In 1977, Rouch came to New York as the first featured filmmaker at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History. The festival is still in existence today, although much changed.

2New York was having a difficult time in the 1970’s: street crime made the city really unpleasant, police were laid off, budgets were disastrous, garbage littered the streets, etc. There were bombings in America as well, but the public was less aware of them than it is today: the atmosphere was one of decay, rather than terror. The Museum of Natural History was very run-down, as was most of the West Side of Manhattan. On weekdays it was a destination for busloads of schoolchildren, and on weekends it was a hangout for divorced dads with their non-custodial children.

3Across the Park on the East Side, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was reinventing itself under Thomas Hoving. A similar change of course was needed at the Museum of Natural History. The Director and his Office of Public Affairs determined that the Museum could be rebranded (a term which was not in use in those days) as an adult destination, through events designed to attract “young professionals”. So the idea came about to hold a 75th birthday party for Margaret Mead, as the kick-off of a $50,000,000 fundraising campaign to update the Museum’s exhibits and programs. She was in accord with this, since she had spent her entire professional career at the Museum. She posed for photographs with a giant birthday cake. After the launch, a series of Mead-themed events would be held at the Museum, and the most portable of these would be taken out on the road, promoted in Natural History magazine.

4I was an independent curator of ethnographic film, trained at UCLA (where I first met Rouch in 1968). Rouch credited me with bringing him to New York, but the story was more complicated. The Mead Festival was conceived as a vast scientific entertainment to create visibility for the Museum. Credit for the idea should go to the explorer Milbry Polk, then an intern in the Office of Public Affairs. Mead liked the idea; in fact, she truly loved film. As a young woman, she took in the psychological dramas from the silent period in Germany (“Geheimniss einer Seele”), and throughout her life she valued film both as an expressive medium and as a research tool. Most biographers give short shrift to this side of her, instead dwelling needlessly on her poetry. In the 1970s, Mead devoted a lot of effort to setting up a National Anthropological Film Center in the Smithsonian. She saw that a film festival could be useful to her, by drawing attention to a cherished cause.

5The format of the festival was a much-expanded version of existing “community” programs in the galleries, which catered to families. In addition, a ticketed film program in the main theatre would attract the attention of the press. But who would be the featured filmmaker? Mead and Bateson’s films were considered (Bathing Babies in Three Cultures), but there weren’t enough of them, and they were in black and white. Milbry suggested the oeuvre of her mentor at Harvard, Timothy Asch, who had made a series of films of the Yanomamo of Venezuela and Brazil (The Feast, Dedeheiwa Bathes His Children). The contentious politics of visual anthropology made Asch an unwise choice; indeed, the visual anthropologists in the United States were at each other’s throats, beginning with the bitter estrangement of John Marshall and Robert Gardner over The Hunters, in 1957. The maneuverings for precedence by the leaders of this rarified field were worthy of Saint-Simon. Someone needed to be parachuted in from the outside.

6In 1973, I had curated the first retrospective of visual anthropology in an American museum, Anthropological Cinema, at the Museum of Modern Art. On the strength of that, the Office of Public Affairs at the Natural History Museum asked me to coordinate the Mead festival. I thought that Rouch would fit the bill perfectly. We invited him, he accepted with delight, and I moved to New York for a very hot summer of programming. The Rouch films were to be showcased in the main theatre, and 125 short films by others, including as many of the rival visual anthropologists as possible, would be shown in eight or ten galleries over the weekend. I kept Margaret Mead abreast of things; she accepted the concept of the program, and added some personal touches. Since the time of its invention, film covered the globe at all times and places, so the viewer merely had to choose a channel to watch, like a global TV. In this case, the Museum was the TV, with its spaces devoted to different times and places. As it turned out, this involved a lot of sitting on the floor, under the taxidermied elephant and so forth.

7As the summer of 1977 wore on, interest in Rouch built up. He arrived before the Festival and stayed at the Hotel Excelsior on West 81st Street. His wife Jane joined him there. Rouch was besieged by writers from the American Anthropologist, the Amsterdam News, and trendy film journals. The New York Times took notice. The Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, a cinéma-vérité enthusiast, gave a dinner at his residence on Fifth Avenue. Rouch was a hot ticket. His screenings were completely sold out.

8Everyone was surprised at the amount of attention the first Margaret Mead Film Festival attracted. Twenty-five thousand people attended, if one includes all the screenings in the galleries. Rouch made a gesture of thanks on the spot: he would film a ciné-portrait of Mead, and donate it to the Museum, to use as they saw fit in the fundraising campaign. The result was an intimate and tender film that is unlike any other. I think Rouch saw that Mead loved film; perhaps he saw her mortality. Two months after the film was completed and shown at the second Mead Festival, she died of pancreatic cancer.

9Rouch improvised the production with Marshall, his great friend, who happened to have his own production company in Boston. Marshall flew down to New York with equipment for Rouch to film, and himself to take sound. The plan envisioned “economy of means”: two takes, each lasting ten minutes, of Mead in her legendary office. In the end, the portrait sitting lasted a day and a half. It became mobile, with Mead traipsing about the museum where she had worked since 1926, before ending up in Central Park. Mead’s original tower office was now a textile conservation studio; her Hall of Pacific Peoples was inaccessible to visitors, behind renovation debris; but the Dinosaur Hall was just as it had been when Roy Chapman Andrews returned from the Gobi Desert. Indicating a clutch of dinosaur eggs in a glass case, Mead evoked the excitement with which the scientists dreamed of “revitalizing” them and “starting evolution all over again!” But, she said, “it’s too late now; we’ve used up too many of Earth’s resources”. Mead swept out of the museum, on camera, her cape flapping about her; above her, in the frame, Rouch captured a delicate pteranodon fossil, its wings outspread. The night she died, November 15, 1978, the evening news showed a clip of Mead with a beaming smile, leaving the Dinosaur Hall.

  • 1 Massachussetts Institute of Technology.

10In the afterglow of his triumph in New York, Rouch was invited to teach film workshops in Massachusetts, beginning in the summer of 1978. He became enamored of Boston, where Marshall and his other great friend, Richard Leacock of MIT1, lived. Rouch liked the New England seacoast and its foods, lobsters and cherrystones, which he called “Cherokee stone clams”. He coined the term “Indian summer school”, and it stuck. Meteorologically speaking, Indian summer refers to weather conditions in autumn, usually after the first killing frost, that are sunny and clear, with above normal temperatures. Metaphorically speaking, the term was used by American novelist William Dean Howells in 1886, to name a time when one may recover some of the happiness of youth. From 1978 to 1986, Rouch relived his youth with his American students, every summer save one (when he was finishing Dionysos).

The Pale Fox shares what he knows with the Americans

11In 1980, Rouch’s film workshop found a home at the Harvard Summer School. I taught there with him from 1980 to 1986. Thanks to the good offices of Robert Gardner, then Director of Harvard’s Film Study Center, the course (VES S-193, Seminar: Anthropological Film) was listed in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, housed in Le Corbusier’s 1963 Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. The course catalog offered the following description: “The history, theory and practice of anthropological film. Special attention given to the work of Jean Rouch. Screenings, discussions, and presentations by visiting filmmakers. Some background in film or anthropology recommended, but not required.”

12Although the Harvard Summer School has an imposing tradition (founded in 1871, it is the oldest academic summer session in America), it differs from Harvard College in its admissions policies, as it is open to all. Rouch’s students came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some were undergraduates from Harvard and other American universities, such as UC Santa Cruz. There were graduate students, filmmakers, and some teachers and Harvard staff. They came from a variety of disciplines: anthropology, studio art, biology, astronomy. Two of Rouch’s students came over from Europe, bringing their films with them. Many of the students had no prior knowledge of Rouch, or of Africa. Classroom atmosphere was periodically enlivened by visits from the self-styled “Rouchettes”, filmmaker Midge MacKenzie and her friends, and by Ann McIntosh and her small dog, Betty. McIntosh was working on a film about Rouch. A Harvard professor who attended class frequently was writing a proposal for a Rouch television show.

13Here are my notes of Rouch, introducing himself to the first group of students on his first day in class, July 7, 1980:

  • 2 Rouch 1960.

I was born during the First World War. When I was a student, during the Second World War, I was arrested in Brittany. It was Easter vacation. I had gone swimming. So I left for Africa with three friends, to be a civil engineer in Africa. In Niamey we built bridges. I got into political trouble, and left for Dakar, in time for the Allied invasion of North Africa. Back in Europe, we blew up bridges. I went into philosophy, and back to Africa, and studied possession among the Songhay for my dissertation under Griaule. My PhD was for La Magie et la Religion Songhay.2 It is a history of the Songhay tribe. Marcel Mauss told me to ’record everything’, and since I was a good student, I got a 16 millimeter flea market camera. I discovered that film is not a matter of writing notes and turning them into a book. Film is a tool to make anthropology. Even now I don’t know what anthropology is. I think it’s an attempt to share experience with people who have not that experience; an attempt to open a dialogue, to build a new world, a new way of thinking. And so, the camera is a passport to utopia. From three dimensions to the fourth or fifth. Imagination takes you out of the package of bullshit that we are in, everywhere in the world. The goal of teaching is to provoke other people to make film. Vertov said: the purpose of film is to procreate other films.

14He outlined his plan for classes (as the catalog put it: Monday and Wednesday mornings, with “additional hours to be arranged”). As it turned out, Rouch held classes for at least six hours a day, every day of the week. Students ate Chinese carryout and made spots on the carpet of the Carpenter Center screening room. In 1983 we were banished from Corbusian modernity to the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, a red brick factory-style building dating from 1888, which Rouch much preferred. He called it “the most romantic building in the United States”. Rouch’s program:

1. Jumping all over the world, and from reality to fiction.
2. Technical aspects:
clic, clac, merci Kodak.

15If there was a third point, Rouch didn’t make it that day. He was off and running, with the mixture of the personal, the gnomic and the technical that characterized his pronouncements:

  • 3 Griaule 1983.

It’s a shame to use electronics if you don’t know what electricity means. Poetry is a part of science. I was educated by brilliant engineers who were very simple people: they said that while they were living, something new came into their brain. Science equals the loss of poetry. Poetry equals the beginning of knowledge.
If there is video and Super 8, what is an expensive Aaton and Nagra for? What can you do with these various means? The colors are vanishing on African films, like old paintings in museums, which is not bad. The difference between European 50 cycles and US 60 cycles is a worse barrier than the Berlin Wall! Omori at the Osaka anthropological museum uses videocassettes.
Boston has a high density of filmmakers per square mile. I want to see all my old friends: Ricky Leacock, Bob Gardner [who was just then leaving for India], and John Marshall.
I started
Chronique with a blimped Arri. I decided it was important to walk with the camera in the streets of Paris. Only Michel Brault could do this, but he said there was no camera that could do the job. Éclair was making a military camera for some unspecified purpose, which Coutant [an Éclair employee] adapted. Leacock, Pennebaker and Maysles also wanted to make films for which there existed no equipment, so they invented their equipment. Leacock came to the Musée de l’Homme in 1961. The difference between film and a book is: you read a book alone; film equals immediate collective reaction. You share experience when you are ready to put it on the screen. It’s too early to discuss!
We’ll start by showing Marcel Griaule’s film among the Dogon, made in 1932-33,
Sous les masques noirs. He wrote his PhD on Dogon masks.3 The film was intended to be a commercial film, in 35 millimeter. It was filmed silent, at 16 frames per second. The Edison cylinder sound wasn’t good enough for release. For his research, Griaule used a frame by frame viewing system to draw the positions of the masked dancers. Then for release, they edited two hours of film down to ten minutes, with symphonic “musique à la confiture”. Some stupid man did the narration in the style of the epoch; we’ll show it silent. It is the introduction to this course and a tribute to Griaule, the pioneer of visual anthropology in France.

16After screening Sous les masques noirs, Rouch continued:

  • 4 Griaule 1965.

First, this is a tribute to my teacher. I didn’t see this awful film when it came out. My first exposure to anthropology was Griaule’s photos of Dogon masks published in Minotaure, which I saw while I was studying for my bac. The Musée de l’Homme was starting up. Griaule travelled for two years in Africa, from Dakar to Djibouti, collecting. The old Musée Ethnologique du Trocadéro was destroyed; the new museum included a film theatre, because of Griaule’s film. I have my office there, close to the Cinémathèque.
Second, this is an introduction to my Dogon films. Griaule died in 1955, and [his colleague] Dieterlen went back to do more research. I had visited him in Mali in 1947, and Dieterlen asked for my help, because she learned that the Sigui was coming up, and she wanted to film it. Griaule never saw a Sigui, because it was last held in 1910; this one in the 1960s might be the last. We have six of seven Sigui films here. You always have to start a film at the end, and go back to the beginning. That’s why I can’t work in video...
There’s a lot of confusion in
Sous les masques noirs; it was impossible to see what was cooking. There are three extraneous death rituals in that film; it’s not Griaule’s fault, it’s the editors’ fault.
This week looks dull, but it is not at all. Death is one of the most embarrassing questions we have. I keep going back to West Africa because these people are not afraid of death as we Judaeo-Christians are. I learned a lot about it. It’s not an ’introduction to joyful death’, but ’death is necessary for life’, and ’you have not to be afraid of it.’ This is the most important thing I learned in Africa.
The Griaule school is the most controversial in the world. Dogon cosmology was rejected by his European colleagues as Griaule’s invention. Griaule’s
Conversations with Ogotemmêli was published by Oxford.4 It is too complicated to understand; film helps. What we have here is initiation by film to a specific anthropology of religious beliefs, a system of thoughts. That is, don’t project your theoretical system on them, but try to understand their system. Griaule didn’t find out in fifteen years! Dieterlen has been there for forty years; she’s 75 years old now. And we still don’t know what it means. I think the key is:

1. Time is necessary, at least sixty years. You need generations, you can’t do it by yourself.
2. Reverse the order of what you’re doing normally. Make the film on the myth and give an explanation of the myth by the ritual, instead of analyzing the ritual and then making the film.

There’s no chronology, no apparent logic. Bits of knowledge are here and there. You find the links ten years later.

17Rouch moved on to set up his first Dogon film, Cimetière dans la falaise from 1951, but before he could do so, the students demanded, and got, a re-screening of Sous les masques noirs, this time with its “stupid” narration and symphonic sound track. If it was “too early to discuss”, at least they could have this. Thus, in his first class, Rouch had given them a preview of the next three weeks: fractured chronology, anecdotes, invective, allusions, give-and-take. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast to the declarative, expository style of most classes at Harvard.

18Rouch’s teaching might have been mystifying, but it was not random, and above all, it was specific. As the students would come to understand, “make the film on the myth” was a description of how he worked across generations to make Ambara dama, taking Griaule’s 1935 text (“the myth”) and laying over it his own 1974 visual document (“the ritual”). He was willing to explain this process as often as necessary.

19After a break, we came back to Cimetière. The tribute to Griaule concluded, Rouch drew a map on the blackboard, showing the location of the Griaule’s Dogon, in Mali, and Rouch’s Songhay, in the Republic of Niger. Together with a small diagram of the Dogon villages, this map was our guide for the next week or so of classes; in effect, it was our syllabus.

Cimetière was shot at 25 frames per second, using a Bell & Howell camera. I got a tape recorder from an Italian, Mr Bubbi, in Paris; it weighed 40 kilos; it was movable, not portable. It ran on two dry batteries. There was no editing in 16 millimeter in France then, and there was no 16 millimeter magnetic film. It was edited on a hand viewer. We did the sound in one take – no mix. Otherwise we would have had to blow it up to 35 optical, and edit that.

20Cimetière has a narration in French, which Rouch translated into his memorable English, as the screening took place. At the end of the film, the mother of the deceased sang to her son: “It’s time baby to get my milk. Go into the other world and God will give you some other milk. Sleep well my son.”

This was a student film, shot in August 1950, on my second trip to Dogon. The color is still good because the dyes then were not artificial. The music is atmospheric, but genuine. Griaule wrote the narration, based on what he knew then. Recently, Dutch archaeologists have dated the houses to 200 BC.

student question | What were the problems you had in filming?
jean rouch | First, permission to film was not a problem. I and my sound man Rosfelder were sons of Griaule, thus members of the family, and allowed to film.
s. q. | How did you choose where to stand?
j. r. | Rewind. I shot from one place on the cliff. It was the first time I saw the ritual.
s. q. | What about intruding on crying people?
j. r. | They were traditional, rather than professional, mourners. For the mother’s song, I photographed the mourners close up, the mother in long shot; she was stooped over and really sad.

hadn’t answered the question about where to stand.
Again:] What about the location?

j. r. | Alpinism – we used same rope as the dead body. We didn’t see the lowering of the dead body, which would have been impressive; we didn’t get into the tomb; it was tabu.

21Sensing that the students were asking a question he hadn’t answered, Rouch launched into an ethnographic explanation:

What we know now has to do with impurity. The man died by accident because he broke tabu. Being pure, he tried to have relations with an impure girl of another village. He was brave anyway, so he got a battle tribute. The song was conventional, to purify the village. The impurity is solved: it’s no longer in the village, it’s in the cliff with old people. Women who died pregnant are buried separately, because they are very impure. Souls who can’t rejoin their bodies wander every night in the village. They want to go back to their terrace.

22This matter of wandering souls prompted Rouch to give an explanation of the dama ritual.

The next ritual is the dama, a mask ritual held every five years. Masks are used to enchant the souls of men who died in the last five years, to ask them to leave. If the defunct is very important, the funeral is held six months after death, because his soul is very dangerous. They ask spirit of the pond to keep this soul safe for three years. But the pond spirit is busy, and the soul might escape. So they name a person who resembles the defunct, the Nani, who is given responsibility for making constant sacrifice to the defunct. But, the dama is for later. Now, we’ll see La Mort du Hogon from 1972, the death of the paramount priest in Songa.

23Speaking over the film as it screened, Rouch explained the ethnographic content and his filming process:

Gunshots go off in the morning. I had two film magazines ready. This is a specific funeral for a Hogon. All the people are in the square, with old stone guns, which they discharged, and came close to the defunct’s house, decorated with a funeral blanket. There was a government prohibition against shooting the dead body. They staged mock battles. Suddenly I discovered I was filming the body, as the priests move the body up and down, to all the totemic altars of the village, one after another. Then they leave for the totemic cave, which is in the middle of the village. The body is placed on the ground and they throw millet grains at him. He is no longer a totemic priest responsible for food, but a normal person. They carry him away, and ask for mercy. They ask the defunct not to come back, “because we did a good ritual for you.”

24Rouch pointed out the differences in filming between Cimetière dans la falaise and La Mort du Hogon, which was made twenty years later. The later film has natural sound, without narration. The students were frustrated at not being able to understand it.

This time, the sound recordist was Dogon. The film was intended to be used as a research tool. It was shown to the government in Bamako, then shown to the Dogon. You could make a study guide to go with the film, but the Dogon can’t read, and can’t control the ’secrets’ in the guides. So, the film must be complete in itself. Perhaps with an explanatory preface of stills, like The Feast or The Ax Fight, by Tim Asch. This is the new experience of anthropologie partagée. First, interview, which becomes a dialogue: the Dogon ask Dieterlen what will happen when she dies? What will her grandsons do for her? And if we don’t have the right answer, we discover how afraid we are of death. We treat old people like garbage. Then what are your Protestant and Catholic missions for? It was difficult to show the film in the village; we needed a generator, a projector. Screening at night outside does not equal research, it is a public showing. You must show the film ten times outside, and then, on a small screen in the daytime, for research. You need a Super 8 print and a dry-battery viewer for this.
Because of my film, Buñuel wanted to see French funerals. And a Belgian filmmaker made a documentary,
Death in the World.
To return to Dogon cosmology: at the beginning, men were immortal. God’s enemies gave them speech, and men learned that death exists. When man began to bury his dead, he shared the knowledge of death...

And so ended the first day of Rouch’s Harvard teaching.

25Our students (137 of them in six years) were enthusiastic, or at least faithful in attendance, if sometimes bewildered by Rouch’s presentation. Every year, before Rouch came to Cambridge, I did my best as an instructor to prepare them, by outlining the world history of ethnographic film (in three weeks). Rouch worked extremely hard, while at the same time being unfailingly charming. He answered every question, even if he didn’t entirely understand it. The students mostly tolerated this. For them, as for Rouch, language was a hurdle to overcome.

26In addition to history, the course description promised “theory and practice of anthropological film”. One concerned student sounded me out as to whether Rouch could at some point teach “more theory” or perhaps “his theory.” Certainly Rouch had a theory of knowledge, but he was not inclined to articulate it. “It’s a long story, and I’m here to tell you stories.” And as for his theory of filmmaking: “Film is telling a story, and only your grandmother can teach you that.” (I don’t think that went over too well.) Rouch’s discourse was circumstantial. It ranged more widely than anyone expected: from “successive approximations in bridge building, to the vanishing point in the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, to the Dogon way of educating young boys: by having them tend goats in a cave painted with unexplained sacred images. Rouch expected the students to ask him about the images.

27It was not possible for him to explain the subject at hand systematically; he expected the students to accumulate “bits of knowledge, here and there,” in the same way that anthropologists accumulate knowledge in the field. Rouch told one class, “I was just making a film with students in Torino, and the Italian women talked the whole time about the price of tomatoes”; and days later, he mentioned the Italian preference for shooting silent (no tomatoes), and dubbing dialogue and sound afterwards. At the very end of the course, he took up this thread again, announcing that “next year” we would have to study Neo-Realism, to discuss fully why the Italians shot silent: that is, the cultural, as well as the technical, reasons. And this in turn implied artistic reasons, for in the interim, he had shown them how his own artistic breakthrough came with Jaguar, which he shot silent.

28The students had the opportunity to learn a lot, but only if they paid attention. There was no textbook, no way that they could swot up. In America in the 1980s, this was a profoundly foreign approach. The students struggled with it: was it that he was French? Or was it something else?

29At Harvard it was the norm to circulate an outline, a schedule, and a reading list on the first day of class. Rouch ignored this practice, and he left it to me to administer the exams, without which Harvard students were ineligible to receive course credit. But he did have a structure in mind for the screenings. Rouch grouped his films under three headings: the Dogon films (where “I’m only the cameraman”); his Songhay films (“both anthropologist and filmmaker”); and fiction films, which included his own feature films, as well as works by African filmmakers.

30Before screening the Songhay films, the class were served a sorbet, so to speak, in the form of student films. Then it was back to the beginning, with the Songhay (as announced by the map-syllabus). Rouch emphasized his youth at the time (he was thirty when he made Au pays des mages noirs) and the contingencies inherent in his way of working.

We didn’t know anything about making film, but I was one of the first members of the Cinémathèque. I tried to make a portrait of the Niger River. The tripod broke in the rapids in Guinée. We stopped to make a film about hippo hunting. Back in Paris, there were no splicers or viewers for 16 millimeter. I showed it at the Musée de l’Homme, and they considered it anthropology... I went to the Orienté cave for New Orleans jazz, near the Ciné Bechet, and the pianist was a manager of Actualités Françaises. Good contact! He did the narration – stupid sentences, but there was some feeling there. It was screened with Stromboli and had some success, and that was my beginning. The sound and the image were not connected at all, so I decided to make my own films after this.

31Next, with Les Magiciens de Wanzerbé Rouch showed the students how he bolstered his written thesis on Songhay magic with visual evidence. He recounted being grilled by Lévi-Strauss. In the film, a magician vomits a silver chain.

Was it a trick? I still don’t know what it is. At the Musée de l’Homme, Lévi-Strauss asked, “Do you believe in it [the chain]? I said, “No, but I have no answer.” Lévi-Strauss said, “But the chain is very small.”

32With the films that followed, in chronological order, Rouch showed the class his increasing technical mastery as he developed his signature camera style, filming his subjects in long takes (“whole people in whole actions”, as Mead demanded of researchable film). By the time Rouch got to Yantala yenendi and Pam kuso kar during the last week of classes, the students were getting used to possession. Rouch said that with this corpus of possession films, he intended to make a two-and-a-half-hour ciné-portrait of Dongo. In order to show why this was important, he wanted to explain the distinction between the Dogon and the Songhay. But before doing so, he wanted to make some points about Songhay possession:

The spirit family (the horses of the spirits, the priests, and the Sorko) is more important than the real family. I am one of the shepherds of the spirits. I worked for thirty years, but never became possessed. I think my equipment was a barrier. For one month, the jar of the priest Pam was in the courtyard, and visitors had to wash in this, and they immediately became possessed. Elite colleagues would not come [to express condolences to Pam’s family] because they were ashamed to be possessed in front of me. I asked how I could contribute. The Sorko told me to film. They were happy with the film, even though it showed nothing happening.

student | What is the anthropologist’s position?
jean rouch | To make a film like this you have to be a believer. You needn’t believe in Dongo, but you must believe that they are really possessed, not fakes. My colleagues in Paris say that if you are doing that, you are not a scientist. My spirit family thinks I am in a “ciné-trance” [...] I was shooting the invisible soul of Pam [...] I thought it was the only way to make a report, and I still don’t understand the ritual. This film interests Parisian psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, and even African doctors, who thought this was strange [...] We should incorporate this power anew into our society, even if it means taking it from others.
s. | I think we should leave the people their spirits.

33The map on the blackboard had been erased. Now Rouch drew a summary chart that contrasted “Mask” and “Possession” societies. For it to be useful, the students had to be able to recall three weeks’ worth of Dogon films, Songhay films, and commentaries.



• people who show appearance of myth;
• they have knowledge not explanation;
• they can’t carry masks with them,
they must return to Mali to carry out ritual divination prior to ritual;
• (saved by Pale Fox, a small Dionysus).

• myth changes after every ritual – myth; the ritual is changing the myth;
• spontaneous ritual based on old myth of water spirit and fisherman;
• real tragedy – there may be no rain.
• Hauka are now sons & servants of Dongo
• you can carry it with you, you just need your own body;
• theater missing;
• divination as ritual.

34Dionysian and Apollonian: Rouch commended “Nietzsche’s clear view of all this” to the class. He said he was “against stupid scientific optimism and in favor of tragic pessimism: you must die to live.” The Songhay spirits are preferable to Western Pentecostals, Rouch said, because these spirits “are saying new things all the time,” unlike the Pentecostals. “Judaeo-Christian civilization killed the connection between man and nature.”

35It was one of the singularities of Rouch’s teaching that it was almost entirely oral. I am certain that very few students read the ethnographies we placed on reserve in Tozzer Library. As we spent time together, the students found their voices:

student | Why don’t you follow this road?
jean rouch | I am not a mystic. I can’t explain how to make films, but it’s something like surrealism, like automatic writing. I was moved by de Chirico’s Melancholy in the Streets [1911] painted during Chirico’s mythological period. I make films not out of duty, but pleasure... I think my films will live. My utopia is that there will always be a tomorrow. Now I’m shooting more films than I can edit. Oumarou Ganda, the actor in my second feature film, Moi, un noir, became a filmmaker. I’m against the standard family, sorry!

Then the class took a break...

36The relation between Songhay possession and Rouch’s fiction films was the most complicated question we took up, in a course where much was tangled and implicit. From the evidence of their final exams, it seems that the students wrestled with it. A surprising number of them won. They somehow had to penetrate Rouch’s thickets of circumstantiality to see that his real subject was change, both historical and personal. Then they had to express this in their own words. They had to reconcile what they saw, in him, of Africa and France. They had to learn to “read” image and sound (often in three languages at once). If nothing else, he taught them patience. That, and tolerance for “disorder” (a favorite word).

37Sync sound came into Rouch’s practice when he made Chronique d’un été. One day, when we were screening the Sigui films, Rouch referred again to his concern that this ritual might never take place again. “How to preserve oral tradition? Film it! Don’t theorize.” He immediately went on: “I shot Chronique to learn my own culture. I was so ashamed of it after the war, I didn’t want to know it”. Then he described filming the events in May 1968: “the happiest day of my life”.

38Always, Rouch began again with the circumstantial, the contingent. Moi, un noir grew out of Rouch’s research on the young men who left Niger to work in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. (Les Maîtres fous was part of this research.) Before he made Moi, un noir with Ganda, who was one of these migrants in Côte d’Ivoire, Rouch made another film, which took over a decade to finish. This was Jaguar, filmed in 1954 in Ghana. Rouch was now working with African assistants, Damouré, Lam and Illo. He decided to have them re-enact what a Nigerien migrant’s journey to work on the coast would be like. “Life in the dry season in Ayorou is awful for young men; there’s nothing to do.” They met with various adventures, saw the ocean supposedly for the first time, came up against French and British colonial officials, and encountered the exotic Somba people (exotic, because they were “nude”). Rouch improvised an illegal border crossing by showing the immigration official his French passport, and then telling him that he was making a film on illegal immigrants: his three actors, whom he coolly filmed as they crossed the frontier without papers. These and other episodes were filmed silent, then assembled by Rouch and projected in a screening room. While they watched the film of themselves, Damouré and Lam told the story of what was going on to their friend, Adam. This became the sound track of the film. Rouch used the same procedure to construct Moi, un noir (and even, he claimed, Dionysos). “Jaguar, he said, is my favorite film, and the most important anthropological work of my life, because it shows people discovering differences of culture.”

39On the next to the last day of class in 1980, Rouch tried to make the students discover cultural differences for themselves. (By this time, the class had its own culture.) Without a preamble, Rouch showed a film produced by Junichi Ushiyama for NAV, a Japanese network, showing the Mitsogo people of Gabon. Part of a series of fifty short films made in different societies, it showed a painful boys’ initiation, women’s work, planting cassava, curing, a baby nursing. According to Rouch, it disturbed the French anthropologists who screened it: they said they couldn’t recognize “their own Mitsogo.” It puzzled the Harvard viewers, as well; one of them asked, “What is Japanese about this film?” “This film is close to Ozu,” Rouch said, with “long shots in the middle of the sequence.” Rouch explained that Ushiyama got into anthropology after seeing Marshall’s films. His television program produced fifteen films a year and acquired others, on subjects ranging from a funeral by vultures in Tibet, to the cult of Dionysus in Bulgaria and Greece. The point of showing this Japanese film, Rouch said, was to “discuss and study the French, the German, the Bostonian approaches” to visual anthropology. “Next year,” he said, turning to me, “we need Omori, from the Osaka Museum of Man...”

40Inevitably, there were students for whom the abstractions of culture were out of reach. But any student who was paying attention would have acquired an awareness of climate change, illegal immigration, avian flu, militant Islam, and other African topics not then in the news.

41Rouch departed Cambridge in confident spirits, full of plans for the future. He told the students: “God’s blessing and polygamous joy!” For the most part, they reciprocated his good feeling. A Harvard undergraduate wrote: “This has been the most informative and stimulating course that I have taken at Harvard/Radcliffe. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I thought more about the issues and problems covered in the course.” Another student acknowledged the way the course had been set up, with several weeks of film history before Rouch’s arrival: “I would commend the general programming of this course which, had certain films been presented at the beginning, could have been incredibly upsetting for a newcomer like myself.” On their evaluation forms (a form of politically correct torture to which American faculty are subjected at the end of every term) the students said that the course was “interesting”, but “disorganized”.

42Next year, Rouch told the students, there would be a film workshop, not just a seminar. “It’s stupid to learn to read films, and not to write them.” Over the winter, he developed this theme. He wanted Harvard to invite Michel Brault to demonstrate filmmaking with him. He wanted the students to experience filming from a plane in flight. He asked me to find out “how much an American pilot’s license would cost”. Or a hydroplane license. I made inquiries: apart from the extra faculty, we would need an editing suite, double-system projection, and a plane, all of which were costly; but the biggest obstacle was liability for accidents of flying. In sum, this delightful plan would not fly.

43Rouch taught at Harvard five more times. (When he cancelled in 1984, Leacock generously stepped in for him on a moment’s notice.) Rouch was a creature of habit: he stayed in Quincy House, had breakfast every morning at Tommy’s Lunch on Mount Auburn Street, took his midday meal at the Harvard Faculty Club, dined on his own and turned in early. After teaching, he swam every day at the Blodgett Pool. He kept in excellent health.

Rouch doesn’t make his american film

44Rouch admired Henry Thoreau, the author of Walden and Civil Disobedience, so one afternoon in July, I drove him out to Walden Pond, the site of Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. We parked in the shade of evergreens and set out on foot, counter-clockwise around the pond. At the first swimmable inlet, Rouch divested himself of his khakis and blue chambray shirt, and jumped into the water. Fishes were basking in the shallows. “Come here, little fish!” Rouch coaxed them, cupping his hands. It was sunny, hot, quiet; some children were playing on the sandy beach on the other side of the pond. Rouch put his clothes back on, and we followed the path as it entered the woods. Because of an infestation of gypsy moths, the deciduous trees were bare, more typical of early spring than the usual New England leafy cover. Last year’s dead leaves cluttered the path, making a lot of noise as we walked. At the point where the trail turned back towards the pond, two young people, a man and a woman, suddenly appeared out of nowhere and greeted us. Apparently they were camping out in this denuded forest, and were headed to the pond for a dip. Or so Rouch surmised; he was delighted with them. The young man had a full beard, and Rouch was convinced that he was truly living the spirit of Thoreau.

  • 5 Gruen 1963.

45Of all the places that he knew in America, Rouch loved New England. He was moved by reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 historical romance of the Puritans, The Scarlet Letter, and he visited Salem, Massachusetts, searching in vain for the book’s feeling, between materialism and dreaminess. Leacock’s students at MIT organized an annual picnic at Halibut Point, north of Boston, and Rouch was always included. Laurence Wylie, the C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France at Harvard, reached out to Rouch and invited him to spend the weekend at his island hideaway off Martha’s Vineyard. Wylie had arrived at his distinguished post at Harvard by a circuitous route, and no doubt he enlightened Rouch about the opaque institutional structure of America’s second-oldest “college” (founded in 1636). Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, which sponsored Rouch’s summer course, was founded in 1968, to “overcome visual illiteracy,” and it was cold-shouldered by the traditionalist faculty.5 In addition to making films and teaching, Robert Gardner had his work cut out for him to sustain the Carpenter Center, which he directed from 1976 to 1984. Gardner liked to get around in a small plane that he owned, and he intimated to Rouch that they might go flying together. It was this, perhaps, that gave Rouch the idea of flying and filming with students.

  • 6 NA 1992.

46Rouch’s reputation has suffered because he was ahead of his time. In the 1980’s, Africa was remote from the consciousness of most Americans, and filmmakers of color were not empowered. The Blaxpoitation film genre, a rich source of inspiration for Spike Lee and even Quentin Tarentino, was not yet in the consciousness of white, middle-class Americans; indeed, it was condemned even in the African-American community. When Lee eventually taught “black cinema” at Harvard, in the spring of 1992, students reported that his course emphasized discussion over lecture, “a rare teaching method at Harvard”.6

47It was important to Rouch to show Moi, un noir, his first critical success (prix Delluc 1959), which starred Oumarou Ganda, an African veteran of the French war in Viet Nam. Ganda died tragically young on New Year’s Day 1981, having made four films. Cabascabo shows Rouch’s strong influence. Ganda acknowledged having learned from Rouch, and called him one of his favorite filmmakers, but he was even more attuned to Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese novelist and filmmaker, who clashed with Rouch. (Sembene had been making U.S. campus tours since 1972.) It’s impossible to know how Rouch’s “spirit family” of African filmmakers would have evolved, had Ganda lived, or had Rouch and Sembene been reconciled.

48Rouch had few illusions about students. He was fond of saying, “from a hundred students, you get one Polanski or Godard. But, try to use the camera, and you will be as crazy as Bob Gardner, John Marshall, Ricky Leacock and other filmmakers like me.” Most of our students went on to other pursuits, but some continued studying film or anthropology, at Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, and art schools. One student became the film archivist at the University of Pennsylvania. Another created a successful business coaching international clients in intercultural communication. (As I recall, Rouch gave this student a particularly hard time when she showed the class her student film of traditional iron smelting in Togo. Rouch rebuked her for polluting the enterprise, as a fertile woman. He was genuinely horrified by what she had done.)

49In 1986, Gardner decided to teach a new and improved workshop with Rouch. Our classroom moved again, to the sumptuously renovated Sever Hall in Harvard Yard, where Gardner, having retired as Director of the Carpenter Center, had a suite of offices. “This room is too nice for me,” said Rouch, when he introduced himself to the students that year. He did not return to teach in 1987, for a variety of professional and personal reasons.

50Rouch visited New York in the years that followed, to speak at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Center for the Study of Media, Culture and History, directed by Faye Ginsburg at New York University. There were gatherings at the French Cultural Service on Fifth Avenue, and at the apartment of Godard’s sister near Lincoln Center. A visit to the American Museum of Natural History was not a success. The fundraising campaign had succeeded, all too well, and the dinosaur hall had been brought up-to-date. Rouch kicked one of the new display cases.

51New England was Rouch’s Indian Summer. His days of ethnographic recording with Dieterlen were in the past. His Songhay priests were dead, and their successors were now referring to Rouch’s PhD thesis as a kind of scripture. But in Boston, Rouch could enjoy himself with his friends in the present. Leacock, with his “cruel and tender eye”. Marshall, with his desperate efforts on behalf of the Ju/wasi. Wylie, happy in old age with his beautiful wife. Rouch wanted to make a film about Wylie and Joan in their island retreat on Cuttyhunk, which he planned to call Time and Tide. Wylie set aside time for the filming, but Rouch didn’t get around to it. Bob Gardner never did invite Rouch to go flying with him.

52In the classroom, Rouch was able to review his life’s work in film, and summon his “totemic ancestors”: Delacroix, Picabia, Vertov, Flaherty. He told the students that he loved his wife, Jane, because she was part Gypsy. He told them about Dieterlen, weeping in the back of the church at Griaule’s funeral in Paris, and he promised them that when the time came, Germaine would have a Dogon funeral in Mali, and rest in effigy beside Griaule. He told a new generation of students about the little Dogon shepherd boys in the Bandiagara cave. The grownups had them tending goats, surrounded by the relics of ancestors whose stories they weren’t told. “Sometime later, they will ask questions.”

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Griaule Marcel, 1965, Conversations with Ogotemmêli, London, Oxford University Press.

Griaule Marcel, 1983 [1938], Masques dogons, Paris, Institut d’ethnologie, “Travaux et mémoires” 33.

Gruen Michael, 1963, “A Center in Search of a Program”, The Harvard Crimson, May Visual Arts Supplement.

[NA], 1992, “Harvard: Cinema à la Spike Lee In a Curious Setting”, The New York Times, March 1.

Rouch Jean, 1960, La Religion et la Magie songhay, Paris, Presses universitaires de France.

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1 Massachussetts Institute of Technology.

2 Rouch 1960.

3 Griaule 1983.

4 Griaule 1965.

5 Gruen 1963.

6 NA 1992.

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Emilie de Brigard, « Indian Summer School: Rouch in New England », Journal des africanistes, 87-1/2 | 2017, 262-281.

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Emilie de Brigard

Cinema History, Film Research

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