Review: Tracing Silhouettes: Three Movies by Jean Rouch

Lin Wen-Ling

French director Jean Rouch is among the directors to be presented at this year’s Taiwan International Ethnographic Film Festival. A prominent director of documentary films, Jean Rouch is also renowned worldwide as the founder of the Comite du Film Ethnographique at the Musee de l’Homme and the reality cinema (cinema verite) film genre that he developed in the 1950s remains influential today. In keeping with this year’s theme “Migration Story” Jean Rouch’s well-known and brilliant series of the 50s and 60s will be shown at this exhibition. Interestingly, some of the films were not edited and completed until 10 years after they were shot. Three of his works, The Crazy Masters (Les Maitres Fous, 1953-1954), Jaguar (1954-1967), and Me, A Black (Moi, Un Noir, 1959), will be shown at this year’s festival.

In these films, Jean Rouch probes historical factors of colonial Western Africa, such as the rise of port cities, economies, and employment situations, which brought about the movement of large populations. These films have three common themes: journey, the city, and modern life. The term “journey,” however, entails a different meaning and “city” manifests another dimension of life. These films all employ ritual and are divided into three sections each.

The Crazy Masters: A Journey of the Transformation of the Mind 
Opening up in downtown Accra, Ghana’s capital city, the film unceremoniously plops the audience into the middle of the bustling city, referred to by Rouch in his narration as “the true black Babylon,” packed with people from all over Western Africa struggling to partake of this the “best and most exciting city of Africa.”

In the second part of the film, the camera follows an impoverished group of Hauka disciples from Niger living in Accra as they flock to the suburbs where they take part in a ritual. In the heat of the ritual, large numbers of Hauka believers enter trance like states as they are possessed by the spirits of colonizers. Some begin taking on the expressions and mannerisms of the English (including the colonial English governor and his entourage). At this point, Rouch inserts scenes from the place where the “real” governor and his entourage met in Accra. This side-by-side scene arrangement brings the film to its dramatic climax and reinforces the film’s implication, that is, in the blink of an eye, the Hauka believers subvert the colonial power and authority of their white rulers as they imitate them.

Rouch, who employs a series of flashbacks in The Crazy Masters, returns to the city the following day to interview members of the Hauka sect that had taken part in the ceremony over the weekend. We see scenes of them back in their daily lives working quietly and efficiently, interwoven with scenes of possession from the previous day’s ceremony.

The debut of this film in Paris in the 1950s caused an uproar and discomfort among viewers, including African intellectuals. Not only were the trance shots a mockery to the government, they showed political structures, both colonial and post colonial, as illegitimate and irrational.

The Crazy Masters is a film about more than spiritual possession and marks a milestone in anthropologic films. Rouch employs visual and sound effects to carefully craft the film’s atmosphere, thereby providing a transforming power that leads members of the audience to reflect and fall into their own trances.

Rouch originally considered films concrete witnesses to culture. In The Crazy Masters, his views changed. He now saw the camera as an ethnographic tool to further the understanding of ethnic groups. Reality cinema contends that ethnographic reality occurs during encounters between researcher and subject or between individuals on either side of the camera. It is not simply the recording of reality. Rouch would no longer use his films to convey existent knowledge; rather he would use them to appeal to and/or influence the viewer’s mind, to throw his senses into turmoil, to overthrow old ways of thinking, and to introduce new depths to knowledge and new ways of understanding.

Jaguar: Moving to the City in Search of Wealth 
Many correlations, including similar settings, exist between Jaguar and The Crazy Masters. Migration, the city, and modern life, the central themes of The Crazy Master, appear again in Jaguar. Although they share the themes of journey and the movement of human beings and structures built on these themes, the films depict different characters, places, and events.

In the movie Jaguar, the three main characters, Lam, Ilom, and Damoure, journey from Savannah, Niger to Ghana’s Gold Coast to seek adventure and fortune, returning two months later. The film is divided into three distinct parts each built around their unfolding stories. The first section begins with the introduction of Lam, Ilom, and Damoure preparing for their journey and ends with them arriving at customs. The second section, focuses on their urban adventures. They reunite in the third section and return home.

Each of Jaguar’s three sections has his own distinct form. The dizzying movement of Rouch’s camera, for example, characterizes the first as it never stops moving, rotating, or shifting as if it were one of the characters. The documentary style of this film is also characterized by sudden departures in this section to surrealistic shots. Rouch employs light, plants, and scenery to reinforce the feeling of “leaving an unfamiliar world for an unknown one.”

In the second section of the movie, our three adventurers head off, each on his own quest. Their stories are staggered to lend to a sensation of confusing, fragmented modern city life. In contrast to the city, the village from which the three young men hail is set in a concrete time, giving it more of a feeling of reality, providing them social identity and legitimacy. Driven by the leading characters’ personalities, Jaguar develops gradually and its plot forms as it extols the subjectivity of man and, because his subjectivity offers limitless possibilities, the city becomes the ideal place for pursuing dreams, fantasies, and new identities. The three leading characters of this film, Lam, Ilom, and Damoure, represent the generations of people of this region that have headed to cities in search of adventure and fortune. Jaguar explores subjectivity and the migration experience of this area.

Me, A Black: A Week in the Lives of Immigrants
Young people from all over pour into Africa’s major cities daily in pursuit of fortune and dreams, but their dreams remain out of reach as the realities of life take precedence. They have no choice but to do odd jobs offering no promise for tomorrow and are referred to as the “new urban plague.”

In Me, A Black, a reality based documentary, a group of laborers from Niger working in the Ivory Coast’s capital city of Abidjan reenact their own lives in front of the camera. The first section of the film shows them throughout the course of a week as they perform odd jobs and try to secure steady work in an attempt to blend into the city. In the second part of the film, the camera follows “Robinson” as he spends his day off at the seashore. The third section portrays another week’s arrival.

Although the second part of the film portrays him relaxing and having a good time, he still cannot seem to find work. In the midst of his reveling, Robinson loses himself in reverie. His fantasies of being a champion boxer, only offer temporary reprieve from his plight. Robinson returns to reality as an Italian hits on the girl he likes and the Italian beats the intoxicated Robinson to a pulp. The scene is followed by the start of a new week as Robinson continues his search for work. Their homeland of Niger seems further and further away as do their childhood memories as they struggle in the bustling, booming city.

The boxer and fight scenes do an excellent job of bringing home the idea of the dialectical relationship between “reality” and “fiction.” Robinson’s dream of being a champion boxer becomes part of the film, revealing his desire to become wealthy as quickly as possible, while the scrap with the Italian heaves him back into reality. While shots of sweat and tears leave the audience wondering if the scenes are real or play-acted, they reveal reality and do an excellent job of accurately conveying day-to-day difficulties experienced by Niger youths in the Ivory Coast.

Tracing Silhouettes 
Like his peers, Rouch strove to realize ocularcentrism’s sight/visual knowledge, regarding things seen, on the one hand, as a kind of sight as optical fact, while viewing the act of seeing as a sense of perception, rather than sight as perceptual phenomena. The experimental nature of his films, however, reveals unique insight derived from intuition. The reality revealed in Rouch’s films, therefore, differ from that of other filmmakers, showing the fundamental distinction being their different ways of seeing things.

Reflecting reality, Rouch’s documentary films are concerned with viewer reaction to social realities, on the one hand, and are characterized by surrealist techniques such as intervention, fabrication, extemporaneous acting, and creative narratives, on the other, as the attempt to overthrow established views on social realities and provide opportunity for change. The effects created by the painstakingly deliberate blending and staggered use of visual and audio elements give the viewer more freedom and power to understand and interpret his films. The techniques he uses for divulging truth to his films their sense of authenticity.

The term “tracing silhouettes” symbolizes drawing outlines around the light of rationality. Rather than being distinct, the lines between rationality and irrationality, light and darkness, whites and blacks drift and shift. Pay close attention to the light’s periphery and see how Rouch’s films blend romanticism with surrealistic humanism.