The Jean Rouch Project

On Wednesday I was lucky to be at a Paris screening of the seminal documentary – “Chronique d’un Ete” (“Chronicle of a Summer”) which was being shown, almost fifty years after it was made in 1960, to a gathering including the co-producer Edgar Morin and two of the original participants – Marceline Loridan-Ivens and Nadine Ballot.

I was in Paris for a conference, Le Projet Jean Rouch? (The Jean Rouch Project?) which looked at the legacy of the pioneering French anthropological film maker Jean Rouch, who died in 2004. (The conference papers I refer to later in this piece are available as pdfs on the conference website).  Rouch is a figure I’ve been interested in since the ’80s when I was alerted to his work by Michael Eaton who wrote the first English language Rouch study . I interviewed Rouch in ’91 for a BBC Late Show special about documentary, and his ideas have influenced the way I’ve thought about work I’ve produced since – in particular BBC 2’s Video Nation.

Rouch started making anthropological films in West Africa in the 1940s, having gone there as an engineer, and embarked on a body of work which, while it drew on the past – Rouch sited film makers Vertov and Flaherty in particular as influences – was highly innovative and still feels fresh today. Imagine a film in which two young men from rural Niger enact their own story of trying to survive in the unfamiliar modern urban surroundings of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, narrated by one of them – in the persona of Edward G Robinson. That’s “Moi un Noir” – 1958. Or picture an African on the streets of Paris conducting an anthropological study –  persuading passers-by to let him measure their heads and inspect their mouths. Not “Meet the Natives” – 2007, but Rouch’s “Petit a Petit” – 1969, featuring Rouch’s long-time friend and collaborator Damoure Zika.

Rouch is interesting for a number of reasons. In terms of content, he took anthropology into the African city, pointed to the contemporary content of ritual, and to the growing influence of American culture in everyday life and fantasy in post-war West Africa. But he saw filming not as some kind of documentation but as a form of engagement in which the camera is a catalyst, a player. He wanted to get right inside the world he was filming – “to get rid of one’s own systems of thought, to better understand other peoples’ thoughts” – and this is expressed in his films through first person, subjective narration. Film-making for Rouch was a collaborative process in which film-maker and participants jointly create meaning, a project he called ‘shared anthropology’. I was in Paris because I’m interested in how this idea of shared anthropology might be deployed in the development of collaborative documentary practice today. I was also there because I’m taking Jean Rouch’s 1960 film “Chronicle of a Summer” as the starting point for a collaborative piece I’m going to be producing half a century later in 2010.

At the screening on Wednesday, Edgar Morin described how “Chronicle of a Summer” came about after a conversation in which he proposed that Rouch turn his anthropological eye on the people of Paris. (Morin’s account brought to mind the genesis of the British Mass Observation project which similarly arose out of a dialogue about ‘bringing anthropology home’ – in that case between anthropologist Tom Harrisson, filmmaker Humphrey Jennings and journalist Charles Madge. This parallel was explored in a conference presentation by Elena von Kassel Siambani the morning after the screening.)

The film that emerged from Rouch and Morin’s discussion involved one of the first uses of 16mm handheld camera and sync sound. This technology was by no means off-the-shelf. The filming was very experimental technically and it took a development process across the shooting period to achieve reliable sync, as Vincent Bouchard and Severine Graff explained in their conference papers. Rouch’s ’50s films were shot silent with narration added afterwards. What he was striving for was a handheld set-up flexible enough to film spontaneous speech in real-life settings. As subject matter Rouch and Morin settled on the everyday life of “the tribe of people living in Paris”, their brief; “What is your life? Are you happy?” Their film unfolds as a disparate group of people consider those questions from different perspectives during the course of the summer of 1960. The film reveals French society in a process of change – divided over the repression of the independence movement in Algeria, living with the legacy of the Occupation, with class, race and identity in debate. At the same time the film is an investigation into this new spontaneous filming method, a reflection on the ethics and aesthetics of documentary still  relevant today.

I didn’t understand much of the Q & A at the Paris screening as my French is rudimentary, and there wasn’t any translation, but I did make out Edgar Morin relating that a young man who’d recently seen “Chronicle of a Summer” had summarised it as;“…a reality show, with a critical dimension.” It was an apt observation. The unfolding of events and feelings on camera, the “pro-filmic event” as Rouch called it, that was key to his film-making, is these days a crucial ingredient  in reality TV, with Big Brother acting as the catalyst to ensure that something does happen. You can see Rouch as the provocateur in this clip from “Chronicle of a Summer”. It’s not my favourite sequence – Rouch’s interventions seem heavy-handed out of context and without the “critical dimension” that is crucial to the film. But the sequence does give a flavour of “Chronicle of a Summer”, and it’s the only clip available on You Tube. So here it is.

In 2010, on the fiftieth anniversary of  “Chronicle of a Summer”, I’m planning to revisit the questions that Rouch and Morin posed in their film, to try and start a conversation about contemporary life and values. I’ll use the web as the platform, and want to involve diverse participants from around the world, bringing together distributed responses – in video and stills, combined perhaps with some form of data visualisation. While Rouch and Morin’s 1960 film investigated the potential of the new handheld sync sound filming, “The Happiness Project” (working title) will investigate the potential for participatory online documentary. There are lots of challenges, and issues to work through regarding how to go about. At the heart of my investigation is the question of how to combine peoples’ recordings to tell a larger story – in a form that works on the web, and is editorially satisfying.

I’m not the first person to be experimenting with collaborative documentary by any means – there have been some really interesting creative responses already in this space – including work by Kutiman and MadV on You Tube, and Brett Gaylor’s “RiP! A Remix Manifesto” – an important, entertaining feature documentary that’s currently winning lots of prizes at Film Festivals (and will be the subject of my next post). In producing “The Happiness Project” as practice-based research, I get to build on what others have done, experiment, and share my findings. I’ll be posting here about the project as it develops, inviting people to get involved, and and reflecting on what works and what doesn’t.

Rouch didn’t see the explosion of non-professional video content that has happened on You Tube – he died just a few months before the service launched. But he did anticipate the age of participatory media. Back in 1973 he wrote; “Tomorrow will be the time of completely portable colour video, video editing, and instant replay… and of a camera that can so totally participate that it will automatically pass into the hands of those who, until now, have always been in front of the lens.” I hope that “The Happiness Project” might contribute a new dimension to shared anthropology, by developing ways for those who have “always been in front of the lens” to tell their collective stories.

Postscript ~ Rouch is a contested, at times contradictory figure and if you’re curious about him I’d urge you to read beyond this brief introduction. As a brief overview Michael Eaton’s terrific obituary piece is a must. The diverse perspectives of “Building Bridges” open up the complexity of Rouch’s work.  Rouch’s relationship to Africa has been subject to critique by, among others, Manthia Diawara in  “Rouch in Reverse” . Steven Feld’s  “Cine-Ethnography” which I’ve drawn on here, is a rich resource of Rouch’s own writing.  A new book – “The Adventure of the Real; Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema” by Paul Henley sounds promising.