Moi, un Noir

Indeed, it is arguable that purely form a cinematographic point of view, Moi, un Noir represents the pinnacle of Rouch’s achievement as a cameraman.

The influence on the filmmakers of the New Wave of the cinematographic technique that Rouch deployed in this film has often been commented upon, particularly in relation to the final sequence on the film in which Robinson both relates and enacts his wartime experiences in Indochina for his friend, Petit Jules, as they walk alongside the lagoon. This sequence is made up of a series of tracking shots that Rouch executed handheld, moving alongside the protagonist in a car, all shot in wide angle in order to minimize the effect of bumps, and linked only by jump cuts.  When the produces Pierre Braunberg first saw this sequence, he suggested putting in some cutaway of newsreel from Vietnam to cover these jump cuts. Rouch thought that this would be a disaster, so Braunberg suggested that they ask the opinion of Francois Truffault, far from taking Braunberg’s side, was so impressed that he decided that he would end Les Quatre Cents Coups, which he was editing at the time, in a similar way.

Moi, un Noir being awarded the most prestigious film prize in France, the Prix Louis Delluc, for 1959. Rouch, however, was not there to collect the prize in person, for by then he had already returned to the drought-ridden savannas of the middle Niger River to continue working on the film that would eventually become The Lion Hunters.

The Adventure of The Real, Paul Henley

The Origins of Shared Anthropology

The arrangements for the screening were not elaborate: one evening, Rouch simply projected the film onto a white sheet in the open air. At first, the audience was interested only in the projector, but then they realized that they had to look at the sheet. By this time, Rouch had been visiting Songhay for a decade, but they have never really understood the nature of his work. He had given them copies of his publications but although they had stuck the photographs on their walls, they had simply ignored the text. Even when Rouch had arranged for the schoolmaster to read out certain sections aloud, they had not properly understood. But, in no more than a few seconds, he felt that they finally appreciated what he was trying to do.

Rouch showed the film many times that night: in some versions of the story, it was three times, in other four, in some it is even claimed that there were five showings. Certain member of the audience were shocked when they saw the image of people who had since dead, believing that somehow their soul had suddenly rematerialized in the form of the film. But as they start to understand the nature of the representation, they began to make more informed comments.

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In the audience that night. there was a man by the name of Tahirou Koro, whom Rouch had met during the course of the 1950-1951 expedition and who had brated lion hunter from Weyzebangou, a village close to Yakala, some fifty miles to the west of Ayorou. At the end of the screening, Tahirou come up to Rouch and suggested that his film about hippopotamus hunting had been all very well but he should now come to his village and make a film about lion hunting.  This would be much more exciting since he and his fellow Gow hunters were armed whit no more than bows and arrows when they set against this most dangerous of animals. This was a very attractive proposal to Rouch since he had made various failed attempts to film this form of liom hunting on his previous expeditions. Although his commitment  to the migration research program prevented him from taking up Tahirou’s proposal immediately, it would eventually result in the making of The Lion Hunters, a film that Rouch shot in the course of many different experitions between 1951 and 1965.

Even before that, the legendary first “feedback” screening at Azorou would give rice to another film, since Damoure and Illo had very much liked screeing themselves on the screen that night and wanted to do more. Damoure suggested to Rouch that they should now make a “real film”, a fictional feature “like Zorro.” This was reference to the then well-known Hollywood movie character “El Zorro”, Literally “the fox”, the original masked crusader, who spent his time setting wrongs alright in the colonial California, a role made famous by Douglas Fairbanks, Tryone Power, and others.

(The Adventure of  The Real by Paul Henley)

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SHARED ANTHROPOLOGY: (also referred to as reflexive anthropology) Rouch’s films partake in the practice of shared anthropology in various ways. First, having been influenced by the technique of Robert Flaherty, Rouch believed that feedback was a necessary ingredient in filmmaking. He would often screen the films he made to the individuals who featured in them and would make changes to the films based on their comments. This was an important practice for Rouch because he believed in the necessity of collaboration in order to come to a just portrait of his subjects. He states: “This type of participatory research, as idealistic as it may seem, appears to me to be the only morally and scientifically feasible anthropological attitude today” (Ciné-Ethnography, 44).

Second, Rouch was interested in the way his presence as a documentary filmmaker changed the events he was witnessing.  As opposed to shying away from the idea that his presence added another dimension to the events in question, Rouch attempted to understand what his role as observer/filmmaker was.  This is clearly articulated in his essay “Vicissitudes of the Self,” where he explores his role within his films and examines how, as a filmmaker, he functioned as a catalyst in certain possession ceremonies.  He writes, “It is a strange kind of choreography, which, if inspired, makes the cameraman and soundman no longer invisible but participants in the ongoing event” (Ciné-Ethnography, 99).

Lastly, Rouch attempted to share his filmmaking knowledge with the people who featured in his films. As a result, Rouch trained several Africans who would go on to become filmmakers (Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye, to name just a couple).  This kind of exchange seemed natural to Rouch who hoped that, as a result, Africans would be able to find a cinematic voice of their own. “One solution I propose to [cultural ownership] is to train the people with whom you work to be filmmakers. I don’t think it’s a complete answer, but it has merits in that it leaves the people with something rather than just taking from them” (Ciné-Ethnography, 221).

Through these methods, Rouch was able – perhaps more than any other ethnographic filmmaker – to create a cinema that was based on collaboration and participatory methods. It would take several generations for the rest of the anthropological world to catch up with him and it is likely that it will take several more before anyone is able to match the scope of his undertaking.

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