Jean Rouch and his influence on Direct Cinema

See Sense of Cinema Article on Jean Rouch

Rouch was an ethnographer, a filmmaker, and only sometimes a maker of ethnographic films. While he saw himself as a difficult fit in both fields—“For ethnographers I am a filmmaker, and for filmmakers I am an ethnographer”—his approach fueled potent critiques of Western epistemological certainties and of filmmaking practice. Finding himself uncomfortable in a discipline that postulated that the European was able to enter into and understand the culture of the “other”, who in turn was not able to understand the European, Rouch addressed this imbalance by switching medium from written academic discourse to the sounds and images of a filmmaking model that did not elide the presence of the (European) observer. The generosity of this solution offered a ground for the transformation of anthropology, toward a reciprocity between those who study and those who are studied, and in the process Rouch’s mobile, improvisational practice informed the development of new models for both documentary and fiction filmmaking.

His Approach saw the filmmaker as an active participant, never impartial, but partial and provoking.

In Chronique d’un été (1961, co-directed with Edgar Morin) the camera is turned away from Africa, toward, as Rouch says, his own tribe, the Parisians. The term cinéma-vérité refers to Rouch’s theorisation, not unrelated to that of Dziga Vertov’s kino-pravda (cine-truth), of a reality perceivable only through the movie camera. Not invested in objectivity, cinéma-vérité is based on provocation: instead of hiding the camera, it is thrust into a situation to serve as catalyst to produce a “cine-truth.” The term, however, soon became synonymous with the very different “direct cinema” practice, in which an inconspicuous camera is intended to capture objective truth.

Theory notwithstanding, Chronique has little in common with the explosive montage and special effects of Vertov’s avant-garde works like Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Rouch and Morin’s politically charged portrait of working and middle-class Parisians and immigrants is ostensibly set off by a simple question asked of passers-by: “Are you happy?” This man-in-the-street interview scenario has led to some misconception of the meaning of the film’s vérité as objectivity, or even as a simple documentation of the vox populi, but the film quickly takes a turn from random selection to a not-at-all-random documentary on a closed group consisting of the survey team and its acquaintances. (7) Members of this core group are seen in interviews (which often turn into wrenching psychodrama), conversations over dinner, and other activities.

See a clip from Chronicle of a Summer set in Paris 1961.

Chronicle of a Summer 2


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