BIOGRAPHIES: Jean Rouch
by Ben Michaels
Jean Rouch was born in Paris on May 31, 1917. His father was a naval officer, relocating the family often while Rouch was a boy. Aside from spending many years in France, Rouch spent some of his early life in Algeria, Morocco and Germany, where he made friends with berbers and Germans alike. By the time Rouch was to attend secondary school, the family moved back to Paris, the city where Rouch spent many of his educational years. Growing up, Rouch’s parents influenced him in different ways; his father inspired his scientific curiosities, while his mother, a painter, introduced him to the arts. This mesh of art and science characterized Rouch’s life and works, which would become an idiosyncratic blend of scientific ethnography and artistic cinema (Stoller 1992).
In 1937, Rouch enrolled at l’École des Ponts et Chausées to study civil engineering at the urgency of his father, and he finished his degree in 1941. Although this school was not his first or second choice for university, it proved to suit his temperament well. The professors at Ponts et Chausées encouraged students to think of bridges and buildings as works of art, and Rouch even dubbed l’École “The School of Make-Believe” (Stoller 1992:27). Furthermore, the curriculum of Rouch’s civil engineering program was quite liberal, and he was permitted to take courses that were outside of the math and science domain. Having frequented the newly opened Musée de l’Homme in the late 1930s and in doing so having gained an interest in African art, Rouch decided to take a course with Marcel Griaule on Ethiopia in his last year at Ponts et Chausées; this decision proved to be one of the most influential on the rest of Rouch’s life and career (Stoller 1992).
Many changes took place in Paris between 1937 and 1941, when Rouch was in engineering school, including the founding of the Cinémathèque Française at the Musée de l’Homme as well as the German occupation of the city. Rouch had a great love for the cinema, and at the Cinémathèque Française Rouch saw his first two ethnographic films, Nanook of the North and Manoa, which “triggered his interest in anthropology” (Stoller 1992:26). On the other hand, after France entered into the war against Germany, Rouch and one of his fellow engineering students spent their time blowing up the beautiful bridges that they had learned to create at Ponts et Chausées in an effort to keep the incoming Germans at bay. The German occupation of France was also the impetus for Rouch’s return to Africa, as he decided to pursue work as an engineer in Niger so that he would not have to re-build bridges for the Nazis in France (Stoller 1992).
Hence, the year 1941 set in place Rouch’s long-term work in Africa. He started his career as an engineer, but Rouch’s experiences in Niger proved to him that anthropology was his true calling. In 1942, while still working for the Travaux Publics, Rouch was introduced to Songhay possession when a number of his laborers were killed by lightning. An old woman who happened to be the grandmother of Rouch’s friend conducted a ceremony in which her body served as a medium for communication with Dongo, the devil of thunder. Rouch was fascinated by Songhay possession, and the old woman, Kalia, invited him to other ceremonies, allowing him to take notes and pictures of the events. These he sent to his teacher at The School of Make-Believe, Marcel Griaule, who encouraged Rouch to delve deeper into the ethnography of Songhay possession (Stoller 1992:28-31).
However, in 1943 Rouch was drafted into the French Free Army’s Corps of Engineers, a job that required him to blow up more bridges. Rouch’s army tour took him from Morocco to Paris, and after meeting up with Griaule again, Rouch then decided to enroll in the Sorbonne’s anthropology program with Griaule as his advisor. As Stoller states, “In June 1945 Rouch earned his certificate in anthropology, and in October 1945 he left the military and returned to Paris to complete his diploma in anthropology” (1992:33). He received his doctoral degree in 1953 and, along with Lévi-Strauss and Griaule, became one of the first Frenchmen to receive a PhD in anthropology (Stoller 1992).
On February 18, 2004, Jean Rouch died in a car accident in Niger at the age of 86.
As explained in Heider’s Ethnographic Film, the 1960s saw a boom in French ethnographic film under the influence of Jean Rouch, however these works were not well distributed in North America and therefore had little effect on American anthropologists and filmmakers at the time (1976:39-40).
Rouch’s work is controversial,
Barbash, Ilisa and Lucien Taylor. 1997. Cross-Cultural Filmmaking: A Handbook for Making Documentary and Ethnographic Films and Videos. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Documentary Educational Resources (DER) and Craig Johnson. 2004. Jean Rouch: A Tribute. Retrieved April 29, 2006 from http://www.der.org/jean-rouch/content/index.php.
Heider, Karl G. 1976. Ethnographic Film. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Prosser, Jon (ed.). 1998. Image-Based Research: A Sourcebook for Qualitative Researchers. Philadelphia: RoutledgeFalmer, Taylor & Francis, Inc.
Rouch, Jean. 2003. Ciné-Ethnography. Edited and translated by Steven Feld. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stoller, Paul. 1992. The Cinematic Griot. The University of Chicago Press.
Stoller, Paul. 1997. Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Jean Rouch Bibliography
Jean Rouch Filmography
1955 Les Maîtres Fous (Eng: The Mad Masters). Films de la Pléiade.
DER and Craig Johnson, 2005. Jean Rouch: A Tribute. Retrieved April 25, 2006 from http://www.der.org/jean-rouch/content/index.php.
-Born May 31, 1917 in Paris
-Died in a car accident in Niger on Feb. 18, 2004 (age 86)
-1986-1991 Director of the Cinémathèque Française
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