Deleuze on cinema vérité and ethnographic film

From Cinema 2

The cinema(s) of reality sometimes claimed objectivity, and sometimes subjectivity [via points of view of characters].  This represents a documentary or ethnographic version, and the investigative  or reportage version respectively.  Sometimes they were intermingled.  However, truth was claimed, even though it ‘was dependent on cinematographic fiction itself’ (149), in other words on the resolution of the camera and the character.  There was also the character of the ethnologist as reporter.  That the true itself is a fiction had yet to be realised, in [these] early notions of cinematic truth.  (150).

The new mode of story telling affected both fiction and reality in the break in cinema in the 1960s [and various forms are mentioned including direct cinema, the cinema of the lived, cinema vérité].  The notion of truth itself was being challenged in favour of an unapologetic 'pure and simple storytelling function ‘(150).  [Perrault in particular is cited here, and what he seems to be doing is letting the oppressed in Quebec, tell their story, instead of claiming it is as the truth – that concept is inextricable from colonialism].  People become real characters when they start to make their own fiction, becoming another, and filmmakers also need to let the characters tell their stories,  not just pursue his own fictions.  This is ‘free indirect discourse’ of the people of Quebec (151) The same intentions are found in  cinema vérité, not a cinema that gets to the truth, but one that shows the truth of cinema (151).

A similar evolution is detectable in the work of Rouch, who began as an ethnographer.  He realised as did everyone else that the camera always has an active effect on the characters, and saw this in a positive sense, for example showing characters becoming quite different before and after particular events like an African religious ritual Les Mâitres Fous (see below) (151).  In Moi un Noir characters can be seen inventing themselves as real characters, the more real the better they are at reinvention. In Jaguar  [I have only seen clips] the characters share roles [sound a bit like the interchanging labourers in Godard’s Weekend –a black immigrant tells the story of his workmate etc].[The reinvention seems to occur afterwards when immigrants return to their homes ‘full of exploits and  lies where the least incident becomes power’ (151)]

Dionysos by Rouch is the one to see, it seems [I haven't been able to see it] – ‘The image of industrial society which brings together a Hungarian mechanic an Ivory Coast riveter, a West Indian metalworker, a Turkish carpenter, a German woman mechanic [it] plunges into a before that is Dionysian...but this before is also an after, like the post industrial horizon where one worker has become a flautist, another a tambourine player...’ (152) ].  Again, the time-image seem to be involved here, as the camera 'constantly reattaches the character to the before and after' (152).  Overall 'The character is continually becoming another, and is no longer separable from this becoming which merges with a people' (152). ‘The character must first of all be real is he to affirm fiction as a power...he has to tell stories in order to affirm himself all the more as real and not fictional’]

The same goes for the filmmaker, who also becomes another, as real characters replace his fiction.  ‘Rouch makes his own indirect free discourse at the same time as his characters make that of Africa’ ( 152). Both Rouch and Perrault clearly wanted to break with their own dominant conceptions, by rediscovering lost identities and breaking of the dominant civilization.  Both merged with the characters and became other, breaking with the conventions between film maker and characters.  Both show that process whereby 'I is another'.  A new collectivity between filmmaker and characters emerges (153).  This 'indirect' cinema breaks with conventional prose as much as does Pasolini’s poetry.

Try some actual Rouch fims now? These are my notes:

Cimitières dans la falaise (1951) This is about the burial practices among the Dogon. We start with the mourning rituals including the sacrifice of a chick, then see the corpse swaddled, carried ceremonially through the village and finally hoisted up the cliff and buried in one of the niches in the heavily striated [!] cliff face over the village. Lots of human bones are there. Everyone is in poor people’s versions of everyday westernised dress. This film also dwells on the amazing natural beauty of the area, and the picturesque houses of the Dogon – so there is the danger of a bit of exoticism as well, and, of course, the easy identification with the Dogon who share our emotions etc.

Les Mâitres Fous (1955) About a religious sect in Accra  --  in Nigeria I think. The new religion is a very odd mix of cargo-cult type imitations of European goodies – Union Jacks, solar topees, rifles etc, and a kind of voodoo-like series of trances and excesses.  We see the sect leaders deciding an issue of marital rights (I think – my French is basic). Then we see the bizarre religious behaviour of the sect members as the ritual develops – foaming at the mouth, in convulsions on the ground, savagely eating sacrificed animals etc – in heavy contrast to their appearance before and afterwards as normal (impoverished Europeanised), pleasant people, soldiers and labourers. The French commentary urges us not to judge by the standards of our civilisation – the animal sacrifices are tough to watch – and ends by saying more or less that this is what it is like to really be an African man. For me, the point was to challenge the picture of Africans as either just European like us but a bit child-like, or as primitive savages – the time dimension showed that it was both and neither pretty effectively.

Moi un Noir [sorry -- I have lost the You Tube link. A short trailer remains accessible  here] gives us a picture of the lives of black African migrants in Nigeria. They have a tough time living on precarious work, but enjoy themselves clubbing and chasing girls in a very recognisable way  They fantasise about  being Hollywood characters and are very knowledgeable about them. They also feel nostalgic about home. Rouch collaborated with his characters fully, letting them share the scripting,narration,selection of shots and editing. You can see the technique illustrated in a documentary on Rouch here

Here is the UBUweb obit of Rouch:

Obituary: Jean Rouch
James Kirkup
THE CREATOR of at least 120 documentary films, all remarkable, the great French cineaste Jean Rouch and his works are known and appreciated by a select few among all the "fans" swarming to wallow in the latest trilogies of this and that. Though since my film-club youth I had always been enthusiastic about documentaries, it was not until June 1996 that I experienced the revelation of Rouch's incomparable cinematographic art at the Galerie du Jeu de Paume in Paris.
He was then in his 80th year, just one year older than myself, and this encounter with an unknown fellow spirit was one of the great events of my old age. The prospect of soon becoming an octogenarian filled me with excitement when I saw Jean Rouch's tall, upright figure and handsome face. It was the first of several sightings, mainly in the streets of Montparnasse and at the cafe known as Le Bal Bullier.
At the age of six, Jean was taken by his father, director of the Musee Oceanographique in Monaco, to a cinema in Brest showing Nanook of the North, Robert Flaherty's 1922 film about life in an Eskimo family. The next week, his mother took him to see Douglas Fairbanks as Robin Hood. The future film-maker was born under the twin stars of discovery and adventure.
In his youthful student days, back in Paris, he haunted cinemas and joined the circle of devotees organised by the future director of the Cinematheque Henri Langlois. However, in 1937 he entered L'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees to train as a civil engineer. One year after the defeat of France in 1940, he managed to make his way to the West African state of Niger to construct roads and bridges.
It was there that he first succumbed to the fascination of traditional native rites. An elderly Sorko woman set out to purify the souls of 10 workmen struck by lightning - "a truly marvellous but horrifying ceremony", Rouch was later to recall -
and from that day on I realised that such an event could not be conveyed in writing or in photographs; it could only be captured on film, in colour and with sound.
In that great retrospective at the Jeu de Paume, I was entranced by the early works of what he called his "visual anthropology" from his first visionary masterpiece, paid for out of his own pocket, Au pays des mages noirs ("In the Land of the Black Seers", 1947), in which with a few friends he descends the Niger from its source to its magnificent espousals with the ocean.
By a miraculous concatenation of circumstances - through his fellow writer/ ethnologist Michel Leiris (whose L'Afrique fantome, 1934, had been an inspiration) and a joyous troupe of jazz fiends fired by black African rhythms - the film was brought to the bemused attention of the newsreel director of Actualites Francaises, who decided to schedule it, conditional upon the addition of commentary, music and the insertion of a few supernumerary indigenous animals, which gave what he considered was a suitably "colonialist" stamp of authority. The commentary was enthusiastically declaimed by the regular racing-cyclist authority on the Tour de France. Rouch rejected the result, though he accepted it as "a lesson in how not to approach the montage of a film".
His real entry upon the cinematic scene came one year later when Henri Langlois organised "A Festival of Forbidden Films" with the help of Jean Cocteau at Biarritz, where in 1949 the film that was awarded the Grand Prix du Documentaire was Rouch's ultra-realistic La Circoncision ("The Circumcision"), along with his Initiation a la Danse des Possedes ("Initiation to the Dance of the Possessed"). Rouch then composed a thesis on rituals of possession to accompany his film Les Maitres fous ("Masters of Madness", 1955), which was severely criticised for its "lack of objectivity" by certain academic ethnographers.
He was just as disrespectful of the current views of what "quality French cinema" should be with his preceding masterpieces Yenendi: les hommes qui font la pluie (Rainmakers, 1951), Cimetiere dans la falaise ("Cliff Cemetery", 1951), and Batailles sur le grand fleuve ("Battles on the Big River", 1950) - all three of which were later combined into a full-length feature entitled Les Fils de l'eau (The Sons of Water, 1958).
Jean Rouch's fame was spreading among film fanatics after he received the Venice Festival Grand Prix in 1957 for Les Maitres fous. In 1958, inspired partly by Jean Genet's 1958 play Les Negres, he made Moi, un noir (I, a Negro, 1958), which won the Louis Delluc Prize. His work had already attracted the young intellectuals and influenced the first films of the nouvelle vague including some who were to achieve fame and fortune - Claude Chabrol, Jean-Luc Godard, who was the first to welcome him to the select band of the New Wave film-makers, and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze.
"Cinema verite" was one of the terms used to express the realism of "cinema truth", a term invented by Rouch himself. It reached its full expression in a film he made in collaboration with the young sociologist Edgar Morin in 1960, Chronique d'un ete (Chronicle of a Summer, 1961), a work of radical originality set in the period of Algerian decolonisation and created entirely in the streets of Paris by means of a hand-held camera with synchronised sound. New technology had made cinema verite more than ever true to the truth.
Jean Rouch at 86 had lost some of his youthful energy but none of his wit and enthusiasm. With another great film-maker still not subdued by the constraints of old age, the veteran Portuguese master Manoel de Oliveira (a Firbankian nonagenarian), he made a film in Oporto centred on that city's Pont Eiffel, based on a poem d'Oliveira had written as a script.
En une poignee de mains amies ("In a Fistful of Friendly Hands", 1997) was a symbolic return to his first employment as a builder of bridges - he who built bridges of the creative spirit between blacks and whites all over the world. And whose final bridge was crossed in a car crash in the night in his preferred province, Niger.
Jean Pierre Rouch, ethnologist and film-maker: born Paris 31 May 1917; Director of Research, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique 1966- 86; General Secretary, Cinematheque Francaise 1985- 86, President 1987- 91; married 1952 Jane George (deceased), 2002 Jocelyne Lamothe; died Konni, Niger 18 February 2004.
Copyright 2004 Independent Newspapers UK Limited

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