Thank you for talking to me, Africa
On Saturday, Minnesota Film Arts begins its essential three-film retrospective at the Bell (in Minneapolis) on the cinéma-vérité documentaries of Jean Rouch: "Slippages of Fiction," running Saturday, November 20 through Sunday, November 28. If you have to see only one film, make it next weekend's rarely screened Chronique d'un ete ("Chronicle of a Summer"), one of my favorite movies of all time. But I'm going to all three, and recommend that anyone interested in West African culture do the same. Here is a complete schedule, including my own reviews of Conversations With Jean Rouch and Chronicle of a Summer, with links below.
'The best French film since the liberation.' - Jean Luc Godard.
Oumarou Ganda, aka 'Edward G. Robinson', is a veteran of Indochina whose father disowned him for losing the war. Now unemployed on the streets of Treichville, Abidjan, he is one of the unlikely heroes of Rouch's pioneering masterpiece. One of the earliest examples of a drama documentary (dubbed 'ethnofiction' by Rouch), the young Abidjan slum dwellers who star in this film play themselves but create their own adventures. Preceded by Conversations With Jean Rouch (2004).
Here's my review of Conversations With Jean Rouch:
Though his influence on Scorsese, Godard, and Warhol helped shape the look and feel of modern movies, Jean Rouch never became a comparable figure of American popular culture. Which might explain why this godfather of cinema verite, who established the camera as a highly mobile instrument of provocation (eventually making way for Roger Lodge), never became the subject of a major documentary himself. (Though here are some docs on him worth tracking down.) This half-hour collection of interviews videotaped by his friend Ann McIntosh between 1978 and 1980, and hastily assembled after Rouch�s car-accident death in February, provides some revealing raw material for any potential future bio-doc. Screening as part of Bell Auditorium�s rare Rouch retrospective, Slippages of Fiction (and preceding 1958�s Moi, Un Noir), the short won�t make much sense to anyone unfamilier with his work. (Along with clips of Rouch�s films, one longs for subtitles translating his heavily accented English). Still, Rouch was a magnetic talker. Before he began filming his ethnographic portraits in West Africa in the early 1940s, he served as a military engineer assigned to blow up the bridges he�d been trained to design. In the film, Rouch describes his quixotic mission to bicycle across France destroying any bridge he found. And as the interviews suggest, the unimpeded advance of the German army against the supposedly great French one proved to be his dissilusionment with anything the camera could not prove. Rouch�s great subject became the fiction of the real, and anyone interested in that shouldn't miss this.
Here's the Minnesota Film Arts blurb:
Three young men from the Savannah of Niger leave their homeland to seek wealth and adventure on the coast and in the cities of Ghana. This film is the story of their travels, their encounters along the way, their experiences in Accra and Kumasi, and, after three months, their return to their families and friends at home. The film is part documentary, part fiction, and part reflective commentary.
Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin making 'Chronicle of a Summer' in 1960, walking through the Musee de l'Homme
Here's my review in the forthcoming City Pages:
"Are You Happy?"
Is there a film with more lasting grace and influence than 1961's Chronicle of a Summer? Is there a classic as rarely seen? From its enduring obscurity, you'd think this cinéma-vérité landmark were hopelessly stranded in place and time. To be sure, directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin turned their handheld camera on a photogenic cityscape--Paris circa 1960--that could poster any dorm room: the endless stairs and cobblestone streets of 1956's The Red Balloon multiplied by the emerging cool of the youth culture. (Among other things, this movie is an advertisement for the beauty of smoking.)
Yet Chronicle of a Summer remains fresh, so high on its ideas that you can inhale its fizz across four decades. The idea was to film a variety of French citizens--some friends of the filmmakers, some merely pulled off the street--and to ask them the same question: "Are you happy?" The picture that unfolds is almost musical in structure: As prelude, Rouch and Morin recruit a proxy "interviewer" on camera, discussing the very concept of the film with her. Exchanges and arguments ensue of differing moods and settings, often with the cordless microphone in view, and one or both of the directors participating onscreen. Then the coda: Lights coming up on a movie theater, where participants have just watched everything we have seen so far. With an effect that's still jarring, the interview subjects argue among themselves about whether the emotional responses elicited from them were genuine or acted.
"Part of it was very boring," says one, leaning forward testily from his seat. "But the rest of it was quite indecent."
"Part of it was very boring. But the rest of it was quite indecent."
That scene is like a freeze frame of cinema at the precipice of "reality" media--and it captures the discomfort and thrill of anyone who suspects that what you see is not what you get. It was with this philosophy that Rouch, who died in a car accident in Niger earlier this year, provided the tectonic shift beneath the French New Wave with his ethnographic 16mm films documenting the tribal rituals of West Africa in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Rouch utilized film technology for mobility rather than smoothness, liberating the camera from the tripod, utilizing synch-sound wherever he could, and cutting as it suited him. He also appeared onscreen among his subjects, a tactic that Pennebaker, Leacock, Drew, and the Maysleses would have fled as a form of contamination.
What Rouch did was destroy the illusion of an unseen eye. Where his Russian predecessor Dziga Vertov sought to record events, Rouch had no problem with creating them. And even as his techniques pass on through Godard and Warhol into MTV's The Real World, the former military engineer's layered skepticism about "reality" and "fiction" was lost. Documentaries today would benefit--both morally and commercially--from Rouch's insistence that the camera is always an instrument of provocation, never just, or even, an objective observer.
Rouch's generous spirit found a compliment in the probing questions of fellow anthropologist Edgar Morin, whose most evident delight in Chronicle of a Summer is sparking a verbal shitstorm at the dinner table over the question of Algeria. Much as the recent rerelease of The Battle of Algiers felt prescient this year as the war in Iraq ground on, Morin's simple questions about whether events in another country can feel urgent and real to Parisians are worth asking again amongst ourselves. (It helped that Rouch counted African immigrants among his friends and invited them to hang out with the whites, whose own stories emerge from the exchange. At one arresting turn, an Ivory Coast native asks if a Jewish woman's concentration-camp tattoo is her phone number.)
Like all bad fiction, the pale contemporary imitations of Chronicle of a Summer regard actual life as not worth noticing--and, by subconscious extension, not worth living. Within a brisk 85 minutes, this movie inverts that philosophy. Alive to the world, Rouch and Morin let a bikini model on the beaches of St. Tropes anticipate the bored male observer near the end. She delivers her reproof with a laugh: "Boredom comes from within."
Safi Faye driving in Paris in Petit à Petit (1968-1969)
More Jean Rouch links:
My interview with the great nonfiction filmmaker Heddy Honigmann, who adores Rouch
Check out DJ Nite Nurse's weekly celebration of African music/food, African Music Exchange, every Friday at Global Dish, 8:00 p.m. to midnite, 4016 Bloomington Avenue South, Minneapolis.
Living my life like it's Golden...
Former S.U.S.P.E.C.T.S. rapper Golden performs Saturday at the Uptown Bar (Minneapolis) with Adjoining Separatists, mashup master Cheap Cologne, and Out of Bounds. $5. 9:30 p.m. (Golden goes on second, so come early.)
10:15 p.m. Out Of Bounds
11:00 p.m. Golden
11:40 p.m. Cheap Cologne
12:25 p.m. Adjoining Seperatists
(DJ Paul-Z spinning between sets)