Jean Rouch

(Updated on 02/08/2013)

French anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch shot more than 100 films over the course his long career, which began in Niger in 1947, and ended there, with his death, in 2004.  Founder of the cinéma-vérité movement and pioneer of techniques like “participatory cinema,” “shared anthropology,” and “ethno-fiction,” Rouch used the medium of film to stimulate new ways of thinking about anthropological knowledge, cross-cultural encounters, and the often arbitrary lines that separate fiction from reality.  

Although the bulk of his work was recorded in West Africa, Rouch is probably best known for Chronicle of a Summer (1960), a film he co-directed with sociologist Edgar Morin in Paris in the summer of 1960.  A radical experiment in documentary film form, Chronicle of a Summer helped to re-configure the cinematic landscape of the 1960s, most recognizably in the vérité aesthetic it helped give birth to, but also as evidenced in the unrehearsed style and reflexivity of French New Wave cinema.  Indeed, in 1968, French filmmaker Jacques Rivette proclaimed: “Rouch is the force behind all French cinema for the past ten years, although few people realize it."

Inspired by filmmakers like Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov, Rouch played a critical - though often overlooked - role in the transformation of the French postwar film scene, working alongside French directors of the New Wave, serving as President of the Cinémathèque française, founding the Comité du film ethnographique, and inspiring the Direct Cinema movement in the U.S.  In 2009, the Bibliothèque national de France and the Archives françaises du film du CNC began the important work of restoring and digitizing Rouch's prolific archive.  While in the past it has proved somewhat difficult to see Rouch's film work, the efforts of these institutions (in collaboration with the Comité du film ethnographique) is beginning to make his films accessible to new audiences.

By Jamie Berthe

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