Not the cinema of truth, but the truth of the cinema
28 Nov 2007
The occasion is the publication of Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch , edited by Joram ten Brink. The book looks good but the publisher’s book description is unfortunate, describing Rouch as the forerunner of Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore, and of Big Brother and reality TV. Those who are familiar with his work will surely think of him as so much more.
In film history he links Robert Flaherty and Dziga Vertov with Pennebaker , the Maysles, and with Godard. Rouch’s innovative work celebrates the truth in fiction and the fiction in truth; the challenges of surrealism ; participatory filmmaking in which the filmmaker acts as only one agent of a broad collaborative project in which actors may “play” themselves, plot is subsumed to a narrative that rolls out in the filmmaking process, and the very act of filmmaking provokes the possibility of truths that otherwise would not exist. The truth of the camera is not that it captures or reveals what is already true; the encounter between filmmaker and subject creates possibilities through which true stories may be born.
These kinds of questions played out in anthropology decades after Rouch’s ethnographic film experiments. And while they have been raised in interesting and moving ways by many artists using photography in some documentary regard (Walid Ra’ad and Jim Goldberg come to mind, and Robert Frank’s later work), they haven’t really played out in a sustained way in photojournalism.
Should they? I would be surprised if the industry end cared at all. (Though I think suppressing a journalist’s subjectivity also puts their authority at risk… and places the burden of legitimacy on the institution, for better or for worse.)
For those photographers working in extended documentary modes, and really, for any one who asks a subject for the privilege of representing them in their images, questions about collaboration, participation, performance, and the kind of truth that is aspired to should come up.
If you have already seen Rouch’s films you know that they can be perception-altering. If you have not then I would recommend that you see Chronique d’un Ete (Chronicle of a Summer), in which Rouch and Edgar Morin try to take the pulse of Paris in the summer of 1960 during the Algerian War and with the memory of the second World War still an open wound.
They begin by asking: “Are you happy? “, and the film ends with the “characters” commenting on their portrayal in the film. Or Jaguar , in which three friends travel from Niger to Ghana, searching for adventure in the modern city. Without synchronized sound technology, the story is dubbed after being cut; the effect is sublime, beautiful.
Jean Rouch resources
Jean Rouch Tribute Site (DER)
Les Maitres Fous
Screenings info here