The following interview and discussion occurred during the first Summer Institute on Media Arts held at Tufts University in July 13, 1978.
During this most amazing three week gathering that was programmed and lead by Jean Rouch, attendees had the opportunity to view 68 documentary and ethnographic films and to meet with pioneers of cinéma-vérité.
The following event was recorded by Ann McIntosh and Eliot Tarlin with transcription by Lyn Tiefenbacher and editing by Craig Johnson.
This "Conversation" originally appeared in "Crick, Crack" a newsletter prepared and published by Craig Johnson in support of the community that was organized and inspired by this first Summer Institute of Jean Rouch in the United States.
A brief review by attendee Eliot Tarlin of the Summer Institute appears at the end of this transcription.
— C. Johnson
Well, I'm Ricky Leacock. I'd like to introduce Jean Rouch, who is an ethnologist based at the Musée de L'Homme in Paris, a teacher of film and a filmmaker...
We got to know each other because of the parallels in our separate work. In 1960 Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin made a film which caused a tremendous stir — Chronicle of a Summer. In fact, the phase, 'cinéma-vérité' was first used in the discussion of this film. The term was derived from the Russian 'kino pravda,' from the work of Dziga Vertov in the Soviet Union. At the same time [of Chronicle of a Summer] in America, Pennebacker, Drew, the Maysles, and I made Primary, which was our breakthrough — and at the same time there were [similar] groups in Canada and elsewhere.
That's 1960. We met shortly after that. I think that most of us had rather definite ideas as to what was going to happen. I know what I thought was going to happen hasn't happened. I'm wondering how do you feel about it? Has what you had in mind happened?
No. I thought that we were making pioneer work, work of research. I think our work is still in progress — and we didn't know exactly what we were doing when we started to shoot Chronicle of a Summer.
I worked on this film as an ethnographer, and as a filmmaker. I asked Michel Brault to come [to Paris] and show us the new way of making film that they had been using for perhaps two years in Canada.
I was responsible for this 'cinéma-vérité' affair, because when I was young, I was very impressed with The Man with a Movie Camera, and later on I was very impressed by the Kinok and all the films of Dziga Vertov. I was very impressed by the influence [of Vertov] on the cinema of France for example, on Jean Vigo.
I though it was possible to use the synchro-sound system which had just been born — we were procreating it — you with your crystal (sync) system and we in France with our pilot-tone (sync) system; with our small new camera, to use it as a tool in social sciences. But I don't know the way to do it. And when I started the film, we didn't know where we were going.
And I remember when we met for the first time it was very strange because your films Primary and Cubano and the film on Kenya were films made for TV that you did very quickly — your lab process was done very quickly because you thought that you needed only the TV standards.
We in France were not so interested in TV. We were interested in filmmaking. I remember quite well it was our old friend, Sophie Van Eck [sic] who introduced us. We had a screening of Chronicle of a Summer and Primary and all your films in the theatre of the Musee de L'Homme in Paris, where I saw for the first time, a long time ago, Flaherty when he came to Paris to show the Man of Aran.
And you saw for the first time, maybe, on a big screen Primary and I said to you, 'Well, Ricky, I think that film has to be shown on a big screen in a theatre.' And you said, 'No, these films are for TV.'
That's what I think the difference was from the very beginning. You thought of many millions of spectators at the same time. I was thinking of the film "lovers" that were in France at this time.
But we use the same equipment, and I'm sure, the same feeling. I learned later on that you worked with Robert Flaherty. And then I knew we were on the same track.
You're right in saying that we were aiming at a television audience — an audience of any kind. The theaters were closed to us. But I assumed that there would be a breakthrough to reach an audience.
This has not happened. The least influence we've had on anything has been on the television documentary. It's still controlled by the networks in this country and in other countries. It goes its own pedestrian way. And really what we've done has made very little difference.
But the main problem is that there's no way of reaching anything but the largest audience — the network audience.
Our dream is that with the video disc you have something more akin to the record industry. People will be able to see what they want to see when they want to see it — at a reasonable cost.
I'm interested in filmmaking. And the fantastic result was that the so-called new wave in France changed absolutely the way of making a film after Chronicle of a Summer. We saw for example, a close friend Jean-Luc Godard, change everything in the way of making a film, after this film.
You are speaking now of the video disc. Well, I am very close to this idea, but I think that we have to maintain — I don't know why really — the joy to sit in a dark room, a dark theatre, and just to see on the screen, suddenly, something different.
|Ricky||It's the distribution problem that bothers me, because we had dreamed as journalists that we would be able to scale things down so you would be able to make things for a relatively small, local audience. I'm scared of these satellite systems because it tends to be one film for half the world.|
I see the difference. Because our roots were different. I was an ethnographer, a man who was working for years in the field — the same field — publishing a Ph.D. and at this time my Ph.D. was read by twenty persons, truly read.
|Ricky||You're talking about a very small audience.|
I had so small an audience that when I showed films to 100 persons I was so happy to have them.
|Ricky||My film, Queen of Apollo — I just got a check for last year's rental — $15. So, I think we're in the same market.|
But you see, I'm still shooting... I'm making films.
Well, I saw the fantastic job done by John Marshall and his staff, and Tim Asch, and so on — by Craig [Johnson], Eliot [Tarlin] and people like that.
We don't know who will be the audience. What I know is that there will be an audience. Maybe we'll be dead.
|Ricky||You mean we're doomed to be like composers, who get discovered...|
|Ricky||It amazed me that a while ago my doctor went to see one of my films. And he called me the next day, not merely to say that he liked them, but the main thing was that he didn't know that these kinds of films existed. And this was a well-educated man, in a community like Cambridge [Massachusetts], and he just had no idea that these kinds of films existed.|
Last year, when Margaret Mead asked me to come to the Museum of Natural History and show the film there, I don't know how many people were in the theatre — maybe 2,000. Then I discovered that these films were known in this country, I was very astonished.
And, well, Margaret Mead was a kind of pioneer. She opened the gate of anthropological films. How many of us are making films this way? Maybe ten all around the world. But, I'm sure that a small group is stronger than all the bastards you can find in Hollywood, in Paris and in the film studios. We can change the way of making film. Vertov was stronger than all these people. Even if the Man with the Movie Camera was really a mess.
|Ricky||It certainly wasn't what he set out to do.|
Yes, but he knew that he was doing something. And I think we are doing something. It's fantastic to think, for example, that we are here — in Tufts University, during these three weeks. I think we are very lucky. First of all because we have things to say one to each other.
I came here to meet you. We met Michel Brault. John Marshall was not here, but his assistants were here. Emilie de Brigard came from New York. We finished a film. We met Monica Flaherty. People came from elsewhere. It's wonderful that these people meet and they are showing their enthusiasm and affection.
It does not exist in other areas, Joy is a very important thing. It's a treasure, Ricky, and we are more than millionaires.
We never write a letter — you and me, or Michel. But sometimes we send a message — which is a film, a new way of communication.
And of course the video disc. Of course everything is coming.
|Ricky||This afternoon you mentioned that at first the work you were doing in ethnology was somewhat superficial. And that now you're going in-depth. Is that in the way you're filming? Or in the way you're looking at film — by film I mean images.|
Both. First, the fact that I'm my own crew. I'm training a sound man as an assistant among the people I am filming. I think [this approach] changes my attitude and the attitude of the people I am filming.
The second reason is that now the new techniques and equipment [allow] you to make feedback during the next visit to the people and work on the film with the people, which is very important.
For example, now you can use small Super-8mm projectors and you need only a small Honda electrical generator to project the film where you want. You can work with the people. Going back, stop on a frame, going back.
That was my recent discovery — to spend one month working on a film of one-half hour, (with the people in the film), collecting information that would be impossible to collect without these tools. It's impossible to stop the priest or the Pope while he is saying his mass and say, "Why are you going from the right to the other part of the alter with this book." But, you can do it if you show the Pope or the priest the film — he can say [why he's] there.
(Joining the discussion are Lyn Tiefenbacher, Barbara Balik, Jenny Sloan, Eliot Tarlin, Craig Johnson and Simon Kagan)
|Craig||I think it's important that your technique for working is to teach the people to use the equipment — in a sense to demystify the equipment so that everyone can have access to media and so it's not a resource of just a select few.|
In a way I think we are breaking the sound barrier between an alphabet and an alphabet. Because there is a common language, this language of image. And if we are using color — which is the reason I am not using video, black and white is really an abstraction — in color everybody can understand.
This morning I said it was a way to change the invisible to visible. It was one of John Marshall's films — the possession dance — N/um Tchai.
|Ricky||Why don't you introduce yourselves.|
My name is Craig Johnson.
|Ricky||Lyn, I saw a tape of yours I like a lot this afternoon called Steel Drums.|
I'm a graduate student in visual anthropology at Temple University and an independent producer in video.
I'm Jenny Sloan, working here as Jean Rouch's assistant at the University Film Study Center. And I work with him in Paris.
I'm Barbara Balik.
I am making my Ph.D. at the University in Paris. I love cinema.
I'm a filmmaker and I apprenticed with John Marshall working on one Pittsburgh Police film.
|Jean||This morning I saw John Marshall's film N/um Tchai. I
had a very strange feeling because we are absolute foreigners to these
people who are in trance. It was a very difficult thing to understand,
we were really in front of that [sitting there watching]. I presume that
when John shot the film in 1957, he was really in a kind of trance — just
in front of the invisible, and he was making visible the invisible —
which is a strange thing that was normally the role of words, of writing
and things like that.
I remember, Simon, when you saw for the first time a film made on the Indians by the French team of Jean Monot and V. Blanchet without any narration – 1 hours. This film won an award in Paris and was shown in a theatre during two months. The public went there. These people were in front of a screen without any explanation.
Knowing nothing about the Indians, in front of the invisible. The trick of the film was that the film was an illustration of the myth of the Indians.
At the beginning [of the film] there was a narration of the myth of the creation of the world among the Perrot [sp]. Then they shot the film following the myth, and later on, as they didn't know the way to make the narration. They cut it out — there was no more narration. There was nothing saying the people were following a myth. And in fact, the French people who were not anthropologists followed a Perrot myth for more than one hour. They were conducted to the invisible by cinema.
Then, I think that the films we are making are changing anthropology. They are changing our idea about science. What you said before is very important about demystifying the way of filmmaking. And with Super-8 we can really open up — it's impossible to say where we are going.
You see, I am an old anarchist — You have to destroy the power, not take the power. I think we are opening all the boundaries, and that with this tool, this media, people without writing, can transmit their fantasies to some other people and to share that with them. And it was maybe the aim of the first anthropologists. But, unfortunately, they wanted to be scientists and to push their own explanation on the others systems. We are just making archives of that without explanation. The explanation will come later on. I think that's wonderful because it will change the face of the world.
|Ann||Would you say something about your idea and John Marshall's idea of sharing anthropology.|
Well, we were dreaming together with John Marshall, one month ago in Paris, about one of my films (on the subject of possession) which is very close to John's film on possession.
We had a very strange idea — I said to him that the sons of the lion hunters and the hippopotamus hunters are now in Niger at school. And they are very interested by these films [ethnographic films] because they think that in these films are their father's roots, their real roots. They know that it is changing — not disappearing, but changing.
[The son of Damouré] asked me to make a film on this subject: 'Where are we going? What is our originality? Our culture?
And I told John and he said, 'Well, that's exactly what we want to do.' I said to him, "But, if we are making a small book for use (with) the film in the schools, we can ask the schoolboys to write letters to the sons of the lion hunters — something can happen. They [will] know they are not alone — that there are people who are trying to understand who they are. Suddenly they will discover some other way of life.
|Eliot||What's anthropology's part?|
I think that anthropology has to change.
Margaret Mead was really on the right way — she encouraged, very much, all the anthropological filmmakinq. I remember when we met with John Marshall in Philadelphia. It was maybe in 1953 and 1954 and all anthropologists were watching my films and John Marshall's films...
The anthropologists said, "Well... well... it's not so bad... well... it's a very good illustration for a lecture..."
And Margaret Mead said, "No, Stop this nonsense. That's a new way of making anthropology."
And she really helped us and helped all the younger ones — we were just trying to do something and didn't know the way we are going... And maybe she knew we were going somewhere, better than us.
And I think the road is not finished and we have a lot of things to do.
|Craig||There's another thing that many of us share who are doing anthropology films — or documentary films — we share a belief that reality can be just as interesting as theatrical reality. Most of the films and television programs that we see are a constructed reality with actors and scripts. It's real but it is real theatrics. Many of us feel that the documentary or anthropological film is just as interesting. It is just as interesting to learn about the Bushmen as it is to learn about Starsky and Hutch [two characters in a network TV police show]. And that if this notion can be encouraged, it'll break down a lot of cultural barriers. One of the things that Jean and I both share is the hope that in the near future people from other cultures will be making films about our culture. So, we will have the opportunity to see how we are perceived by others.|
Your approach is to make films with friends. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, I think the most important thing in the world of today is to have friends, and to do something with friends. If you are doing something with people that you don't respect, it's a bore. And unfortunately, the majority of people of the world today are making a world that they hate. I was very lucky to do what I like. I think that friendship means that you think that the other person is your equal, that he's different. That's very important. When I like some people — a man, a girl, an old man, some young boy — it's because he's different.
|Craig||What are the projects that you are now working on?|
Well, I have two fields. One is this work and research in new techniques. I have some responsibilities at the Cinémathèque Française after the death of Henri Langlois. We are working with Jean-Pierre Beauviala, a camera engineer working in Grenoble, the maker of the Aaton camera. We are working on a very important project for the preservation of old films and for the preservation of color in films.
We discovered that the old colored films of Méliès from the turn of the century are more preserved than the films of 1954. They are all disappearing, one after the other, The color is fading out, and they are finished. It's horrible'. We are working to protect these films.
We are using very difficult techniques, for example, to use all the information in the photograph. When you are making a film that is not absolutely steady, you can make the film steady with an electronic device. There is a kind of staging the film after the shooting. You can change the depth of field, zooming in and out. We can change all these kinds of things in a shot. Then you can dream again — of a new way of making films with this new technique.
That's my first part. I'm very happy because we are working in Paris with friends. Beauviala is a close friend of Godard — Godard is an old friend.
My second way is to go on with African films to make films with the same friends and to try to experiment with a new approach and to go with them to the limit.
It's strange, the film we saw today. We're trying to have deep information. I know it will change the mentality of the Dogon and my own mentality. But, we are sharing our research. I don't know exactly in what way. But, I'm sure it will change: For the Possession films, it will change everything.
|Craig||Jean received his Ph.D. in the study of myth , dance, the process of trance and music in what is now the State of Ghana. It is similar to the Pentecostal dance and trance in this country. It has been a very important ethnographic study.|
The difference is that in the Pentecostal system their trance is the aim. In the (African) possession, the aim is to speak with the gods so the gods can give answers. Which means that the spirits are sharing their belief with men.
For me, I think it is the answer to a big problem that the father of the Surrealist school, André Breton, wrote about some 30 years ago when he said, 'The trouble of our times is that there is no more myth.' And Nietzche said that this century was the death of God — there was no more myth. And it is very sad. For example, when the people are dancing in our civilization, when they sing — they are in a trance without meaning, because they have no myth behind them.
|Eliot||Is ours a culture without a myth, then?|
I think we have this old myth still living behind us. I think this myth was there this morning, just somewhere in our brain, coming from an ancient age, which is a relation with nature and things that we have lost. And it is still there, even if there's just small sparkling things. It's enough to create some. And to have something else. See, when the hippies movement started in this country, I think they were desperately looking for a myth. They were trying to find it in India, in the Orient. Later on, in drugs and things like that. But, it's not with these mechanisms that you can find a myth, you have to find a real myth. And I'm sure that the myth exists. And all these experiments were necessary.
I was lucky because in Paris in May, 1968, during one month, the myth was in the streets of Paris. We knew that something new was coming, and unfortunately nobody thought it was that. The trade unions thought it was a real revolution of the workers. It was not. There was wonderful work on the walls of Paris. For example, on the walls of Paris one morning was this sentence, "Under the stones... the Beach." And it was only that. The students during the night were taking the stones from the streets. And the stones were on sand. And they discovered that underneath the streets of Paris was sand... like the sand of the beach. And it was wonderful. A myth arriving just like that'. It was poetry in the streets of Paris, suddenly. And I was lucky to have in my life, one month of dream. In Paris, with young people who were just trying to create a world of — not tomorrow — let's say the century after tomorrow.
I knew then that these myths are possible. And the film that I'm making, for example, on possession, could just be the sparkling which ignites the engine. Small things.
|Eliot||So that too is something anthropology can do.|
I'm sure of that. I'm sure that the old anthropology is dead. We are burying it. Anthropology is dead. Anthropology is alive.
|Lyn||The other night you talked about the paradox of anthropology.|
Yes, Yes. That's the paradox. That we were scientists in the beginning and we're finishing as poets. Which is wonderful.
|Craig||Jean, one of the interesting things about Les Maîtres Fous and your other films is that artists have turned to these films for guidance and inspiration.|
I think that Jean Genet, the French writer, wrote a play, "Les Negres" ["The Blacks"], and it was inspired by Les Maître Fous. And Peter Brooks, working on Marat/Sade, asked his actors to see these films a lot of times, to know that there was a new way of playing. And in fact he was inventing the theatre. At the beginning there was a trance, there was possession. After came magic. And after came the theatre.
Of course, when I was making this film (Les Maître Fous) in the suburb of Accra with a small Bell & Howell camera with Kodachrome stock I got in a drugstore in Accra, I didn't know what I was doing. But I knew that I was trying to give of my culture another aspect. Because these people [that were] possessed, were possessed by the spirit of technology. They were the spirits of the new civilization, of the new way of life. It's very strange to follow the career of this film. All the people ask to censor it for different reasons. And, in fact, because it was a first picture of our culture. Some very naive African, young men were making the picture of us.
It was really that. And this mirror was unbearable for Europeans. It was unbearable for the young Africans who were studying in French universities, because it was destroying the ideal image of their own aim. They wanted to become like the [European] man. They saw in this film a terrific image of our own culture: violent, cruel, square, unhappy. I didn't know that when I was making the film. It really took a man like Jean Genet and Peter Brook and some others to discover that.
The theatre is trying to find its own roots. Julian Beck is trying to do it. He went to the south of Morocco to try to be initiated into trance. Then he went to Brazil to try to find among the common people the same training.
Peter Brooks, after Marat/Sade, went to Africa and asked his actors to pray in mountain languages, like the Hauka are doing in the middle of the villages. And it was a mess. But it was a fantastic experiment. These people are looking for the very roots of the theatre. And I think they will discover them sometimes. As we did this morning, [while] viewing John Marshall's film N/um Tchai... finding a common myth that everyone can believe in. Instinctively you can say, 'well, here we are on the same trip, without drugs, without anything.' we are just on the trip. Then, everything is possible.
Marcel Marceau learned the training to be a mime. That you had to absorb your movement, in a very slow motion. And I said that that was exactly what I need. We discovered that it was possible to train the camera the same way [that a mime trains]. Marcel's wife trained us in all these things. In fact, we are training ourselves to use the camera as we use our eye — that's the thing.
The camera is a very good investigator. It opens doors. Something new is happening. For example, the Dogon [people] are absolutely enthusiastic when they saw the films. And they want to go on. Really, it's a wonder..."
Crick, Crack — The Jean Rouch Seminar
by Eliot Tarlin
The Anthropological Film Seminar at the 8th Annual Summer Institute on the Media Arts was an intense and exciting survey of the field with one of its pioneers, Jean Rouch.
During three weeks, the twenty-five students in the seminar viewed and discussed more than 70 movies. For the first week and a half the emphasis was on the history of documentary film. Screenings included such early classics as Nanook of the North, Grass, Man with a Movie Camera, and Song of Ceylon. More recent works including Primary, Salesman, Rivers of Sand and To Live with Herds, were also shown.
The second half of the seminar was devoted largely to the work of Rouch. The Lion Hunters, Yenendi, Les Maîtres Fous, and four of his films on the Sigui Ceremony of the Dogon were screened and discussed as ethnography. "Even my feature films are anthropological films," Jean Rouch said, and this was certainly true of Jaguar, Moi, un Noir, Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet. Mixed in with their dramatic plots these movies contain a great deal of cultural information, information which Rouch believes could not be conveyed in a documentary form. A third area of his work, the portrait film, was also covered, This category comprised the Jean Rouch portraits of anthropologist Germain Dieterlen, Japanese sculpture Taru Okamoto, and a French filmmaker living in Iran.
Jean Rouch's most recent cine portrait, a conversation with Margaret Mead, was screened in an evening program open to the entire Summer Institute. Emilie de Brigard came from New York to view the film (still incomplete at the time) and to direct the shooting of a brief introductory sequence.
The class was also visited by Marceline Loridan, wife and collaborator of Joris Ivens. She had been one of the central characters in M. Rouch's film, Chronique d'un Ete, and she saw the film for the first time in eighteen years with the students. She was very moved by the experience and most appreciative of "the modesty of the filmmaker."
The cinematographer of Chronique d'un été, Michel Brault, joined Jean Rouch for a day, bringing with him several movies from the National Film Board of Canada. He is currently a director there and very active in the production of films for the French-speaking public.
Richard Leacock was also teaching at the Institute and often shared his films and thoughts with the class. He showed his film, Queen of Apollo, Panola by fellow MIT professor Ed Pincus, and A Pride of Place by Gazidis and Landseer. This last film, made in 1976, is an inside look at a British girls boarding school, and is very revealing of the life within that institution.
Monica Flaherty came down from Vermont to show her experiments with the addition of sound to her father's film, Moana. She screened several versions of the film and asked for opinions from the class members. M. Rouch described her work as "pioneering" and encouraged the continuation of her efforts.
In anticipation of a symposium that Jean Rouch was organizing, he showed The Feast by Asch and Chagnon and The Yanomamo in Peace and War from Nippon AV. The discussion which came from this comparison was lively but left many questions unanswered. These will hopefully be discussed in November at the conference in Paris. In addition to these films, other media on the Yanomamo Indians will be viewed and considered at that time, and their producers will be there to join in the dialog.
A magical moment in the seminar came as we screened John Marshall's film, N/un Tchai. This very intimate view of the San curing ceremony moved John Rouch to comment that it had "made visible the invisible." For him the film had gone beyond simple description to capture the true meaning of the event; it had brought out that experience of myth which lies deep within all of us. This is one of the unique abilities of motion picture.
M. Rouch said his good-byes to the students in the customary French fashion: a handshake for the men and a kiss for the women. As he left he repeated an old story-telling device popular in many cultures and a running joke during the seminar. To his, "Crick," the class responded with one last "Crack."
An indispensable assistant to M. Rouch during the three weeks was Jennifer Sloan. She was both able and energetic, and deserves particular thanks for her efforts.
The success of this year's seminar prompted Summer Institute Director, Kitty Morgan, to suggest that M. Rouch return next summer. If he does come back, it will, no doubt, be a worthwhile experience. But because this was the first class, it was a very special time with a very special person.