John Marshall Interview


John Marshall, 2004

You will often find the names of John Marshall and Jean Rouch mentioned on the same page, wherever ethnographic film, or the early days of cinéma-vérité, are being discussed. They were pioneers in both fields, and shared a love of Africa, and of filmmaking. Their decades-long friendship was also fueled by a long list of other mutual interests. John Marshall interviewed Jean Rouch in 1977 at the first Margaret Mead film festival in New York. Brenda Baugh of DER sat down with John in April to talk about his memories of Jean, that 1977 interview... and many other things.

BB

John, I know Jean Rouch was an old friend of yours. Do you remember when you first became familiar with Jean's films, and when you first met him?

JM

John Marshall with Jean Rouch,1977

I think I first met Jean when he came to New York in 1960 or 1961 with a prototype sync system. This was when Bob Drew, Ricky Leacock, and D. A. Pennebaker were teaming up with Mitch Bogdanovich to create the Auricon/Nagra portable sound sync system. And I think I saw one of his films. It might have been Jaguar. But I know he was showing one of his films, and it was one of his films that was partially acted.

BB

What he called 'ethnofiction.'

JM

Yes. And that —that really turned me on.

BB

I wondered about that —It was such a different approach from your own work.

JM

Well I remember when I interviewed Jean in 1977, we talked about truth in documentary reporting, sort of dramatic truth and reporting. And I felt that he, particularly with this wonderful group of three guys who he worked with and knew so well, and so long, that they reached a kind of larger impression in Jaguar —a larger sort of realm of understanding about what it was to migrate in those days, through the country, down to Ghana and the coast.

BB

Did you have to sort of get over some of your own ideas when you first saw Jaguar and Jean's other ethnofiction films? You have said that for you, 'Don't add' and 'Don't deceive' are part of the general ethics of journalism, and that 'Don't add' means don't make up stories or create events. Was it hard to reconcile your ideas with what Jean was doing?

JM

Damouré, Lam,
and Douma -

Damouré, Lam, and Douma - the
company of Petit à Petit
(Jaguar, 1957-1967)

I love fiction and some fiction films. Fiction gets way inside us to places where documentary can't reach. (For that matter fiction like Uncle Tom's Cabin can trump decades of reporting and change the world.) My problem is when people present fiction as fact. In the 1980s, the South African Broadcasting Company — SABC — aired a news story showing N!xau, star of The God's Must Be Crazy, coming home from a promotional trip in Japan and going off to live by hunting and gathering in the bush. In reality he bought a house in Tsumkwe. Twenty years later Discovery Channel shot a skin flick showing people playing Bushmen with bows and arrows in Nyae Nyae; the show was presented as current reality. These lies take hold and spread widely. A few months ago I met a young man from South Africa working in a video production studio in London. He strenuously believed that N!xau undressed, took up his bow and arrows and went back to the hunting life.

When I saw Jean's Jaguar I thought it was obvious to anyone that it was acted. I believe the story is fiction about truth, like most good films; truth is not the same as real. Partly because of the acting and invention in the film we meet, identify with and live for a little while in the characters of Damouré and Lam. Should Jean have been more up front about the acting in a cinéma-vérité documentary? Now I think possibly yes; I have a better understanding of why and how we suspend our disbelief. Maybe the right question is: How typical were the characters in the film, and how alike was their story to the stories of the many who went to seek their fortunes on the Gold Coast? I'm sure for many people the reasons for going were more bitter, the journeys were harder and the life at the end was only a little better and often worse; but a little better can mean a lot. I still think the film and its makers were right on. They pulled me in and helped me understand. When the reality is as pulled together and focused as it was in Moi, un Noir, Jean didn't need the enhancement of acting to make a film with a knockout punch.

BB

What about Chronique d'un Eté ? Do you remember your impressions of that film when it came out in 1960?

JM

I liked Chronique d'un Eté. Maybe I liked it as much because it was another expression of what Jean could do as I liked it as a story. I always kept saying to myself: "That Jean can direct and do anything. This John just shoots."

BB

Around that time, the early sixties, were filmmakers in the States aware of Rouch's work? Were the people who you were working with talking about his work?

JM


Rouch and Morin in the Musée
de L'Homme
(Chronique d'un Eté, 1960)

Yes. In fact, the word that we used for a new kind of soundsync, portable soundsync shooting was cinéma-vérité. And it was from Rouch, he was from France and he was sort of the person who created that idea. And the actual technique that was finally widely used was developed in New York by a guy named Mitch Bogdanovich —and Ricky Leacock and Donny Pennebaker and other people. There was a Time-Life series that they were doing, and there was a new term that was cooked up, called "direct cinema" but still everybody used "cinéma-vérité". Jean and I started with basically the same camera. Actually I evolved to using a Bell & Howell after using a Kodak magazine camera, which was the first camera I had —but we both used a Bell & Howell and had all the problems of winding it up and only being able to shoot twenty seconds.

And the thing that Jean did was, when he had a silent camera he would try to make some recording at the same time, and even though it wasn't real sync, it was what we called in the business 'fudge sync'. You had sound and you were interested in what people were saying as well as what they were doing, and that was a real sort of giant step forward in terms of documentary filming. Because before that it really didn't matter what people were saying because you couldn't hear it. And then you only had twenty seconds, and most people talk for longer than twenty seconds. So even if you had sync you couldn't let them finish their thought. But with this effort you had the idea that you should be listening to people as well as seeing them, watching them, filming them. That was important.

BB

How did that process work, of fudging sound?

JM

Well you just take a recorder. Jean describes that, when he was making The Lion Hunters, he had a little wind-up Nagra that he would put in his pocket and he'd get sound. And what you did then was when you got it back to the editing room you had a device that was called a Movieola. You just tried to move the track so that it sort of corresponded to the sound that was being made on the picture. Like if something fell down and you heard a thump, you tried to move the track so that the fall would coincide with the thump.

BB

And then it must have been very liberating when you had real wireless syncsound available.

JM

Oh yes. That really changed, to my mind, the whole concept of documentary filming because then you really had to listen to people. And what they said was often more important than what they were doing. And they said what they were thinking, how they were coping with the situation that they were in and when you began to have to, so to speak, have to listen as well as watch, you began to —people became more persons in the film instead of subjects of ethnographic interest from a distance. Suddenly they became persons. And that's when you could really do what I call shoot in an event, which means the angles and distances are motivated by the people in the event.

If I stand behind you and take a picture of me and I'm saying what I'm saying, and then I come around and take a picture of you listening, you don't have to see people on the same screen, but you know we're talking together. And being able to shoot in the event made me able to meet people —persons.


Rouch and hunters on the trail
(The Lion Hunters, 1957-1964).

I think Jean was ahead of me and the rest of us documentary filmmakers about how being able to record what people said in film, especially with portable syncsound, would impact on our efforts to show reality. I think all agreed that hearing what people actually said made it harder to convey their underlying stories than narrating about them; but it made us much closer to them and their lives. I was not part of the discussions that revolved around the question of whether sync was a great leap forward in our ability to film reality or whether just as often sync sound became a clutter/clamor that obscured the truth. In 1957 I was in Nyae Nyae shooting up close and personal. What people were saying was often — mostly — much more important that what they were doing, like sitting. Ledimo and I had an Ampex so we lugged it around as much as possible to get the talk during events and worried about fudging it with the film later. But I used re-enactments to convey history, and filmed interviews to follow stories beyond events when trying to show the larger whole. Jean thought about issues in film from the viewpoint of a filmmaker of all capacities.

In 1957, I think it was, he started working on The Lion Hunters and I remember him saying he started with a Bell and Howell and that was the only camera he had and that was a camera that you had to wind up and you had about 20, 25 seconds of shooting and he finished with sound, with a real sync camera. And so in that one film he bridges the whole evolution from basically moving snapshots to real sync sound. Shooting in the event.

Practically I think Jean pulling all the techniques of pre, early and full sync sound filmmaking together while making a single film like Lion Hunters over all those years shows he was a filmmaker far more than a shooter. He inspired me to try.

BB

You were also working on a film about hunting around that time, The Hunters. Did you and Jean talk about your experiences and share insights?

JM

Well from a filming point of view, yes, because I made my first film about a hunt. But Jean and I never talked much about our own experiences of hunting. We were absorbed with the techniques and the differences between Gao and Ju'/hoan hunting. For starters, Ju'/hoansi never hunted lions and, without livestock to protect, they didn't need to. ("Shoot a lion with a little poisoned arrow? Are you nuts?") Ju/'hoansi hunted for protein. A job. Very little mystique, which would have got in the way of common sense, accumulated knowledge of behavior and places, and clear observation on which tracking depended.


One of the lion hunters
(The Lion Hunters, 1957-1964).

And they used poison and they hit a giraffe and it takes seven guys five days to take it down (I asked my Big Name years later if he really did that to help me make my movie and he said "No, that big giraffe was meat!") but other than the fact that we were both making films about hunting, and they both used poison —there were significant differences between how the Ju/'hoansi went about it and how the Gao did it. And I think one thing is that the Ju/'hoansi didn't have a sort of elaborate and special ritual and group of people who were the special group of people that were hunting. In Nyae Nyae all the guys hunted. And it was pretty practical. In the interview we did with Jean in 1977, he talked about how people would learn which lion was which. And you could say where this lion might be going or where that lion might be going or whatever. And lions are pride animals so that you know you get to know that pride. So I guess in that sense it was the same, the basics are pretty much the same, you use tracking and your knowledge of the country. But their poison —the Gao's —seemed much faster, ours was very slow. It took all that time.


Ju/'hoansi hunter in the
Kalahari, late 1950s.

And the only thing that had any, to me at any rate, kind of the same feel, when Jean was telling me about the Gao, was that there was something.. I wouldn't say a spirit but there was some strength, some big life in an animal. Because when the giraffe finally fell down and Kao "Feet" finally stuck his spear up into her heart, and she died, he was the first guy to cut a piece out of her. He cut it out of the thigh that had received the arrow. You know, a big thing had died...

It was a very important moment. We all felt it. I mean I felt it too. And everything got very quiet. And he just looked around at us for a minute and then he picked up his knife and walked over, climbed up on her thigh and cut out a piece of meat, and he said, She's fine. Because he was a healer. And so I feel that —I wouldn't say that there was any connection, or that people were having the same feelings... But I mean, maybe they were.

I think Jean lived in the whole realm of film; I just shot events and went on from there. I asked Jean if he thought it was OK to use film of different giraffes to illustrate the story of the giraffe we were tracking in The Hunters. In fact we were usually miles behind the giraffe Big Name hit; we couldn't possibly have filmed her, and only saw her three times in the five days. Jean said in effect: "The whole is larger than the parts." Which, of course, it is. Although we all have to see some trees such as a few other people, bosses, deadlines, taxes and death, I think most of us would rather gaze upon the forest. If we don't, or can't, we get seriously lost.

BB

In '77 you also talked to Jean about possession, which was a lifelong interest of his. You were also fascinated by this subject. I know the trance states used in Ju/'hoansi healing rituals were very different than the Songhay religion that Jean was exploring but I wondered if there were parallels at all and if you had a chance to talk to Jean about that.

JM

Jean and I were both exposed to possession because of the beliefs and passions of people we lived with and filmed. Once at /Aotca just before dawn when we had been dancing all night I lost my peripheral vision, looked down a tunnel, saw the dance fire burning new in the middle when it should have been embers and off to the side and began to get tight and unable to breathe. I was terrified and just managed to get out of the circle and fall down. Kxao Feet and Big /Ti!kay took charge of me, got me back and made everything OK. Later /Ti!kay wryly suggested I wasn't meant for "half death" (trancing); he said I was a little too scared. I don't know if Jean ever got close to whatever it is in us that can get hold of us that way. I once told him in a Vue Comparé about my close call with trance but we never really talked about possession in a personal way.

We talked about the differences and similarities we could see in Hauka and Ju'/hoan trancing. Ju'/hoansi were possessed by themselves, by their own n/um, which if they had the courage for half death they could use to fight off the Spirits of the Dead who brought illness. Hauka were possessed by outside figures; I still think of that veteran, Ousmane Fode, from the trenches in 1918 who got home to Niger harmed in mind (as so many were) and who went on the Haj and came home bringing the power, bravery and joy of the New Gods of the Red Sea.

BB

What was your reaction was to the startling images in Les Maîtres Fous?

JM

I think Les Maîtres Fous is an extraordinary film in every sense. The layers of belief, faith, hate, possession, acting out, plain acting, denying, wishing, knowing, understanding, representing, caring for and loving that the Masters lived through and handled among themselves that afternoon are like seeing the geology of the mind and coming out feeling OK. The only issue I ever took with Jean was the word Fous, Mad. I wondered if their possession by the colonial figures whom the participants adopted in the ceremony helped them feel better about their lives, maybe more resigned, or did possession inspire them to join the struggle for independence.


Possessed Hauka spirit in
the body of his medium
(Les Maîtres Fous ,1955).

I once took two weeks off in the 1980's on my way back to Namibia to visit the UK News Journal library in Hendon. I was searching through news papers from Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal etc. for mention of people like The Masters involved in the strikes, protests, rallies and marches on the road to independence. I wanted to report to Jean. I found one reference in a Ghana newspaper to "crazy" and "outlandish" marchers arrested a few days after a major warehouse fire on the docks that had undoubtedly been set by arsonists in the cause of independence.

The rising against the French Magistrates in Niger by Ousmane Fode and his followers of the Red Sea Gods seemed driven by a fundamental faith and a will to change the rules, but I found no other possible reference to Hauka in the papers of the day. Maybe they were below the notice of the authorities in Ghana; Jean relates that the Masters went to a very secluded spot far in the bush to hold their ceremony. He also told me that he knew a number of people with important government positions in Niger who were Hauka.

And I've got to tell you that one of the things that I loved about both Jean and his films was that after he filmed Les Maîtres Fous —which was quite a thing you know, he was unprepared for that, he didn't really have any grasp of what was to come when he set out on that long trip that afternoon, and he had come back at night —"il a du cran" as they say in French which is —not guts, it's spirit, it's courage, but courage with an edge on it. Il a du cran. And he took the next step. He said I want to find out what these people do and who they are in their ordinary daily life. And so he went around to meet them all and I always thought .. to me that was so Jean. He was always about persons ultimately whether it was, you know... I mean he shot, he made, every single kind of film there was to make. And every experiment except I guess maybe an experimental film with just slashes and pops and bangs on the screen... he might have done one of those too, I don't know... but every other kind of film. But he was always... underneath it all, he was always about persons.. which made those films he made with his friends, so wonderful.

As a filmmaker, I was influenced by Les Maîtres Fous in a basic way: You should film and show who the participants are, and what they do, outside the ceremony, the church, the ritual. An ethnographic filmmaker might have been content to film only the Masters in their ceremony. Jean, as we know, was much more than an ethnographic filmmaker. In his film we meet the Masters in their daily lives; working on the road, in the shop. I was inspired to do the same. In a Vue Comparé after I showed N!ai, The Story of a !Kung Woman as a work in progress, Jean looked me over with those clear, kind eyes, gave me that wonderful grin and said: "You went back to film the army. You went back." I said: "You went first."

The alternative is to leave an audience with only the strange, even frightening, images of people in the frenzy of possession. We are all vulnerable to such lasting impressions, and they can influence our thoughts and feelings about other peoples. In a later Vue, when the theme was our perceptions of "The Other," I pointed out that the Masters handled themselves and each other democratically, electing their presiding leaders. When the self-banished "Driver" came thrashing back, he was given a full, fair trial and his mea culpa was carefully accepted. I think my observation relieved some in the audience. I got another of Jean's great grins.

I have no idea if Jean was ever drawn toward possession when living, working with and filming people who were Hauka. Jean had an amazingly clear mind; sometimes I felt he thought like an engineer (which he was) and a scientist. In that sense he was somewhat like my father (who took very good still pictures). Gullible or impressionable Jean was not.

BB

I learned recently that Jean had studied with Marcel Marceau to learn how to move steadily with the camera. Do you know anything about this? Both your films and Jean's have that quality of intimacy where you both get right into the action without seeming to cause any awkwardness on the part of the people being filmed. Did you talk about that at all, about how to do that?

JM

I knew Jean and Marcel Marceau were friends. It doesn't surprise me to hear that Jean worked with Marcel to improve his body language and flexibility as a shooter. That seems very Jean; he wasn't afraid or constrained to try anything related to shooting and film. I was once mesmerized at a party in Paris when one of Jean's students became his own dolly and did a tracking shot from ceiling to floor level that held on for a long moment on every guest in the room. He moved like a chameleon. It wasn't Marcel that made Jean a good shooter. Like all good documentary shooters Jean held steady, stayed focused on his filming and respected people with his camera. When we do this, people feel it and get on with the event and their lives.

BB

Let's talk about the film that you did with Jean about Margaret Mead, I think it's called Margaret Mead: Portrait of a Friend. Can you tell me how it came about that you made that film? And what was it like, making that film?

JM

Oh, it was a great joy. I just loved working with the guy and that was the only time that we made a film together, apart from a short film we made in Japan in 1980, Captain Mori. We filmed Portrait of a Friend at the Margaret Mead film festival, and there was a "Hall of the Pacific" which was Margaret Mead's design and you know she did an awful lot of her fieldwork there and her own sort of take on anthropology, a lot of it came from the Pacific Basin. Coming of Age in Samoaand so forth. And the museum was going to close it down and Jean said "well look can't we make a film about you and this hall before the museum closes down the exhibit and puts up a parking lot" and she said "Sure." So Jean got a camera and I got a Nagra and we just did it. And all of us loved it.

BB

It comes across in the film. It's funny and quirky, and there's a lot of affection there.

JM

And that funny, quirky sort of thing, a lot of that is Jean.

BB

There's a scene where you had all walked to Central Park from the museum, and then you and Jean walk away from Margaret Mead and there's this nice long shot of her waving goodbye in the distance. It made me laugh because I'm sure you all walked back to the museum together but you just wanted to get that shot. And it's a great shot.

JM

Well, he had a tremendous imagination and he would come up with these things on the spot. Those moments, they came up like that —it might be one of his friends, or it might be, a lot of it would be him —just coming up with ideas and putting them together on the spot. And he was wonderful with that. I remember when we were shooting the Mead movie, I was trying to get a better position for my sound, and he films me as I'm running past. He would just pick up stuff like that and do it. He gave joy to his work.

BB

There were a lot of those sort of moments in films like Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet (where Damouré and Lam go on a yearlong expedition in their little Citroen, which gets taken apart and carried across rivers along the way), and Jaguar, which is also a mixture of fact and fiction.

JM

I would have to see Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet again to point out the details of spontaneous invention, thinking on their feet and create-as-you-go-along that so reached and delighted me in those films. Jean once said that when he was with Damouré and Lam they were like an improvisational street theater troop. Someone would take up whatever was at hand and go with it. If it had legs, the rest of the troop would climb onto the idea, create the parts first and then the script and then do the shoot ASAP. Right On!!

BB

I imagine you and Jean got together sometimes and talked about Africa, even though your experiences there were so different? What was it about Africa that so drew him in? Or I should say, what was it that so captivated both of you?

JM


Floating Lam's Citroën CV
across the river
(Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet, 1974).

When people ask me about my experiences in Africa, or what about Africa drew me in, I don't know what to say. Except as the name of an enormous continent I don't even know what Africa is. The place where my family spent several years in the 1950s, and where I spent many years in the 1970s and 1980s, is a dry and unremarkable area of bush called Nyae Nyae in the Northern Kalahari in Namibia and Botswana. In the 1950s about 1,200 Ju'/hoansi lived in Nyae Nyae and a few Herero cattle farmers were moving in. The only remarkable thing about Nyae Nyae was that it was the only place in southern Africa where people still lived only by hunting and gathering; they had been doing that for at least 40,000 years. A result of its isolation is that there is little history of economic, social, religious or political change in Nyae Nyae compared to other countries in Africa; contact between the people in Nyae Nyae with the larger world was minimal.


John Marshall filming people at /Aotcha
in Nyae Nyae, early 1950s.

The countries where Jean lived and worked, and the peoples he knew and filmed, have histories of massive changes including the Islamic conquest, population shifts, devastating contacts with the larger world like the slave trade, political and religious wars, colonial occupations and long struggles for independence. Jean's and my experiences could hardly have been more different. I was taken to Nyae Nyae by my Dad on a father/son trip to look for "wild Bushmen" for the Peabody Museum. Jean went to Niger in 1941, after the collapse of France, and made a truly adventurous and perilous boat trip down the Niger River. After my Dad got bitten by a baboon we didn't know was tame on our first day out in the Black Nossob Valley on our way into the Kalahari, (Dad knocked out the baboon during the brief encounter) we didn't really have any adventures. As we sat around our fire having our drinks and waiting for our springbok fillets Dad used to say: "African explorers are supposed to have Hardships. This must be Hardship number 47B". The more I hunted with Big Name, Kxao Feet, Slim //Ao and /Ui Shorty the better I felt. I went back to Nyae Nyae in 1978 and stayed for a decade to help my friends keep their remnant of land and produce a subsistence. I only know the surface of Jean's deep, sixty-four year involvement with friends, colleagues, peoples, religions, governments, politics and socio-economic movements in the complexities of colonial and post-colonial Niger and Ghana.

BB

I heard that you have a good "war story" that involves Jean. Will you tell it again?

JM

Well, Jean and I got to talking about the First World War and I said that my Dad was in the Second Battle of the Marne at Chateau-Thierry. The little US Army had been chasing Pancho Villa around in northern Mexico and Texas and had no experience of modern war. They made Dad a Second Lieutenant when he signed up because he had a college education and was a civil engineer. They sent him over early to learn from the French. And so he was at Chateau-Thierry. I was telling this to Jean and I said you know I should go out to the memorial at Chateau-Thierry with my friend Claire! So we went out and saw the memorial and all the flowers that are put there. We looked at the bridge, and saw the grand female figures on the corners. I had been taking a sculpture course. For a brief moment I thought I was going to have a different career, maybe a better career than filmmaker and so I took a course in sculpting atFontainebleau. I said to Claire "I know who did those sculptures, it's my professor, Monsieur Gelin, he's the guy who did them." So we went down and sure enough, these statues were by Gelin. So we came back to Paris and the Vue Comparé Jean and Françoise Foucault had organized. I said "Jean! You know the damnedest thing, I went to visit the memorial to the US "Rainbow" Division at Chateau-Thierry, and I looked down at the bridge and there are these sculptures of women, and they're by my professor, Monsieur Gelin!" Jean looked at me for quite a while and he grinned in that way that he had, and said "Yes and you know why, John, there are those statues on that bridge? Because I blew up the old bridge there in 1940, during the retreat!"

So it's a new bridge and the statues are post-war. So I mean there was a kind of —I don't know —a magical circle around that.

BB

You must feel very connected to that bridge.

JM

Yes.