Personal Tributes

English | Française

I had the chance to meet Jean some months before his accident. It was in Manosque, a little French town surrounded by mountains and lavender. He was there to present his last film at the "Festival du Réel à L'Imaginaire" (from the real to the imaginary). He had just gotten married and was very happy; our conversation was full of laughter and emotion.

I believe that beyond his formidable energies, he always had a certain freshness and wisdom that were hidden beneath his robust sense of humour. My daughter, who is 18 years old, made a portrait of him.

Sofia Zerbib

I had the privilege of spending time in Jean's portable classes in anthropological film during two summers in the 70s. Screening films endlessly from morning to night, talking with Jean about film, life and the way humans make meaning, being drawn into discussions I thought I would never have, and listening to Jean's stories and parables, always with a lesson, proved to be the most meaningful learning experience I've had.

In addition to all else, Jean was an extraordinary teacher, and my entire academic career has been illuminated, nurtured and sustained by those few months of immersion with such a remarkable human being.

Bob Devine, College Professor and Former President, Antioch College

Jean Rouch (1917 – 2004) occupies a unique place in film history.

Rouch studied civil engineering before turning to film and anthropology in response to his experiences in Africa during WW II. He became, without question, one of the foremost documentary filmmakers of all time. Chronicle of a Summer, his experiment in "Cinéma Vérité," had an incalculable impact. And his half century of filming in West Africa produced a large body of ethnographic films that not only set the standard for visual anthropology, but include a number of the cinema’s great masterworks. In these films, as Paul Stoller eloquently put it, "Jean Rouch showed us the path of wise ancestors and guided us into a wondrous world where we not only encounter others, but also encounter ourselves."

Rouch was also a major figure in fiction filmmaking. His films of "ethno-fiction," made with the active collaboration of African friends and colleagues, fused improvisatory methods with scientifically grounded ethnography. They were a formative influence on the Nouvelle Vague — Godard called Moi, un Noir "the greatest French film since the Liberation." Rouch’s influence has been significant on the African continent as well, where he consistently introduced film technology and trained technicians as he worked.

A man of boundless enthusiasm and generosity of spirit, Jean Rouch left behind a legacy of over 120 films. He is one of the true immortals of the cinema.

William Rothman, Professor, Motion Pictures, University of Miami School of Communication

Jean Rouch 1917-2004
A Valediction

The news of the death of Jean Rouch at the age of 87 undoubtedly represents the end of a unique and idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking, though the circumstances of his passing might be considered entirely fitting. For he was, we read, killed in a car accident whilst attending a festival in Niger, where his very first film was shot in 1947.

The real tragedy, though, is that at the time of writing few of his films are available to an anglophone audience and, perhaps even worse, his influence upon current film practice seems to have been all but erased.


Michael Eaton (and Adrian Martin), co-Editor,

With permission from: Rouge Journal

Jean Rouch's greatest contribution was to have created a body of work in which the limits of the ethnographic are the limits of the imagination. In Jean Rouch's universe, ethnographers participated fully in the lives of others. Dreams became films; films became dreams. Feeling was fused with thought and action. Fusing poetry and science, Jean Rouch showed us the wise path of the ancestors and guided us into a wondrous world where we not only encountered others, but also encountered ourselves.

Adieu Jean. The work will go on.

Paul Stoller, author of The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch


With permission from: Rouge Journal

I come from Niamey, the capital city of Niger,I remember the first time I saw a TV set (1982), it was the most amazing thing for me. We would walk several miles to go and see "Cocorico, Monsieur Poulet." It is the movie of my childhood.

God bless Jean Rouch.

Souley Oumarou
New York, USA

English | Française

See you soon, Jean!

On February 18th 2004, Jean Rouch decided to remain in Africa, in Niger. All of us - his friends, and those close to him - are in a state of shock, saddened and abandoned. We feel like orphans, utterly alone.

But I believe we should respond, and refuse to be demoralized (he would not have wanted that). We must continue to put into practice and to enhance the status of the many things he taught us and, above all, keep his initiatives going. This means developing his beloved Ethnographic Film Committee, which he founded in 1953, and carrying on the "Ethnographic Film Wednesdays" he and Germaine Dieterlen started up ten years ago as a quest for the "other" and the "sacred". We must also perpetuate the "Ethnographic Film Panorama" (Bilan du film ethnographique), of which he remained the moving spirit for twenty-two years, and "Regards Comparés", a festival comparing and contrasting different visions of a single people, mindful of the old African saying, "the eye of the stranger sees only what it knows".

And so, as the years go by, we will continue to perpetuate his work by making it better known and by distributing his films, some of which have become key references not only within the field of visual anthropology but within the history of cinema itself.

And this we will do in a playful, utopian, poetic and scientific spirit, all qualities he liked to combine in ways that were sometimes provocative, sometimes shocking, but always extremely intelligent.

In 1995, in his introduction to the Fourteenth Ethnographic Film Panorama, Jean Rouch wrote:

" ...If, from year to year, we have paid tribute to our absent friends in this way, we have always done so while thinking of that magical phrase of Henri Langlois, " A filmmaker never dies, for his images continue to move and live on the screen."

And so, under the benevolent influence of our "Mad Master", who has bequeathed us his unshakeable optimism and his marvelous dreams, we will continue to stage our annual festivals, to think up new seminars and to devise new film courses.. And in order to carry out all these undertakings successfully, without betraying the "poetic evidence" which was so precious to Jean and to all the Surrealists, we will invoke his infallible miraculous formula:

"Make as if...." ("Faire comme si...")

Then anything is possible and "the dream becomes stronger than death."

So see you very soon, Jean! and "Thank you for yesterday, thank you for tomorrow".

Françoise Foucault
Ethnographic Film Committee
Director of Bilan du Film Ethnographique et
Regards Comparés

English | Française

Open letter to Jean Rouch

In Africa, tracks and footprints inscribed at the crossroads are all the indicators needed to formulate interpretations and to suggest what's going to happen. As time goes by, your prints, Jean, have been found on many routes that for the most part suggest transformations, diversions, or even fusion. Borrowed from Dogon cosmogony, the pale fox is often one of your favorite doubles, and with unmitigated pleasure, you identify with this trouble-maker who doesn't communicate with the human world except by leaving layered sets of tracks. And as you like to recall, this Vulpes pallida controls the villagers' future as it divulges tomorrow's news.

You have molded our life and irrevocably left your mark on our future.

If disorder is your preferred territory, the future is the only temporality to keep in mind. And now we've come to the heart of the matter: deeply rooted in oral and bookish traditions, you spend your time building bridges between imaginary universes, joining our lives together with yours to create new utopias.

Here we are, accomplices in these projects of fantasy, sailing off on vessels of artifice. As you put it so well in the film Le Dama, when conjuring up the mask, "Is the sun fire or thing, is it sun or fire in a heart taken by surprise?" Are we students or craftsmen, apprentices or initiates?

Everything seems to be part of the realm of reality, enrolling in a doctoral program, for some it's making a film, for others it's different encounters, and then at a certain point the academic project becomes a project for life, the subjects of the film become the spectators of your own life. It's no longer a question of going over homework, but of inventing new rules to the game of life. The rigors are considerable, the gloves have been thrown down, and the passions released . . . . you ain’t cool, kids taunt as they size each other up out on the playground.

We're a tribe of individuals scattered all over the world, who have benefited from your extravagant lucidity, your formidable rigorousness, and your total passion. Let's admit the heartbreaks, the rebellions, the refusals, and the excesses that have lined this different road, because, right now, the most important thing is to be able to keep on going.

What could be more thankless than working with a visionary? But in fact, as you write so well in your book Les hommes et les dieux du fleuve (Men and Gods of the River), while you were filming a possession ceremony, confronted by the forces deployed by Songhai spirits, you were unable to resist becoming one of the participants. As the years went by with this completely irrational dynamic, we passed from the stage of being faithful witnesses to that of being fervent utopians.

Strange shift, necessary conveyance?

Personally all of that furnishes the proof. In 1977, you launched me on the trail of the White Fox and the goddess Yasiguine, no doubt because I had already committed myself long ago to surrealist literature, to theater, and to its double with Antonin Artaud, no doubt because I was brushing too close to the experience of madness—like an inevitable extension of the path traveled by Artaud? You taught me to love the world in a reality that I rejected, to film a universe I had dreamed about, whose future had to be conjugated.

There are images, tenderness, and lots of laughs to be found along this different road.

On Friday morning, after class at the l'Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes, Philippe Lourdou, you, and I took bus 63, Odéon to Trocadéro, and you had irreverent fun and took great pleasure in telling us the story of the four Serou brothers, straight out of the cartoon world of the three Pieds Nickelés, while borrowing heavily from Dogon mythology. Obviously the pleasure was directly tied to breaking a taboo, and your sentences were always punctuated by a "Don't tell Germaine (Dieterlen), she'll be furious." We instantaneously became accomplices in this affectionately irreverent act.

You drive in Paris, following the Map of Tenderness and of the trail of Breton‚s Nadja. Cafes are your preferred location for inscribing instances of private life in public space. Strange combination, with each place having its ritual and each town its cafe: Havard, Bamako, Niamey, Paris—the rites inevitably inscribe themselves at each new stage, and by the grace of friendship you travel. It's funny to imagine your professional career dictated by simple rules of friendship. How you let us share in your vision of the world by inviting your good friends: Michel Brault, John Marshall, Rickie Leacock, Tim Asch, Ian Dunlop, Junishi Ushiyama, Colin Young, Diouldé Laya . . . . The perspectives are international, the engagements personal. It was not about putting us in touch with "professionals" but more about letting us hear testimonials, about offering to share engagements with us, and of course telling us again and again that rebel amateur status is the only thing to go for.

A lover of life and of Dionysian pleasures, Catalan anarchist, intimate of Songhai totem spirits, Yurugu Dogon, you leave us with a hell of a legacy as well as a legacy that is sacred, fragile, unique, unforgettable . . . and where the dream is stronger than death.

See you soon, Jean,


Nadine Wanono, Researcher, CNRS, Paris

Jean Rouch and I first got to know each other at a wonderful conference in Lyon, France, 1961 (I think). It had been organized by Pierre Schaeffer, head of research for French TV and was a gathering of those of us who were involved in changing the way we made Documentary Films, together with some of the leading designers and manufacturers of camera and sound equipment such as Nagra, Eclair, Bolex and others. We, including Bob Drew, Pennebaker, Al Maysles, a whole group from the Canadian National Film Board, some of whom had been working with Jean Rouch and others. It was an extraordinary week for me. Every day we saw films that were part of the great breakthrough, call it what you will, Cinéma Vérité, Direct Cinema, Living Camera... it was there, a breakthrough, Primary, On The Pole, Chronique d'un été and many more, seen by an audience that was involved and cared; "filmmakers", in a country where, partly as a result of the influence of Henri Langlois, creator and director of the Cinémathèque, there was a ferment. Huge debates were going on. Jean-Luc Godard claimed that we were "mindless" and just shot anything we saw, without any "political" view. But others were with us and chief among them was Jean Rouch. He and I became fast friends. The kind of friendship that grows when we differ, and differ we did, about lots of things, especially in this age of digital equipment, which I love and he did not. Our friendship was rooted in our lives as well as our films. He loved making films and so do I and I miss him sorely. What more can I say?

Ricky Leacock, Filmmaker

The first time I met Jean Rouch was in 1991 in Paris, in café Burier, on a Saturday morning at 8.30 hours. Steef Meyknecht and I, wanting to make a film on him, came all the way from Holland to Paris to meet the legendary Jean Rouch. We sat down at the bar, behind another guy waiting for him. In the meantime Jean was sitting at his usual table, left from the entrance, opposite the mirror wall, eating his breakfast. It was as if he was keeping court, and after the last guy left his table, we finally met the great filmmaker. I remember I felt very uneasy and a little angry. We came all the way to talk to him about the film we were going to make about him and his majesty gave us ten minutes of his time. Still, at the end he gave us all collaborations since we were old students of Dirk Nijland, film professor at the time at the University of Leiden. Besides that, the initiative for the documentary came from Philo Bregstein, a close friend of Jean, who went to Dirk, who went to Steef. And the three of them came to me to produce the film.

In the afternoon he invited us for lunch at the Musée de l'Homme and he was as charming as he could possibly be, and we ate and drank, but did not have time to talk to him again. And then we went back to Holland, puzzled and torn between the beast and the beauty. Jean was a creator, an artist absorbing the world as if it was his. I admired him for his work, his drive, his commitment to Africa and his friends, but I always kept feeling a little uneasy.. He was a phenomenon that could not be described in a few words. Rouch was only being Rouch, nothing more and nothing less.

It was very inspiring to make a film about a man of his age, who was still filming with great passion and conviction. Apart from his complex personality, the making of the film Rouch's Gang was a very important period for me. I learned something that Rouch called in the film "the joking relationship" when he described his relation with the German people right after the Second World War. A kind of bond between two people or peoples, that have learned to respect each other through catharsis. And by joking about the relation or the person involved, the conviction develops that from now on that relation is so clear or strong, that you know, that a joking insult will be understood within the context of that relationship. Rouch had learned this in Africa. I learned it from Rouch.

Joost Verhey, Co-filmmaker, Rouch's Gang

What I remember first about Jean Rouch is his open, almost naive, delight in whatever was happening around him. We went with a group from his Harvard Summer program for a swim. The campus pool was crowded, too warm and smelling of chlorine. Jean seemed unaware of the gritty feel of the tile or of the din of screaming children. There he was, plunging and coming up with that wide, open grin of his that made the rest of us share in whatever wonderful sensations he was feeling.

I remember his thoughtfulness and generosity in giving a film of mine (it was All My Babies, a reenacted training film for Georgia "granny" midwives) a respectful showing in that intellectually snobbish gathering that was dismissive of anything made before the vérité revolution established a new orthodoxy for documentary.

It was in the fall of 1948 when we first met. I had come to Paris during a sabbatical from a piddling little educational film unit in Georgia with a letter of introduction to Rouch from a friend who had met him at some international conference about scientific films. Jean was about to go out of town. But he took the time to lunch with me, hear my complaint about being isolated from actual camera work by our jealous cinematographer and arrange for me to rent 16mm equipment. He was in Africa (or some place) when I returned from two weeks shooting in a small southern village he had recommended. But many years later when we met again he asked me about my rushes.

It was a delight to have him in the classroom when my NYU students showed their rushes. No matter how mundane the results being projected he managed to find something useful to say.

Finally, I remember with particular delight sharing meals with him. If it's possible to be a gourmet and a gourmand at the same time, that was Jean. I never had the opportunity of watching him eat a Maine lobster. That treat will be reserved for me, if I'm worthy, in the great beyond where I'm sure Jean is holding court even now.

George C. Stoney
Tisch School of the Arts, NYU

Years after seeing it at the Cinémathèque in Paris I still smile when I think of an episode in a Jean Rouch film — Petit à petit — where the tables are delightfully turned. An African anthropologist walks through the streets of Paris asking the native Parisians to reveal themselves.

Bob Silverman, Schoenhof's French Department

While I was in Paris filming Jean, I met one of his old American friends, a woman living in Italy. We talked of the amazing impact of Jean on our daily lives, and how we felt so extraordinarily in touch with ourselves when in his presence. She said to me a phrase I shall never forget about being with Jean, "Toujours, Il me retourne à moi-même." Always, he returns me to myself. I always felt centered while in Rouch's presence. To my mind, that feeling comes through in my video about him, Conversations with Jean Rouch.

I feel a great blessing and calmness that Jean died on African soil. There is "rightness" about that. However badly his wife and friends that were in the car must feel, I think it was an appropriate coup de foudre to end his life. Even though we can hardly believe it happened, he died and was buried as he wished.

Ann McIntosh, writer, videomaker, and fly fisher, Maryland, USA

English | Française

Jean thought that the first film of great filmmakers often contains their preferred themes and proclaims their style.

In the case of Au pays des mages noirs (or Premier Film [First Film]), we find both the themes of hunting and of being possessed, which are at the heart of the entire cine-anthropological oeuvre of Rouch, and his personal way of shooting films.

From that first experience he drew a lesson in filmmaking that he liked to tell repeatedly: “a film,” he said, “should be edited from the end, that is to say ‘aiming’ at the final sequence—preferably the strongest one—that should be put into place right away.”

I do not believe he meant that after the final sequence, the penultimate should be edited and so on, but rather that editing should proceed from both ends at the same time and meet in the center. I remember that he spoke to me one day about the technique of “successive approximations” that bridge builders used (he was, as you know, an engineer with the Highway Department) before the computer era. In other words, a film should reach the other shore at a predetermined point and hold its course without swaying…”.

Dominique Dubosc, Filmmaker
KINOFILM, Paris, France