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The lens of Jean Rouch

A video recovers the life and work of the French anthropologist

Science, contrary to what is conventional thought, is not contrary to the imaginary. Let Jean Rouch say it. Acclaimed as a herald of truth cinema (cinema-verite), the anthropologist who searched, through the camera eye, to see beyond the human eye, has had his machine directed towards himself. Under the coordination of Sylvia Caiuby Novaes, the project Jean Rouch in Brazil. Subverting Frontiers: Cinema and Anthropology, of the post-graduate students in Social Anthropology of USP Ana Lúcia Ferraz, Edgar Teodoro da Cunha, Paula Morgado and Renato Sztutman, is a video which stimulated discussion on the use of images in social science.

The documentary, made from the scenes of films, interviews with the anthropologist and pictures of his visit to Brazil in 1996, received assistance for its editing  from the São Paulo State Research Foundation (FAPESP) to the value of R$ 64,000. “On a first approach,  Rouch shows how much there is of construction in what an anthropologist and a cinematographer say, and, in a second moment, he uses the cinema to provoke a reflection of reality which, for him, it is  only understood if reconstructed”,  observes Sylvia.

We are not speaking of, however, a fictional creation restricted to entertainment. The fiction can be used as long as it is as a subsidy to research. For this reason, Sylvia points out “Rouch proposes a shared anthropology, in which the characters must not be seen only as study objects, but as creators of a reality”, she comments. Consequently, nothing of representation or cuts. Rouch’s visit to Brazil spurred  the work of the group, previously restricted to discussions. As a participant of the 3rd International Showing of Ethnographic Films in Cinusp, Rouch reaffirmed the importance of cinema as a way of registering the cultures on the way to change of to disappearing. Through the image, the anthropologist makes structural and theoretical analysis.

His main field of study, Africa in the 50s, in the process of an overdue liberty, and formed for oral societies. Thus, it would be the cinema its  representative and not the written word, the ethnological thesis.  “He proposed a visual anthropology, shared, so as to break the chains of colonialism”, says  Sylvia. This is discussion initiated by Vertov and Flaherty . “It was necessary to create the particular language of the cinema, dissociated from the theater and literature”, says  Sylvia. Once more, appears the relevance of speech, which, united to the techniques of sequences and direct sound implemented by him, contributed to the birth of the French Nouvelle Vague, which can be seen in the filmography of Godard.

Rouch graduated in civil engineering at the beginning of the 40s. As soon as France was invaded  during the 2nd World War, he went to work in Africa. First, in Nigeria, where, between the construction of one bridge and another, he shot the short films Les Magiciens de Wanzerbe in1948 about magic rites, and  Circoncision, one year later, about the ritual of circumcision of the children of Hombori, a village in Mali.

However, it was in Senegal that, on seeing that the Africans, who were building a bridge with, initiated a ritual to the sound of a thunder, he made his preferred film, Les Maîtres Fous, in which he used the African animist religion to discuss colonialism. In the 60s, Rouch, stimulated by Edgar Morin, filmed Chronique d’un été. The sociologist proposed to him that he go back to look for his own culture, the Parisian culture.

The filming, done during the summer, with a deserted city questioned, through interviews, the idea of happiness. Today Rouch is 83 years of age, continues filming for Paris. He envies Manoel de Oliveira, the Portuguese cinematographer almost ten years older than him, for his still being in activity. And he also begins to see some fun in visionary films.