Jean Rouche

Jean Rouch is variously described as an ethnographic director/filmmaker and the originator of the cinéma vérité style of film.


Ethnography is the study of peoples, societies and related systems and cultures from the point of view of the study’s subject, it is the graphic representation of the particular culture of a societal group.


While this could suggest a factual, documentary-style Rouch, developed his studies of West African villages and cities through a reflexive style in which he became an active participant, not only fiming his subjects but also their reaction to being filmed, making the cinematic experience shared and  two-way.


Cinéma vérité translates as ‘cinema truth’ but yet Rouch actively blurred the line between documentary and fiction, using stylised set-up situations alongside ‘live’ unmediated recordings. Rouch believed the making clear camera’s presence - in contrast to the usual style of the time where subjects were asked to act like they were not being filmed - actually created spontaneity, expression and truth [1].


Rouch had been a civil engineer in colonial Niger, where his observation of possession rituals formed the basis of his interest in anthropology. Many of his films concern depictions of ritual and religious ceremonies, including rain-making dances, to ensure successful fishing trips and to counteract possession by spirits.


In one well-known Rouch film The Mad Masters (Les Maîtres Fous) a religious sects’ rituals are shown to be more than trances are shown but a satirical critique of the British Empire. Rouch suggests that the ritual he filmed serves in part as a psychological release from the dehumanising powers of colonisation[2]. Thus, rituals are shown not only to bind communities closer together but also help a societal processing and reclaiming of events.




[1] Ronald Bergen (2004) 'Jean Rouch'

[2] Icarus Films (unknown date) 'Jean Rouch - Africa'