by Caterina Sartori
In 2017 the RAI Film Festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jean Rouch’s birth with a special event at Arnolfini gallery in Bristol; the screening of one of Rouch’s most renowned films, Moi, un noir, was followed by a round-table discussion with two eminent “Rouchologists”, Jean-Paul Colleyn and Paul Stoller. Additionally, Paul Henley, the 2017 Festival Director and the driving force behind the event, delivered an exhaustive introductory lecture on Rouch’s work and life.
The foundational and ongoing influence of Rouch’s work on visual anthropology and ethnographic film is unmistakable. It remains unsurpassed to this day, it has been extensively written about and the sold-out 2017 RAI-FF centenary celebration is testament to an ongoing interest in the man and his oeuvre.
However, there’s arguably one aspect of Rouch’s legacy that has remained under celebrated over the years. Whilst his concept of “shared anthropology”, founded on the close and ongoing relation with a network of collaborators, is well known, it is rarer to find a serious engagement with the work that Rouch’s collaborators created as artists and cultural producers in their own right.
In Adventures of the Real, Paul Henley devotes an entire chapter to discussing the concept and praxis of Rouch’s shared anthropology, not shying away from a critical appraisal of its limitations and blind spots. Here we learn of Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, Tallou Mouzourane, Moussa Hamidou, Moustapha Alassane, Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye, who worked closely with Rouch on the production of his most famous films both in front and behind the camera. It is clear that Rouch’s films would not exist without them, and that the professional relation and friendship that tied them to Rouch marked their lives in important ways.
Why then has it not been important for the discipline that so consistently sees in Rouch its founding father, to interrogate itself about the trajectories of his collaborators after his departure? This is especially surprising if we consider how incredibly central figures such as Moustapha Alassane, Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye have been in the development of African cinema; it might become less surprising once we consider the questions, criticisms and ambivalence with which African filmmakers have approached Rouch’s work and his involvement in filmmaking on the continent.
These critical engagements, which have come for example from Ousmane Sembène, Oumarou Ganda, Manthia Diawara, often manage to both deliver strong criticism and highlight the limits of Rouch’s approach, whilst at the same time recognising the influence, novelty and importance of his contribution. Behind the memorable one-liners, such as Sembène’s “You look at us like insects” and Ganda’s “Every time I make a film, I kill Jean Rouch”, lie much more articulated positions that confirm at the very least that Rouch’s influence cannot easily be bypassed or ignored – but that it cannot escape confrontation with its most direct heirs either.
Contributions to literature such as Steven Ungar’s article “Whose voice? Who’s Film?: Jean Rouch, Oumarou Ganda and Moi, un noir” in Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch engage with this complex legacy in relation to Rouch’s collaborators. However, a debate that takes as its starting point a shared knowledge of the films that emerge from that milieu is much rarer – and any debate where the films are not seen risks remaining confined to the margins.
It is with this in mind that we decided to programme two films directed by Safi Faye within the 16th RAI Film Festival 2019. Safi Faye acted for Jean Rouch in Petit à Petit, and later went on to study ethnology and cinematography in Paris. Two of her films were screened in Cannes and she is considered one of the founding figures of African cinema, and in particular of Senegalese cinema. For a number of reasons her films are difficult to find and see, and we hope that this rare opportunity to engage directly with her work, screened on a cinema screen and framed by conversations and discussions, will stimulate new debates within the discipline and expand our understanding of what ethnographic and anthropologically informed film is, has been and can be, after and beyond Jean Rouch.
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RAI Film Officer