After Jean Rouch

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.

\end of part I

(Caterina Sartori
RAI Film Officer







Exploring Poverty through Personal Hygiene

An interview with Stefania Bona and Francesca Scalisi, directors of BATH PEOPLE

By Charlotte Harding

Six years ago, filmmaker Stefania Bona stumbled upon a hidden architectural gem on the streets of Turin, Italy. “It was like an abstract vision,” says Bona of the fateful sighting, “it was a very grey and cloudy day, and I saw a group of Roma travellers in colourful dress noisily entering an apparently abandoned building, with a big red neon sign that read ‘bagni’.”

In that moment Bona realised that the red-bricked structure was in fact the last public bath house in the industrial city, and from that point onwards she was eager to learn more about those who frequented and worked within the faded establishment.

Enlisting the help and energy of fellow filmmaker, Francesca Scalisi, the duo set out to make Bath House, a film that highlights the unassuming conflict boiling inside the public facility’s crumbling facades, depicting the beauty and care regimes of the economically vulnerable lower class using its services, with honesty and integrity; “I fell in love with the place,” Bona explains, “it gathered all the feelings I wanted to convey and gave us a chance to explore the issue of poverty in a more intimate way.”

Turin, like many other cities across Europe, is plagued with issues of poverty and social exclusion. Alongside this, the current influx of immigrants and refugees has taken a heavy toll on the region, causing xenophobic tensions to intensify between those entering Turin searching for a better life, and its long-standing residents.

“Since the economic crisis, a lot of people have fallen into a drastically lower condition of living and lost their jobs,” explains Bona, whose own worsening economic difficulties meant she held a personal connection to these issues. “I’ve always been interested in telling invisible people stories, and I felt if I had experienced bad luck I could have easily been in the same situation as those visiting the baths.”

As they filmed, Scalisi and Bona started to unearth the intricate complexities of the lives led by the many people that pass in and out of the bath house’s doors. “When we started to engage with the reality of the place, we understood that it wasn’t fair to depict just this slice of the population,” says Scalisi. “The baths were in fact a microcosm richer than that, collecting and connecting so many different people, stories, cultures and classes. It became a metaphor for the purification from all the struggles and injustice of this world.”

“It was an intense experience, consisting of very difficult days and others very positive, full of exciting encounters and stimulating conversations,” Bona describes of the long journey to capture the bath’s inhabitants. “The best moments were all the encounters we had with people who trusted and opened themselves up to us. Speaking on the lasting impression they would like Bath People to leave, both unanimously advocate the bath house as a place for community engagement, as a space with a unique ability to break down the societal barriers between cultures and classes; “it is a precious place, a human and urban habitat that has to be protected, always at risk of fading away just like the people who pass by.”

BATH PEOPLE is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Saturday 1 April, 3:30 PM
Information and tickets here

John Baily

John Baily is Emeritus Professor of Ethnomusicology and Head of the Afghanistan Music Unit at Goldsmiths (University of London). Baily has held teaching positions in Queen’s University Belfast, Columbia University, and Goldsmiths. From 1984 to 1986 he was an RAI Documentary Film Training Fellow at the National Film and Television School, during which time he directed Amir: an Afghan Refugee Musician’s Life in Peshawar, Afghanistan and Lessons from Gulam: Asian Music in Bradford. He strongly encouraged ethnographic film making as part of the MMus in Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths. Most of his eleven finished films concern the music of Afghanistan.

13th RAI Film Festival 2013 NMS and University of Edinburgh

The 13th RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film was jointly hosted by National Museums Scotland and STAR, the Consortium of Anthropology Departments of the Universities of EdinburghAberdeen and St. Andrews.

The festival was held from Thursday 13th – Sunday 16th of June 2013 at the National Museum of Scotland and the Chrystal Macmillian building at Edinburgh University, in central Edinburgh


9th RAI Film Festival 2005 University of Oxford

Oxford, UK, September 18th – 21st, 2005

The Royal Anthropological Institute together with the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, in association with the Department of Anthropology, Oxford Brookes University, held the Ninth RAI International Festival of Ethnographic Film, in the historic city of Oxford.  Both Universities have a strong commitment to Visual Anthropology and ethnographic film-making within their curricula.