Ousmane Sembene VS Jean Rouch
You look at us like insects
The following document is a translation of the now infamous exchange which took place between Jean Rouch and Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembène in 1965 by Jamie Berthe. The dialogue was originally published in CinémAction: Jean Rouch, un griot gaulois (1982) – a special issue devoted to Rouch’s films and edited by Réné Prédal (No. 17, Paris: Harmattan).
This conversation is between two great cinematographers – one Senegalese, the other French – whose primary film subject is Africa. At the time of the talk, the Frenchman Jean Rouch (1917-2004) was at the forefront of European filmmaking. Acclaimed as an ethnographic director, Rouch was first to use the term cinéma vérité, applying it to Chronicle of a Summer (1960), his best known film. Literally meaning “cinema truth,” cinéma vérité is a genre that blurs fact and fiction and an influential film movement of the nineteen fifties and ‘sixties. Rouch’s lifelong attachment to African subjects began in 1941. His West African documentaries, such as Les Hommes Qui Font La Pluie (Men Who Make the Rain, 1951), Les Maîtres Fous (Masters of Madness, 1955), and La Pyramide Humaine (The Human Pyramid, 1961) show his fascination with magic and ritual. They also exemplify the ethnographic gaze associated with a primitivism couched in the rationale of the archive and Western science.
Senegalese film director, producer, and writer of first importance, Ousmane Sembène (b.1923) helped define modern Africa for the post-colonial era. The prize-winning success of his film Borom Sarret at the 1963 Tours International Festival in France, two years before this conversation took place, brought African film to the world stage. The previous commentary by Nwachukwu Frank Ukadike considered Sembène’s films in the context of revisionist cinematography by Black Africans and their aim to give an authentic voice to modern Africa. In this “historic confrontation” between Sembène and Rouch the question of authenticity – of who can represent Africa truly – is again emphatically underlined. What are Rouch’s arguments in favor of the ethnographic viewpoint? How does Sembène counter? What is the dilemma for the artist and audience? How would you resolve it?
“You look at us like insects”
It was during what has come to be considered a ‘historic’ confrontation between Jean Rouch and Ousmane Sembène (recorded by Albert Cervoni), that several (now very well known) statements about direct cinema, ethnology and African cinema, were first uttered. Since this initial confrontation, Ousmane Sembène has refused to comment on Rouch’s films.
OS: When the day comes that there are many African filmmakers, do you think that European filmmakers – you, for example – will continue to make films in Africa?
JR: It’s going to depend on a lot of things, but, for the moment, my feeling is this: I am both at an advantage and a disadvantage because my films bring an outsider’s eye. Ethnology is based on precisely this idea: that someone who is in front of a foreign culture can see certain things that those who are inside that culture cannot.
It’s not enough just to see.
OS: You say “see.” But in cinema, it isn’t enough just to see, you have to analyze. What interests me is what comes before and after we see. What I don’t like about ethnography, I’m sorry, is that it isn’t enough to say, this is a man who is walking – you have to know where he is coming from, where he is going…
JR: You are very right, because otherwise we haven’t arrived at the object of our understanding. I also think that in order to study French culture, ethnology in France should be practiced by people coming from the outside. To study Auvergne or Lozere, one should be from Brittany. My dream is for Africans to make movies about French culture. In fact, you’ve started. When Paulin Vieyra made Afrique sur Seine (1957) his goal, obviously, was to show African students, but he showed them in Paris – he showed Paris. There could be some sort of dialogue and you could show us what we ourselves are not able to see. I’m sure that the Paris or Marseille of Ousmane Sembène is not my Paris or my Marseille, that they have very little in common.
Moi, un noir and its sequel
OS: One film that you made which I really like – which I have defended and which I will continue to defend – is Moi, un Noir (1958). In principle, an African could have made it, but none of us were in a position to do so at the time. I think there needs to be a sequel to Moi, un Noir. To continue the story – and I think about it all the time – of this young man who, after fighting in Indochina, can’t find a job and then ends up in prison. After independence – what happens to him? Will anything have changed for him? I don’t think so. One other thing: this young man was educated, and it just so happens that many young delinquents went to school. Their education is useless, it doesn’t help them get by.
Anyway, for me, up until now there have been two films about Africa that really count: yours, Moi, un Noir, and Come back Africa (1960), which you don’t like. And a third, which we’ll put in a category of its own, since I’d like to talk about it, Les statues meurent aussi (1953).
JR: I’d like you to tell me why you don’t like my purely ethnographic films, where I show traditional life, for example?
The case of Africanists
OS: Because something is being shown, a certain kind of reality is being constructed, but we don’t see any kind of evolution. What I have against these films, and what I reproach Africanists for, is that you are looking at us like insects.
JR: As Fabre would have …I am going to come to the defense of Africanists. These are men that we can accuse, of course, of looking at black men as if they were insects. But Fabre, for example, discovered that ants had a culture that was equal to and had just as much significance as his own.
OS: Ethnographic films have often done us harm…
JR: That’s true, but that is the fault of the filmmakers, because we often do our work poorly. And it doesn’t mean that we can’t offer important testimonies. You know that ritual culture is starting to disappear in Africa, the griots are dying. We have to record the last living traces of this culture. I don’t want to compare them to saints, but Africanists are like a breed of unhappy monks, in charge of collecting the last scraps of an oral tradition that is in the process of disappearing and which seems to me to be of fundamental importance.
A Southerner and Mad Masters
OS: But ethnographers don’t only collect the stories, the legends of the griot. It’s not only about explaining African masks. Let’s take another one of your films, for example, Les fils de l’eau (1958). I think that a lot of Europeans watching this film don’t understand it, because initiation rites have no meaning for them. They find the film beautiful, but they don’t learn anything.
JR: When I filmed Les fils de l’eau, I thought, precisely, that through the film’s vision European audiences would be able to get beyond old stereotypes of blacks as “savages.” Just by showing that it’s not because someone isn’t part of a literate civilization that they aren’t thinking.
There is also the case of Mad Masters (1955), a film that has been the object of many heated debates with my African friends. For me, it is evidence of the spontaneous way that the Africans featured in the film, once out of their milieu, purged themselves of the European, industrial, urban environment, by giving themselves over to a representation of it. But problems with circulation come up. One day I showed the film at an anthropology conference in Philadelphia. A lady came up to me after and said “Can I have a copy?” I asked her why. She told me she was from the south of the United States and…she wanted to show…the film in order to illustrate how…blacks were indeed…savages! I refused. But see, I’m giving you good evidence for your argument.
My producers and I agreed that Mad Masters should only be shown in art-house cinemas and in ciné-clubs. I don’t think that films like that should be shown to large, uniformed audiences, without any kind of introduction or explanation. [But] I also think that the people in Mad Masters, with their very special ceremony, provide us with an essential [primordiale] contribution to global culture.
CinémAction: Jean Rouch, un griot gaulois
Edited by Réné Prédal
February, 1982, Paris: Harmattan, pp. 77-78
Translation: Jamie Berthe (2010)
Source: The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa 1945-1994, edited by Okwui Enwezor, p.440. Munich, London, New York: Prestel, 2001. Transcribed by Albert Cervoni and translated by Muna El Fituri.