« Memory is audiovisual »

Interview with Jean Rouch, by Olivier Barlet

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There is something essential about the Rencontres cinéma de Manosque (Alpes de Haute Provence, France) – namely the event’s conviviality. The festival is miles away from chichi Paris, is not at all superficial, and, above all, is absolutely not simply a way to promote the town. Every year, Pascal Privet and his team offer Manosque’s inhabitants a demanding and magnificent programme. The festival has consequently earned itself a large, loyal audience, despite the lure of the Provence sun outside. Africa is usually more than present. Jean Rouch is a loyal participant too, presenting several of his unknown films there every year. Watching VVVoyou this January 2002, a hilarious 1973 ad in which the Nigerien Damouré Zika most effectively boasts the merits of the Volkswagen in Africa « that goes everywhere and can be used for anything », keeping the whole cinema in stitches, I thought to myself that Rouch’s art lies in the simplicity of an ethnographic sense of observation put to the service of a pleasure in shooting, a malicious pleasure in playing on clichés, and the humour that only a group of good friends can produce. This requires being a bit of an anarchist, a tad mischievous, and to like taking risks too. As the following interview shows. O.B.

You were the object of violent criticism in the past, especially on the part of African filmmakers such as Ousmane Sembene and Med Hondo.
When we were up against a pretty fearsome enemy in the war, I learnt that you actually need a lot of enemies. Otherwise you take yourself for God. And we prefer to play the little devil!
With hindsight, where do you position yourself in relation to this challenging of the ethnographic gaze?
It is desirable. Criticism has to come from somewhere. The Collège de France is far more of a threat. We are striving to demystify it at the moment. The rule of the game is to take as many risks as possible. Experience has proved that this is how to win. The Musée de l’Homme is currently under threat from a man who happens to be Head of State. My old anarchist view of things makes me think that you don’t have to be intelligent to become Head of State. This is meant to be an insult. Are we allowed to insult the Head of State? I think so, until he dies of shame. Which isn’t the case so far! (laughs) So I am on the Musée de l’Homme defence committee. We would like to add something to the words of Paul Valéry that adorn the Palais de Chaillot in gold letters: « Beautiful things, rare things, skilfully assembled here », namely: « and dishonestly dispatched elsewhere ».
Is this the best way of changing things?
Given the current state of the world, we have no choice but to try to be present. The advantage with film is that there are no prohibitions. This world that refuses to question things can only be changed by actions guided by the surrealists’ old definition, which I have adopted: « Glory to those who cause a scandal! »
Les Maîtres fous challenged the image of black people. Although this image has evolved, it remains the object of so many prejudices today…
It’s a reactionary attitude to an obvious fact. Can they be excused? It’s true. But there are answers. In the spirit of Senghor, an African student is about to defend his thesis on the cult of nature in today’s cinema in Ancient Greek at the rue d’Ulm.
I remember being arrested by the Germans in the war with two comrades. We were so easily released that we guessed something was going on. We later found out that one of the Germans was in love with a Jewish woman. The havoc love wreaks challenges everything – that’s what we need to perpetuate! (laughs)
I wondered what is going to happen to all your anecdotes and memories as I listened to you speak at the Rencontres. Your films exist, of course, but what about writing or other mediums?
I believe that memory is audiovisual. Books can only be an interpretation. The people I worked with in Africa were not people who had been to school. Their gestures wrote all that language we have lost. These regions’ evolution is at times tremendous. You have to play the game, which isn’t very difficult. But you can’t be an activist in a political movement if you want to do so! I am fortunate enough to be Catalonian and an honorary member of the International Anarchist Federation. I often go to Barcelona. The cry of the Spanish streets today is the same as ours – « No passaran! » (they will not pass). It’s a call for imagination. It’s a bit like those cameras that take a series of pictures as soon as you press the shutter release. The people who got it right were those who did the Paris portraits in 6 x 6. It’s the great mystery of creation, of a world that needs to discover itself with a dose of cheerfulness. That’s what the Rencontres de Manosque are about!

///Article N° : 5569

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