Jean Rouch

By: Jacob Mikanowski
May 31, 2014


Filmmaker and anthropologist JEAN ROUCH (1917–2004) was the son of a scientist father and artistic mother; in helping to found cinéma-vérité in France, he combined these family traits. Having escaped occupied France for Niger in 1941, he was supervising a construction project when lightning killed 10 of his workers. One of his Nigerien friends mentioned that his grandmother was a priestess of thunder, which led Rouch to start making ethnographic films: “Like Fred Astaire,” he claimed, “there is no other way to show a possession dance.” In 120 films over 60 years, Rouch created humane, beautifully observed records of traditional African life — ceremonies, circumcisions, hippo and lion hunts — in contact with colonialism. Though not without critics who claim he distorted African realities, Rouch always worked with the permission, and the input, of the Africans he filmed; and in Chronique d’un été (1961), his best-known film, he turned his ethnographic eye on Europeans. His masterpiece is the 1955 short “ethnofiction” Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters), which documents a possession ceremony staged by the Haouka religious sect — immigrant laborers in Accra — who are seized not only by ghosts but by the spirits of the colonial administration, from the Governor to the Train Conductor. Is this a kind of native psychiatry, a carnival of colonization, a supernatural event? We are left to wonder.

Watch Jean Rouch : Les maîtres fous – The mad masters in Educational  |  View More Free Videos Online at


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: John Bonham, Gilbert Shelton, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Johnny Paycheck, D.M.C., Walt Whitman.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).


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