“These young people are torn between tradition and mechanization, between Islam and alcohol. They are faithful to their beliefs, but idolize modern stars of boxing and cinema.”
Feeling stifled by his intellectual Parisian upbringing, Jean Rouch first came to Africa after leaving Europe in search of a new life in 1941 for the Nigerien capital of Niamey where he worked as an engineer organizing road construction. What he found instead was a people, one rich in tradition, beaten by the ravages of French colonialism, but unbroken. Unlike his fellow engineers who either ignored them or treated them with scorn, Rouch approached the Nigeriens as fellow human beings and befriended them, learning about their culture and history. He was called back to France a few years later to fight in World War II but after the bombs stopped dropping he abandoned engineering, deciding instead that his future lay in the twin fields of cinema and ethnology. Armed with only a camera and bottomless curiosity, Rouch returned to Africa.
Over the next 60 years, Rouch would transform the art of filmmaking, pioneering not one but two different cinematic genres. The first, cinéma vérité, stylized the documentary format by acknowledging the presence of the filmmaker and the camera within the cinematic text instead of ignoring it. The second, ethnofiction, mixed documentary with storytelling, featuring actors from different ethnic groups playing fictionalized versions of themselves in contrived scenarios. In both cases, Rouch transformed the documentary camera into a character in itself, an active participant in its subjects’ lives rather than that of an omniscient observer. But he did something more—he changed the way a global filmgoing populace viewed and understood Africa. Africa is, of course, a richly diverse continent, not a racially, culturally homogenous whole. Rouch himself limited much of his output to his adopted homeland of Niger. But as one of the only African cinematic voices actively distributed and studied for decades in the West, Rouch became synonymous with the continent as a whole, how it presented itself to the world, and how it saw itself.
Rouch’s films can be largely divided into two camps—those that erred on the side of strictly observational documentaries and more cinematically elastic ethnoficional experiments. Ironically, it was these first films that became some of his most notorious, as they forced audiences to recognize superficially “barbaric” African traditions as parts of highly sophisticated belief systems with intricate internal logics. The most infamous of these was 1954’s Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters), a depiction of the controversial Hauka movement which saw Nigeriens undergo mystical rituals where they’d become possessed by spirits representative of British colonial authorities, mimicking their behavior in grotesque play-acting intended to capture their life force. The film shocked both British and Nigerien audiences, the first finding its mockery offensive, the latter believing it reinforced stereotypes of Africans as polytheistic savages. (In one stomach-churning scene, the possessed members butcher, boil, and eat a dog, an animal considered a culinary taboo.)
But while these observational documentaries captured the imaginations of audiences and the attentions of censors—Les maîtres fous was banned in both British territories and its native Niger—it’s in Rouch’s ethnofictional experiments that we find some of his richest, most revealing cinematic texts. In The Human Pyramid (1961), a personal favorite of French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard, Rouch gathered a group of African and European school students living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and had them improvise a story about interracial friendships and romance. Jaguar (1968) saw three young Songhay men play fictionalized versions of themselves as they reenacted the annual migration of Nigeriens to Ghana for seasonal work. Particularly noteworthy about this film was Rouch’s decision to let his three subjects improvise narration over his film footage after shooting ended, literally giving them the final word on how their stories were seen and interpreted by audiences.
But of all these experiments, perhaps none were as revelatory as 1958’s Moi, un noir (I, a Negro). For six months, Rouch followed a group of unemployed youths in Treichville, an impoverished immigrant community on the outskirts of Abidjan. As in The Human Pyramid, he allowed them to improvise their own story but this time, instead of giving them prompts, he let them create their own characters with free reign to say or do whatever they pleased. The result was a stunning portrait not just of disaffected youth, but of a country struggling to define and improve itself in the shadow of Western imperialism, as Rouch’s subjects essentially made a Nigerien version of a Hollywood gangster drama.
Following the traditional rags-to-riches cautionary tale structure of American gangster films like Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar (1931) and Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932), the film’s hero is a nobody immigrant who came to the big city to make his fortune. Played by Oumarou Ganda, a real ex-soldier who fought in Indochina and came to Abidjan after his father threw him out, our hero adopts the name of his idol, Edward G. Robinson. Utilizing the same voice-over technique Rouch would later use in Jaguar, we hear Robinson lament his sorry life as a day laborer working in the affluent business quarter of Abidjan known as The Plateau, struggling to make enough money to afford to ferry to and from Treichville and a plate of rice and kola nuts for lunch. His best friends are two other immigrants, a dock worker named Petit Jules (Karidyo Daoudou) and a “gangster” calling himself Eddie Constantine (Petit Tourè), named after the American actor famous for his Lemmy Caution secret agent character in French B movies. Much of the first part of the film is a guided tour of Abidjan—we see Robinson walk through the rich neighborhoods where the businesses have European names (“à la Ville de Paris”), American actors like Roy Rogers painted beside their entrances, and expensive foods like sardines on their menus.
This background radiation of Western culture seeps even into his fantasies, such as one extended sequence where he imagines himself as a champion boxer named “Sugar Ray Robinson.” These dreams give Robinson an air of defiant superiority which comes through in various narrations over the people Rouch’s camera comes across: he mocks the various laborers he finds gambling away their daily wages at cards; he laughs at and with acquaintances like a local taxi driver named “Tarzan”; he coyly flirts with women of all ages and lifestyles—in one scene outside a Catholic mission, he laments being a Muslim and dreams about seducing one of the “chaste, virtuous Christian girls”.
Later an actual story begins to gestate, centering largely on Robinson’s relationship with a beautiful woman he nicknames Dorothy Lamour (Mademoiselle Gambi), the Hollywood actress famous for exoticized roles frequently performed in yellow face. His attempts at wooing her ultimately fail, as she’s seduced at a nightclub by a boisterous white Italian immigrant. A despondent Robinson gets drunks and fights the Italian outside Dorothy’s home the next morning, getting thrashed by the colonizer. Though humiliated, the film ends with Robinson reviewing his life and deciding that despite all his suffering, his life is a good one.
But are we convinced? There’s a deep sadness permeating much of Moi, un noir. One sequence sees Robinson recounting war stories from the fighting in Indochina to Tarzan, detailing the proper ways to kill Vietnamese soldiers and acting out what it looks like to get killed by a grenade. He puts on a brave face, but it’s obvious that Robinson—or more accurately Ganda—is still haunted by the trauma. Later he brags about sleeping with many white European women. But as he lists their names, Rouch inserts shots of various European trading vessels, revealing they were where he got the names of his supposed conquests. Rouch’s subjects seem a little too eager to vanish into their roles; Tourè was so enthusiastic to play-act an American gangster that he ended up getting arrested and imprisoned for several months. It’s telling—perhaps a little too telling—that when allowed to do anything by Rouch, his subjects chose fantasy over truth. In it’s own way, that’s as important a statement on life in post-colonial Africa as the most objective documentary.