February 20, 2004
Jean Rouch, an Ethnologist and Filmmaker, Dies at 86
By ALAN RIDING
PARIS, Feb. 19 — Jean Rouch, a French explorer, ethnologist and film director who played a significant role in forging the cinéma-vérité style, died on Wednesday night in a car crash in the west central African nation of Niger, the French Embassy there said. He was 86.
Mr. Rouch (pronounced roosh) was attending a film festival in Niger, where he first worked as a civil engineer more than 60 years ago. Reuters reported from Niamey, the Niger capital, that Mr. Rouch's wife, Jocylene Lamothe, the Niger filmmaker Moustapha Alassane and a Niger actor, Damouré Zika, were also injured in the accident.
With a movie career that stretched back more than half a century and included about 120 films, Mr. Rouch had a special place in French cinema. His best-known films, "The Mad Masters" and "I, a Black," made in the 1950's, presented not only a new ethnographic view of Africa to French audiences, but also demonstrated to new wave directors like Jean-Luc Godard what could be done with a hand-held camera.
Although he also ran the Cinémathèque Française in Paris from 1987 to 1991, Africa was always Mr. Rouch's first love. African myths and rituals were the focus of many of his documentaries, but he also occasionally turned them into fictional material for feature films.
Born in Paris into a family of scientists (his father directed the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco), he studied humanities and civil engineering. Drafted into the French Army in 1939, he avoided capture when France fell in June 1940. The next year he was sent to Niger, then a French colony, to work as an engineer.
During the 1940's he explored Niger, traveling down the Niger River by canoe and crossing the country on horseback. At one moment in those years he witnessed what he described as a "marvelous and horrible" funeral ceremony. "I told myself," he later recounted, "this can't be described in words, it has to be filmed." In 1947, using a borrowed camera, he made his first documentary, "In the Country of the Black Magicians."
Although much of his life's work focused on Africa, he also made documentaries and feature films about France, including "Chronicle of a Summer" (1960), with the sociologist Edgar Morin, and the 1965 film "Paris Vu Par . . . ," made with several new wave directors, including Mr. Godard, Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer.
While in recent years his movies went largely unnoticed by a larger public, Mr. Rouch remained prolific, making about a half dozen movies in the 1990's. Recently he campaigned publicly against plans to disperse the ethnographic works at the Musée de l'Homme to boost the collection of a new museum of primitive art, to be called the Musée du Quai Branly, created on orders of President Jacques Chirac.
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