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He is considered to be one of the founders of cinéma-vérité in France, which shared the aesthetics of the direct cinema spearheaded by Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Albert and David Maysles. Rouch's practice as a filmmaker for over sixty years in Africa, was characterized by the idea of shared anthropology. Influenced by his discovery of surrealism in his early twenties, many of his films blur the line between fiction and documentary, creating a new style of ethnofiction. He was also hailed by the French New Wave as one of theirs. His seminal film Me a Black (Moi, un noir) pioneered the technique of jump cut popularized by Jean-Luc Godard. Godard said of Rouch in the Cahiers du Cinéma (Notebooks on Cinema) n°94 April 1959, "In charge of research for the Musée de l'Homme (French, "Museum of Man") Is there a better definition for a filmmaker?" Along his career, Rouch was no stranger to controversy. He would often repeat, "Glory to he who brings dispute."
He began his long association with African subjects in 1941 after working as civil engineer supervising a construction project in Niger. During his work in Niger Jean Rouch came to experience the rituals and ceremonies of the Songhay. He documented the events and sent his work to his teacher Marcel Griaule, who encouraged Rouch to continue his work with the Songhay and go even deeper into his studies. However, shortly afterwards he returned to France to participate in the Resistance. After the war, he did a brief stint as a journalist with Agence France-Presse before returning to Africa where he became an influential anthropologist and sometimes controversial filmmaker.
Jean Rouch is generally considered the father of Nigerien cinema. Despite arriving as a colonialist in 1941, Rouch remained in Niger after independence, and mentored a generation of Nigerien filmmakers and actors, including Damouré Zika and Oumarou Ganda.
Arriving in Niamey as a French colonial hydrology engineer in 1941, Rouch became interested in Zarma and Songhai ethnology and began to film local people and their rituals. In the 1940s he met Damouré Zika the son of a Songhai/Sorko traditional healer and fisherman, near the town of Ayorou on the Niger River. After ten Sorko workers in a construction depot which Rouch supervised were killed by a lightning strike, Zika's grandmother, a famous possession medium and spiritual advisor, presided over a ritual for the men, which Rouch later claimed sparked his desire to make ethnographic film.
By 1950, Rouch had made the first films set in Niger with au pays des mages noirs (1947), l'initiation à la danse des possédés (1948) and Les magiciens de Wanzarbé (1949), all of which documented the spirit possession rituals of the Songhai, Zarma, and Sorko peoples living along the Niger river.
Damouré Zika and Rouch became friends, and Rouch began in 1950 to use Zika as the focus of his films demonstrating the traditions, culture, and ecology of the people of the Niger River valley. The first of 150 in which Zika appeared was "Bataille sur le grand fleuve" (1950–52), portraying the lives, ceremonies and hunting of Sorko fishermen. Rouch spent four months traveling with Sorko fishermen in a traditional Pirogue filming the piece.
During the 1950s, Rouch began to produce longer, narrative films. In 1954 he filmed Damouré Zika in "Jaguar", as a young Songhai man traveling for work to the Gold Coast. Filmed as a silent ethnographic piece, Zika helped re-edit the film into a feature-length movie which stood somewhere between documentary and fiction, and provided dialog and commentary for a 1969 release. In 1957 Rouch directed in Côte d'Ivoire "Moi un noir" with the young Nigerien filmmaker Oumarou Ganda, who had recently returned from French military service in Indochina. Ganda went on to become the first great Nigerien film director and actor. By the early 1970s, Rouch, with cast, crew, and cowriting from his Nigerien collaborators, was producing full length dramatic films in Niger, such as Petit à petit ("Little by Little" : 1971) and Cocorico Monsieur Poulet ("Cocka-doodle-doo Mr. Chicken": 1974).
He is considered as one of the pioneers of Nouvelle Vague, of visual anthropology and the father of ethnofiction. Rouch's films mostly belonged to the cinéma-vérité school – a term that Edgar Morin used in a 1960 France-Observateur article referring to Dziga Vertov's Kinopravda. His best known film, one of the central works of the Nouvelle Vague, is Chronique d'un été (1961) which he filmed with sociologist Edgar Morin and in which he portrays the social life of contemporary France. Throughout his career, he used his camera to report on life in Africa. Over the course of five decades, he made almost 120 films.
He died in an automobile accident in February 2004, 16 kilometres from the town of Birni-N'Konni, Niger.
- 1947: Au pays des mages noirs (In the Land of the Black Magi)
- 1949: Initiation a la danse des possédés (Initiation into Possession Dance)
- 1949: La Circoncision (The Circumcision)
- 1950: Cimetière dans la falaise
- 1951: Bataille sur le grand fleuve (Battle on the Great River)
- 1953: Les Fils de l'eau
- 1955: Les Maîtres Fous (The Mad Masters)
- 1955: Jaguar
- 1955: Mammy Water
- 1957: Baby Ghana
- 1958: Moi, un noir
- 1959: La Pyramide humaine
- 1960: Chronique d'un été (Chronicle of a Summer)
- 1961: La pyramide humaine (The Human Pyramid)
- 1964: Gare du nord
- 1965: La Chasse au lion à l'arc (The Lion Hunters)
- 1966: Sigui année zero
- 1966: Les veuves de 15 ans (The 15-Year-Old Widows)
- 1967: Sigui: l'enclume de Yougo
- 1968: Sigui 1968: Les danseurs de Tyogou
- 1969: Sigui 1969: La caverne de Bongo
- 1969: Petit à petit (Little by Little)
- 1970: Sigui 1970: Les clameurs d'Amani
- 1971: Sigui 1971: La dune d'Idyeli
- 1971: Tourou et Bitti, les tambours d'avant (Tourou and Bitti: The Drums of the Past)
- 1972: Sigui 1972: Les pagnes de lame
- 1973: Sigui 1973: L'auvent de la circonsion
- 1974: Cocorico M. Poulet
- 1976: Babatu
- 1977: Ciné-portrait de Margaret Mead
- 1977: Makwayela (1977)
- 1979: Bougo, les funérailles du vieil Anaï
- 1984: Dionysos
- 1990: Liberté, égalité, fraternité et puis après (Freedom, Equality, Fraternity—And Then What?)
- 2002: Le rêve plus fort que la mort co-directed with Bernard Surugue
- Alfred Adler and Michel Cartry, Jean Rouch (1917–2004), L'Homme, 171–172 July–December 2004, [Online 24 mars 2005]. Consulted 7 April 2009.
- Damouré, secret bien gardé. Le Courrier (Switzerland) 11 August 2007
- Niger mourns film and radio star. BBC News 7 April 2009.
- Bataille sur le grand fleuve. Hommage à Jean Rouch, France-Diplomatie (2008).
- Three men dramatized their real life roles in the film, and went on to become three of Nigerien cinema's fist actors. See: Jean Rouch. Notes on migrations into the Gold Coast. (First report of the mission carried out in the Gold Coast from March to December 1954) Tr. into English by P.E.O. and J.B. Heigham. Accra, (1954) OCLC 11092127 and Jean Rouch, Steven Feld. Ciné-ethnography. University of Minnesota Press, (2003) ISBN 0-8166-4104-8 pp. 352–353
- French Government site
- Biography by Ben Michaels
- Jean Rouch, filmmaker – article by Brenda Baugh
- "Verite Pioneer Jean Rouch" by Eugene Hernandez at indieWIRE
- Jean Rouch: Cinematic Griot by Amie Karp at Journal of Undergraduate Research
- "Jean Rouch: Cinéma-vérité, Chronicle of a Summer and The Human Pyramid" by Barbara Bruni
- Jean Rouch – Article by Matt Losada at Senses of Cinema
- Adams, John W. Jean Rouch Talks About His Films to John Marshall and John W. Adams. American Anthropologist 80:4. December 1978.
- Beidelman, Thomas O. Review of Jaguar. American Anthropologist 76:3. September 1974.
- Fieschi, Jean-André, Jean Rouch, Cinema, A Critical Dictionary, Richard Roud (editor), Vol. 2, pp.901–909. Secker & Warburg and Viking Press, 1980
- Georgakas, Dan and Udayan Gupta, Judy Janda. The Politics of Visual Anthropology: An Interview with Jean Rouch. Cineaste 8:4. 1978.
- Henley, Paul. The Adventure of the Real: Jean Rouch and the Craft of Ethnographic Cinema. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
- Muller, Jean Claude. Review of Les Maîtres fous, American Anthropologist 73:1471–1473. 1971.
- Papanicolaou, Catherine. Petit à petit de Jean Rouch : montages et remontages, Cinema & Cie IX, Fall (13):19-27. 2009.
- Rothman, William (editor). Jean Rouch : a celebration of life and film (Transatlantique 8). Fasano, Italy: Schena Editore, 2007.
- Rouch, Jean. Ciné-Ethnography, edited and translated by Steven Feld. University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
- Rouch, Jean. La Religion et la Magie Songhay. Presses Universitaires de France, 1960. 2nd revised edition published by Éditions de l'Université de Bruxelles, 1989.
- Stoller, Paul. The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- Vigo, Julian. Power, Knowledge and Discourse: Turning the Ethnographic Gaze around in Rouch's Chronique d’un été. Visual Sociology. 1995.
- Ricard, Alain "Jean Rouch: Some Personal Memories" In Research in African Literatures, 35, Fall (3), 6–7. 2004. | 10.1353/ral.2004.0072
- Books referencing Jean Rouch
- The Jean Rouch Tribute Website: bio, tributes, complete filmography, audio, film clips
- Jean Rouch at The Complete Index To World Film since 1895
- Farther Than Far: The Cinema of Jean Rouch 
- Jean Rouch at the Internet Movie Database
- Jean Rouch's biography in French The website of the Comité du film ethnographique of which Jean Rouch was the founder at the Musée de l'Homme.
- International Jean Rouch Symposium (Society of Visual Anthropology)
- A website devoted to the study of Jean Rouch's Films
- Glossary of Rouchian Terms