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Ethnofiction and the Work of Jean Rouch

November 9, 2010

Reuben Ross

Les Maitres Fous

Les Maitres Fous

In 1955, filmmaker and anthropologist Jean Rouch made Les Maîtres Fous, considered the first film of the ethnofiction genre. Ethnofiction, a branch of Docufiction, blurs the line between documentary and fiction, using actors and scripts (or, in some cases, improvisation) to portray and represent ethnographic issues. Although it is sometimes a difficult genre to define, according to Wikipedia (often a useful source in defining such contemporary terms), it can refer to “any fictional creation with an ethnographical background.”

The other week, we were lucky enough to be given a talk by a prominent figure in the study and making of ethnofiction films, Johannes Sjöberg. Working at the University of Manchester and focussing on the overlapping of Anthropology, Media and Drama, Sjöberg discussed his recent ethnofiction film, Transfiction. After 15 months of fieldwork in São Paulo amongst transgender communities, Sjöberg asked Fabia Mirassos and Savana Meirelles to use improvisation to act out scenarios that they felt represented transgender identity in São Paulo. As the film’s website explains, although Transfiction is a fiction film, “it is made as an ethnographic documentary where story and dialogue are created in the moment.”

Hearing Johannes Sjöberg speak and learning about ethnofiction reminded me of an article I read a few weeks ago, David Samuels’ Alien Tongues. In this article, published in the book E.T. Cultures: Anthropology in Outerspaces, Samuels speculates on what an alien language would sound like, whilst also revealing a lot about human language. As anthropologists often try to describe the “other” – or “alien” cultures – Samuels believes it would seem appropriate to discuss the anthropological aspects of the belief in real aliens. Suddenly, science fiction films such as Blade Runner, Planet of the Apes and District 9 came to my mind. I realized that many films (including science fiction films) can, to some extent, be regarded, as works of ethnofiction. Indeed, at times, some of the most powerful critique of present day culture can be found in fiction, where filmmakers create whole worlds, stories and characters based on the issues of today. Perhaps the genre of ethnofiction is wider than we imagine…

City of God

City of God

As well as being a pioneer of Cinéma Vérité (the genre to which his most famous work, Chronique d’un été, belongs), Jean Rouch is also widely regarded as one of the forerunners of the French New Wave movement. Therefore, we can compare, for instance, Rouch’s Chronique d’un été with Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave classic Breathless, which depicts a realist 1960s Paris. Jean Rouch and Jean-Luc Godard were even friends, often exchanging ideas and critiquing each others films. French New Wave, in turn, was heavily influenced by the Italian Neorealism movement of the 40s and 50s, which includes a favorite film of mine, Vittorio de Sica’s Umberto D. This film follows the elderly Umberto, as he copes with poverty and desperation in post-war Italy. Typical of Italian Neorealist films, it aimed to reflect the difficult economic and social conditions of every day life, whilst also using non-professional actors and on-location filming. More recently, we have films such as City of God, which draws upon these traditions of the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, depicting organized crime in Rio de Janiero and using actual residents of the favelas as actors. This brings us nicely back to Sjöberg’s Transfiction.

To briefly sum up, as Jean Rouch points out in his article The Camera and Man, there has been a close link between anthropology, ethnography and film since the very dawn of cinema itself. And, since 1895, when Felix Regnault used “time sequence photography” to study the movement of the human body in motion, it is clear that this link has evolved in countless ways. Many anthropologists, such as Jay Ruby or Marcus Banks, claim different, sometimes quite narrowminded, definitions of what they call “ethnographicness” in film and photography (Ruby, it should be pointed out, believes only an anthropologist can make a true ethnographic film). But, in my opinion, “ethnographicness” is not even something found exclusively in documentaries, although these are, perhaps, the only types of films where “ethnographicness” is intentionally made explicit. Many films, whether we realize or not, may contain aspects of ethnofiction and, to varying extents, use fiction to deal with anthropological issues. I think the genre, if we can call it that, really is wider than it seems.

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