He began his long association with African subjects in 1941 after working as a civil engineer supervising a construction project in Niger. During his work in Niger Jean Rouch came to experience the rituals and ceremonies of the Songhai people. 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.
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).
Still, many of the ethnographic films produced in the colonial era by Jean Rouch and others were rejected by African film makers because in their view they distorted African realities.
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 the Kino-Pravda newsreels of Dziga Vertov. 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.
With Jean-Michel Arnold he founded the international documentary film festival, the Cinéma du Réel, at the Pompidou Centre in Paris in 1978.
He died in a car accident in February 2004, 16 kilometres from the town of Birni-N'Konni, Niger.
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