Throughout his filmmaking career, Jean Rouch blended narrative practices and documentary techniques in what he called “ethno-fiction,” and Jaguar, which follows three young Songhay men from Niger as they set out on a journey to the Gold Coast (modern day Ghana) in search of adventure and work, is perhaps the prime example of his idiosyncratic and now widely influential approach. The four men filmed their trip in the mid-1950s, before synchronized sound was possible in documentary filmmaking, then reunited a few years later to record the sound, trying to remember what they said and making up commentary about their surroundings and themselves, by turns jocular and impertinent. Rouch and his collaborators succeeded in creating a complex portrait of African life where the three leads perform an ethnography of their own culture, turning it inside out. As Rouch put it, Jaguar is “a postcard in the service of the imaginary.” Print courtesy of Institut Français, Paris.
Focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab
In a mere eight years, the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University has gone from an unusually ambitious academic program to one of the most vital incubators of nonfiction and experimental cinema in the United States. Lucien Castaing-Taylor established the SEL in 2006 on the premise that documentary and art are not mutually exclusive and that the intensive fieldwork of anthropology could nourish both. In practice this means rejecting the laziest devices in the contemporary documentarian’s tool kit: reductive story arcs, infantilizing voiceovers and talking heads, manipulative music cues. It also reconnects documentary to the work of such pioneers as Robert Flaherty and Jean Rouch, and indeed to the medium’s eternal promise as an instrument for both capturing reality and heightening the senses. The films in this selection, including work produced at the SEL and work that inspired SEL makers, attest to the aspirations of sensory ethnography: to experience the world, and to transmit some of the magnitude and multiplicity of that experience. Presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial.