“Everything, in effect, is completely new in Jean Rouch’s film – script, shooting and sound recording. The heroes, called Edward G. Robinson, Eddie Constantine, Tarzan, Elite and Dorothy Lamour, are exiled Nigerians in the Abidjan suburb of Treichville, and they improvised the action as they went along before a camera obviously hand-held by Rouch. Subsequently, the director showed his cast a rough-cut and asked them to comment as they liked. We are thus presented with a text of wonderful verve and spontaneity. Moi, un noir is a paving-stone in the marsh of French cinema, as Rome Open City in its day was in world cinema.”
“Moi, un noir is, in effect, both the most daring of films and the humblest. It may look like a scarecrow but its logic is foolproof, because it is the film of a free man in the same way as Chaplin's A King in New York (1957). Moi, un noir is a free Frenchman freely taking a free look at a free world. The director of the admirable Jaguar does not track down truth because it is scandalous but because it is amusing, tragic, graceful, eccentric, what you will. The important thing is that truth is there. [...] The conversation of Rouch and his characters (whose resemblance to persons living or dead is absolutely not coincidental) is as new and as pure as Botticelli’s Venus, as the black rising from the waves in Les statues meurent aussi. ‘New cinema,’ says the poster for the film. And it is right. Moi, un noir is less perfect as cinema than many other current films; even so, in its aim it makes all of them not only useless but almost odious. Jean Rouch, moreover, is constantly moving forward. He now sees that reportage derives its nobility from being a sort of quest for a Holy Grail called mise-en-scène. Accordingly there are in Moi, un noir a few crane shots worthy of Anthony Mann. But the wonderful thing is that they are done by hand. To sum up: in calling his film Moi, un noir, Jean Rouch, who is white like Rimbaud, like him is saying ‘Je est un autre’. His film, consequently, offers the open sesame to poetry.”
“One film that you made which I really like – which I have defended and which I will continue to defend – is Moi, un noir. In principle, an African could have made it, but none of us were in a position to do so at the time. [...] Anyway, for me, up until now there have been two films about Africa that really count: yours, Moi, un noir, and Come back, Africa (Lionel Rogosin, 1959), which you don’t like. And a third, which we’ll put in a category of its own, since I’d like to talk about it, Les statues meurent aussi (1953).”
“I thus tried another path, that of giving a voice to Africans themselves and asking them to comment directly on their behavior, actions, and reactions. In 1955 I used this method in Jaguar, giving three young Nigerian migrants the opportunity to tell of an imaginary though plausible voyage to Ghana. In 1957 I had the same experience in the Ivory Coast with Moi, un noir. During the shooting, I projected the silent film footage tracing the life of a poor dockworker from Abidjan to this same docker who had acted his own part, and asked him to improvise a narration. The result was remarkable: the docker, Robinson, stimulated by the projection of his own image, improvised an astounding monologue in which he not only reconstructed the dialogues for the action but explicated and even judged his own actions and those of his fellow actors.”
Enrico Fulchignoni: In Moi, un noir, in 1957, your second feature-length film, you try to merge not only the action and commentary that people make on the world around them but also a sort of interpretation, seen from within, of the character who tries to reveal himself to himself.
Jean Rouch: [...] I met Oumarou Ganda, a docker in the port of Abidjan. We hired him as a statistical researcher on the immigration of Nigerians into Ivory Coast. We began filming the same way we did in Jaguar. But in Jaguar the actors played roles that were not their own, whereas here I found myself facing someone who was playing his own role, his own life. Thus was constructed this bizarre dialogue with truth, this autobiography on film. Filming entirely without sound, we recorded the commentary the same way we did for Jaguar.
Jean Rouch in conversation with Enrico Fulchignoni5
Lucien Taylor: I’m surprised by the rigid distinction you draw between politics and poetry. Gilles Deleuze wrote five years ago, “No one has done so much to put the West to flight, to flee himself, to break with a cinema of ethnology and say ‘Moi, un noir!’ at a time when blacks play roles in American series or those of hip Parisians” – he says that “Rouch tends to become a black.” Do you not articulate your own intent in this vein, too?
Jean Rouch: I realize that for many people, Moi, un noir represented something quite new in cinema, in respect to the relationship between whites and blacks. The film is really about my discovery of Oumarou Ganda, with whom I strangely became very close. He was a veteran of the Stupid War, had run away from home – he was an angry young man like me (he rather younger than I). We knew that there was no easy solution to the problem of racism – all we could do was to try to share our dreams in film. Moi, un noir was the result of an encounter of two people. Oumarou Ganda introduced me to all the people from Abidjan – boxers and prostitutes from Treichville. We thought – I believe rightly – that we got to know Abidjan quite well. The idea was very simple: the camera was the passport to the place. When I showed the first rushes of Moi, un noir to Oumarou, he was really enthusiastic. He realized this was the way to actively revolt against the world. We put together the narration in two days – for a film that was two hours long at that point. We recorded at the radio station of Abidjan, with the projector shining through the window from outside, so that we could hear Oumarou. He was enchanted and so was able to play so much in his narration. Fortunately it was shot with an old Bell and Howell that you had to rewind every twenty-five seconds – so there were no sentences longer than twenty-five seconds. This structured the narration. This “coincidence” was quite extraordinary – I saw that he would go on to be a filmmaker in his own right. He was one of the best young African filmmakers when he died, a decade ago. Tomorrow, on Christmas Day, I leave for Niamey to observe the tenth anniversary of his death, the first of January, when we will screen Moi, un noir. He was a fantastic guy. “We have nothing in common,” he used to say, “I was a private and you were an officer, I never went to school and you are an engineer, you have money and I don’t.” And I agreed: “Yes, and so what?” Our idea was that even in a slum like Treichville, you can be perfectly happy. It was originally called Treichville; Oumarou approved the change of the title from Treichville to Moi, un noir. It was the first time that a noir was speaking on film – and he was speaking about his own life, or rather about images of his own life. You can’t do the same thing in literature, notwithstanding such examples as the book Baba of Karo. I’m sure Baba got little feedback from that – and I’m not talking about rights. For me the May ’68 revolt was a poetic revolution. The revolt of Oumarou Ganda and myself in Moi, un noir was a poetic revolution.
Taylor: Did Luís Buñuel influence you?
Rouch: Los Olvidados (1950) influenced Moi, un noir.
Taylor: In what way?
Rouch: His portrayal of desperation and despair. I hate cruelty myself and am upset by the blind man – in some way it is too easy a theme, but Buñuel was like that. L’age d’or and Un chien andalou had a pronounced influence on me. His ability to cross the barrier between dream and reality is incomparable: the sudden switch to the other side of the mirror. The dream is just as real, maybe more so, than reality. It’s what I tried to do in Moi, un noir – or in La pyramide humaine –jumping between the two.
Jean Rouch in conversation with Lucien Taylor6
Jean-Luc Godard’s Ten Best Films of 1959
1. Pickpocket (Robert Bresson)
2. Deux Hommes dans Manhattan (Jean-Pierre Melville)
3. Les Rendez-vous du diable (Haroun Tazieff)
4. Moi, un noir (Jean Rouch)
5. Tête contre les murs (Georges Franju)
6. Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Jean Renoir)
7. Hiroshima, mon amour (Alain Resnais)
8. Les Quatre cents coups (François Truffaut)
9. Les Cousins (Claude Chabrol)
10. Du côté de la Côte (Agnès Varda)
- 1. Jean-Luc Godard, “Jean Rouch Wins the Delluc Prize,” In Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972): 102.
- 2. Jean-Luc Godard, “Moi, un noir,” In Tom Milne (ed.), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972): 129.
- 3. Ousmane Sembène, “You look at us like insects,” Translation of the infamous exchange that took place between Jean Rouch and Sembène in 1965 and was orginally published in France Nouvelle, nr. 1033, Août 1965.
- 4. Jean Rouch, “Situation and Tendencies of the Cinema in Africa,” In Steven Feld (ed.), Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003): 62. Translation by Steven Feld and Marielle Delorme of Rouch’s original 1967 essay “Situation et tendances du cinéma en Afrique.”
- 5. Jean Rouch and Enrico Fulchignoni, “Ciné-Anthropology,” In Steven Feld (ed.), Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003): 165. The interview was originally recorded in 1980.
- 6. Jean Rouch and Lucien Taylor, “A Life on the Edge of Film and Anthropology,” In Steven Feld (ed.), Ciné-Ethnography: Jean Rouch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003): 139-140, 143. The original interview took place in 1990. Taylor refers to Deleuze’s Cinema 2: L’Image-Temps (1985).