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Respecting the Future in the Life and Cinematic Work of Jean Rouch

02/16/2014 11:03 pm ET | Updated Apr 18, 2014

Most Americans are probably not familiar with the life and cinematic work of Jean Rouch. Known in Europe and Africa for his highly creative work in documentary film, Rouch's work helped to spark The New Wave of French filmmaking, inspiring filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard. He was also at the forefront of the development of cinema verite and was one of the first filmmakers to use synchronous sound. He was, in short, a master of the cinema.

Ten years ago Jean Rouch, then 86 years old, died in a car accident on a remote road en route to a film festival in the Republic of Niger, the arid and poor place where most of his more than 125 films are set. For more than 60 years, Jean Rouch traveled from France to Niger where he established and reinforced longstanding friendships with Nigerien villagers, African scholars and filmmakers, and young anthropologists, including this writer who happened to meet him in 1976 in Niamey, Niger's capital. Rouch's enthusiasm for life and art has been an inspiration to those who met him or watched his films. Committed to social justice, he demonstrated how to use the cinema as a vehicle for social change.

Since his death there have been many retrospectives of his oeuvre, including an ever-increasing body of work about Jean Rouch's contributions to the cinema and to anthropology. In Niger, his persona has reached mythic proportions. In Niamey, the Franco-Nigerien Cultural Centre is named after him. The Cultural Centre's library has established a collection of books by and about Jean Rouch. A media center has been developed. The Cultural Centre also sponsored the Caravan Jean Rouch for which Rouch's longtime sidekick, the recently deceased Damoure Zika, took Rouch's films to the remote villages where they were shot, in some cases, more than 60 years ago. The films were shown to the grandchildren of Jean Rouch's original subjects, which prompted impassioned debate about the past, present and future. For many people in those audiences it was the first time they had seen their grandparents, which moved them deeply. For Jean Rouch, this visceral response to film is what he called "the magic of the cinema."

When I visited Niger five years ago, many people there talked about Jean Rouch in reverential tones as if he, as a respected ancestor, was listening to all of our talk and making judgments about us down here in everyday life.

"Did you know him?" people would ask me in a whisper.

"I did and we shared some very good times and good stories."

As in many parts of Africa, ancestors in Niger are seen as potential participants--for good and bad--in the everyday lives of the living. Offerings are sometimes made in exchange for a heavenly good turn. All of these reverential thoughts and activities constituted a celebration worthy of a great ancestor. How many people are remembered after they die and for how long?

Jean Rouch's legacy of respect for the cultural dignity of African traditions means that his films will be seen and discussed for many generations to come. Indeed, Jean Rouch's being lives on in his work. His mythic status devolves from the joyful reverence his films show for African traditions. That joyful reverence has made jean Rouch's work an inspiration to a new generation of men and women--especially West African artists who are taking up the camera to produce films of distinction. This fact would have made Jean Rouch beam with delight for his vision was less directed to the present and more squarely focused on the future.

To mark the 10th anniversary of Jean Rouch's death, The Franco-Nigerien Cultural Centre, the French Embassy and the American Cultural Center, among other diplomatic and cultural organizations in Niger, are staging a two-week festival, Rouch 2014, Memoires Vives (Living Memories). The celebratory series of events that are now taking place in Niamey, Niger (February 14 to 28). As in most retrospectives, there are scholarly roundtables, keynote addresses and scores of film screenings, some of which, like the Caravan Jean Rouch, will take place in the remote villages where Jean Rouch began his work in the late 1940s.

As the new documentaries and features being shown at Rouch 2014 attest, Jean Rouch's films continue to inspire--films giving birth to new films, new ideas, and new feelings, all of which deepen our appreciation and respect for the human capacity to face social, economic and political hardship with an indomitable spirit of resilience. What more can we ask of the cinema?

On February 18, 2009, the fifth anniversary of Jean Rouch's death, I went to Niamey's Christian cemetery to find his grave. The cemetery is a dry and sandy expanse in a neighborhood in central Niamey. Most of the grave sites there are bare mounds marked with crosses. Jean Rouch's resting place has a tombstone and is covered with white marble squares. It is unobtrusively situated at the southern end of the cemetery and says: " Jean Rouch May 31, 1917-February 18-2004"--a modest place that marks the passing of a great artist.

As is the Songhay custom, I took a stone and spoke to it from my heart. I asked Jean to watch over us to ensure that the work goes on. I placed the stone on the grave and walked into the hot and dusty congestion of Niamey.

The powerful images, sensibilities, and values of Jean Rouch live on in his films. The artistic path that he charted will be followed well into the future..