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Friday, January 18, 2013

Jean Rouch in Chicago: An interview with Judy Hoffman and Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films, part one

Posted By on 01.18.13 at 03:01 PM

From Kartemquins Inquiring Nuns (1969), inspired by Rouchs Chronicle of a Summer
  • From Kartemquin's Inquiring Nuns (1969), inspired by Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer
The Gene Siskel Film Center continues its Jean Rouch series this week with his African-shot "ethno-fictions" Moi, un Noir (playing with the short Les Maitres Fous, aka The Mad Masters) and The Lion Hunters. These mid-50s works are some of the most radical experiments ever conducted with the documentary form, and they served as a major influence on the directors of the French New Wave. Of course Rouch was and remains a source of inspiration for documentary filmmakers the world over; in celebration of the current Rouch series, I decided to stop by the offices of Chicago's own Kartemquin Films to discuss his role in the history of nonfiction filmmaking. I spoke with Kartemquin cofounder Gordon Quinn (whose early film Inquiring Nuns was inspired by Rouch's Chronicle of a Summer, which screened in the Siskel series last week) and longtime member Judy Hoffman, who briefly worked with Rouch in the 1970s. Our far-reaching conversation addressed everything from Rouch's biography—specifically his transition from ethnographer to filmmaker—to his influence on Kartemquin's output to developments in documentary theory between the 60s and the present. Below is the first part of our conversation; I'll post parts two and three next week.

Gordon Quinn: [Jerry] Temaner and I were students at the University of Chicago with another guy, Stan Karter—that's where the name "Kartemquin" comes from. We thought it sounded like "Potemkin." The first thing that we saw that was electrifying was [Richard] Leacock and Joyce Chopra's Happy Mother's Day [from 1963]. We were just really excited by it; we thought, "This is incredible! You film reality as it's unfolding, you see all the subtleties of what's going on between people . . ."

Then, a year later . . . we saw Chronicle of a Summer, which was also electrifying to our thinking. [We thought,] "Well, you can do much more than just record reality as it's unfolding. You can actually participate with it and interact with people." So those were two huge influences on us. In that early film [of ours], Inquiring Nuns, which we made for Catholic adult education, we thought we could have nuns [instead of ethnographers] going around asking people if they're happy.

Ben Sachs: Inquiring Nuns was commissioned for Catholic adult education?

Quinn: The commission was to make a series of six short films that would start discussions around various issues. We were obsessed with Rouch, we were obsessed with this idea of talking to people in an open-ended fashion and letting them control the interview . . . And you see in that the film, we reference Rouch.

It's in the first scene.

Quinn: Yeah. So, obviously, that work was obviously very influential with us. And then we met him a few years later at this conference that Judy was a big part of organizing at the University of Illinois [at Chicago] . . . It was about visual anthropology, which was very much at the roots of Kartemquin.

Judy Hoffman in the 1970s
  • Judy Hoffman in the 1970s
Judy Hoffman: Jerry Temaner... had left [Kartemquin] and started a media production center at the University of Illinois [at Chicago]. It wasn't just about shooting lectures and that sort of stuff; it was about producing social-issue documentaries that could be used in the humanities. He had been at [the University] already . . . I believe [he] was under the office of instructional resources when I was a student there. And I applied for a work-study position with him because I wanted to learn [about] film . . .

The Ninth International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences took place at the [Chicago] Hilton in 1973. It was a three-week conference; the first week was devoted to visual anthropology. And there was a book being published in accordance with this called Principles of Visual Anthropology . . . As a student, I had to [put together] the filmography. I had to figure out where the films cited were available, and I had to type up [Gordon's] article for publication. So I got started a little bit before, but then everybody started coming into town. And [my advisors] decided that I should be Rouch's assistant [when he was in Chicago]. So I picked him up from the airport and for the next three weeks I followed him around . . .

We just got along really well. I projected his films for the visual anthropology conference. And I was his assistant, and he wanted to learn about Chicago. So I took him all over.

What was that like?

Hoffman: It was breathtaking.

What about Chicago interested him most?

Hoffman: He was most interested in getting out of the conference. He wanted to see how people in Chicago lived. He was particularly interested in race, having done most of his field work in Niger . . . but he was particularly interested in music. So I took him to see Lionel Hampton and other jazz players . . . Margaret Mead would try to track us down. She was not happy with us.

He wanted to see how Chicagoans lived, so I took him one night to the Wise Fools Pub [in Lincoln Park]. It was a Monday night. In ethnographic terms, I became Rouch's informant. I was the person that he learned about the culture from . . . He fell in love with the Wise Fools. He was a big Bix Beiderbecke fan; he loved old jazz—"haute jazz," he called it. So when he saw that there was a big band there—the Dave Remington Big Band—he just fell in love with the place. And he fell in love with the tribe of people that would gather there.

He was very much interested in transformation. If you look at Les Maitres Fous, which is about how [the subjects] live during the day and then on a special occasion they become something else.

He got to facilitate that in some of his own films, like Moi, un Noir and Jaguar, in which the subjects play their own alter egos.

Hoffman: Right. And so his idea for a film was—well, one focus was the band, how all [the players] had different jobs during the day. They were studio musicians, teachers, carpenters, or whatever, but on Monday night, they all came together in a kind of possession rite and transformed into musicians. He was also interested in the people who went there, why they went. That was kind of like my tribe. So he started meeting my friends. I think it was during that first visit that he got the idea to do the film, and he was training me.

He came back several times. One of those times we hung out and he taught me how to use a camera, how to go handheld . . . You know, when he first went to Niger his tripod fell into the water and he had to shoot everything handheld after that.

I didn't know that's why he shot handheld.

Hoffman: Yeah, it's because his tripod fell out of the boat he was traveling down the river in.

Quinn: That was pretty fortuitous.

Hoffman: And from then on, he became a strong advocate of just doing handheld work. So he trained me to shoot that way. He would fill up a glass of water all the way to the top and have me walk up and down stairs, holding the glass without spilling anything.

Gordon Quinn today
  • Gordon Quinn today
Quinn: It sounds like he had a bit of Mike Shea's mania. I learned to shoot from Mike Shea in the 60s. He was also obsessed with Bix Beiderbecke—he should have been in one of Rouch's movies. He'd only been through the eighth grade; he had been a photographer for Life and for Ebony, and then he got into movies. It was a tenet for him that you had to be rock-steady with the camera . . . That's not as important to us now, but he was very, very rigorous in his approach to photography. And Bix Beiderbecke was Mike's hero. Mike made a film too, by the way, about Maxwell Street [. . . And This Is Free: The Life and Times of Chicago's Legendary Maxwell Street]. It wasn't coming from an academic perspective, but it's very anthropological . . .

Hoffman: Rouch was also training me to do sound. I was going to be his sound recordist [on his Chicago film] and he was going to shoot . . . We kept in touch, either directly or through his assistant, Marie Delorme. We would communicate constantly about this film. He asked me to send him books about jazz, and I did . . . He came back the next year for the Midwest Film Conference, and we continued to work together.

Quinn: Is [Delorme] the woman in Chronicle of a Summer?

Hoffman: No.

Quinn: What's her name?

Hoffman: Her name's Marceline. She was married to [documentarian] Joris Ivens.

I wasn't aware of that.

Hoffman: A lot of the people in that movie are extremely famous. Regis Debray, who wrote the book for Latin American revolution, Revolution in the Revolution?, is in it. Marylou, the woman with the big lips who has the nervous breakdown, she went on to be [Bernardo] Bertolucci's assistant director. And she had been working at Cahiers du Cinema—that's the office [we see in the movie] where she's working . . .

These people were cast. Landry [the African emigre] was part of [Rouch's] group in Niger . . . I think the film was not Rouch's film, even though it's presented like it is. It's far more [codirector] Edgar Morin's film. Rouch really didn't like it, and he wasn't involved in a lot of the editing. There's a book called Cine-ethnography, which has the entire storyline behind the making of Chronicle. I think [Rouch's] idea was along the lines of "ethno-fiction," working with an ensemble . . . The finished product was something of an aberration to him. But it was designed as an experiment—not just a social experiment, but a film experiment. At the time they were making that film, they were also developing the Eclair crystal sync [16-millimeter] camera, and they wanted to see if they could shoot a movie on the streets.

Rouch's idea [for the movie] came from Dziga Vertov's concept of kino pravda, which Rouch reappropriated as cinema verite.

His idea of cinema verite seems to have been misinterpreted over the years. For Rouch, a big part of it was provocation—creating events and not strictly recording them.

Quinn: And that brings us to today's nightmare of reality television, which is all provocation.

Hoffman: No, no. That's very different.

Quinn: But it's all provocation! It's scripted and it's provocation!

Hoffman: Rouch's films weren't scripted, but they were rooted in working with an ensemble and making believe. The idea is that cinema isn't only what is, but what if. There's a big difference between that and direct cinema, though in this country we use those terms interchangeably. That's unfortunate, since we never really knew what cinema verite really is. But for Rouch, it wasn't about what the truth was out there, but what the truth was inside the camera, what the camera could reveal.

You know, Rouch was a believer in the religion he depicted in Les Maitres Fous and his other Niger movies. For him, he became a camera-man, literally, and the camera became a celebrant in a possession rite. People could transform with it, and you could [use it] to see inside their souls and various truths. It went very deep for him.

From Rouchs The Mad Masters
  • From Rouch's The Mad Masters

Read part two here.

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