The Ethnographic Optic: Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and the Turn Inward in 1960s French Cinema (Indiana University Press, Spring 2024)
The Ethnographic Optic takes a provocative approach to 1960s French cinema, reframing canonical fictions and documentaries in relation to the evolution of visual ethnography in the twilight of French colonialism. The book highlights the shift in the work of three notable filmmakers—Jean Rouch, Chris Marker, and Alain Resnais—from a sophisticated engagement with otherness to a self-aware ethnographic focus on urban France. At a broader level, The Ethnographic Optic underlines the historical, formal, and thematic significance of French colonial, visual ethnography in 1960s French films produced in this period, as well as their New Wave and cinéma vérité contexts.
Peer-reviewed scholarly articles
This article highlights the significance of Jean Rouch’s experimental ethnographic film Moi, un Noir (1958) in the genesis of the quintessential New Wave film, À bout de souffle (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), taking seriously the idea expressed by several critics of the time that À bout de souffle was an ethnography of French youth. Following a close reading of Moi, un Noir and comparative readings of Moi, un Noir, À bout de souffle, and their French reception, the author briefly highlights Rouch’s influence on the other key film of the New Wave, Les 400 coups (François Truffaut, 1959). Rouch’s influence on the two emblematic films of the New Wave is particularly significant in light of his own turn, after years filming in France’s sub-Saharan African colonies, to making several films in metropolitan France. The central aim of this article is to elucidate the role of Rouch in the New Wave. An ancillary aim is to show that Moi, un Noir and À bout de souffle mark two key points in a striking shift in the cutting-edge French cinema of the late 1950s and 1960s: a growing inclination to survey urban, metropolitan France as a suddenly exotic space, and to conceive of French urbanites as viable ethnographic subjects.
“Moi, un Blanc: de la genèse d’À bout de souffle,” Dans le sillage de Jean Rouch, ed. by Rina Sherman (Paris: Éditions de la Maison sciences de l’homme, 2018), 209-224.