Starting today, notes Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader, “the Gene Siskel Film Center begins a partial retrospective of the films of Jean Rouch, the great French documentarian responsible for coining the term cinema verité and for inspiring the young filmmakers who would come to be identified as the French New Wave. The series begins with one of Rouch’s best works, the 1961 feature Chronicle of a Summer, codirected with the ethnographer Edgar Morin. The film is founded on a simple premise: the directors stop random Parisians on the street and ask them whether or not they’re happy. With this modest setup, Rouch and Morin initiate a probing sociological study of postwar France and a moving character study to boot.”
This “groundbreaking ‘ethno-fiction’ still holds a rare immediacy,” writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film. “The subject shifts readily to politics, including the then-current Algerian War, to the opinions of factory workers, artists, an Italian émigré and an African student, and even the subjects themselves critiquing how they appeared on camera earlier in the film. And ‘We wanted to make a film about love… not necessarily a sympathetic one’ is a pretty fantastic artists’ statement.”
“With its extensive use of handheld cameras and direct sound, this film helped legitimize cinema verité as a genre,” writes Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at CINE-LIST, “though it doesn’t completely adhere to that—or any other—documentary technique; part of what makes this so enthralling as filmmaking is the way Rouch and Morin leap from approach to approach, seemingly willing to try anything in order to answer the ambitious questions they pose for themselves.”
Criterion will be releasing Chronicle on February 26, and reviewing the DVD for Film Comment, Giovanni Vimercati notes that the film “ends with all the ‘protagonists’ gathered together in a screening room being asked by the directors to share their thoughts on the film. Highly recommended, not least to Michael Moore and his ilk.”
Back at CINE-LIST, Kat Keish notes that the series also features “the rarely screened Brise-Glace  anthology film in its entirety.” Well, not exactly, but we’ll get to that. “Commissioned by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Swedish Film Institute, the film is a compilation of three short episodes by directors Rouch, Raúl Ruiz, and Titte Törnroth as they contemplate life upon a Swedish icebreaker.” An alert from the Film Center: “The copy we received from France contains only the first two episodes, by Jean Rouch and Titte Törnroth. The third episode, by Raúl Ruiz, is missing. The Institut Français is unable to locate it; it has evidently been misplaced or lost.” Yikes.
Jean Rouch: The Ethnographer As Auteur runs through January 31.
Update, 1/19: Ben Sachs posts the first part of an interview with Kartemquin Films cofounder Gordon Quinn 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.” Update, 1/23: Parts 2 and 3.
Update, 1/26: The Rouch retrospective has arrived in Los Angeles at UCLA and REDCAT, and in the Weekly, Nick Pinkerton has a terrific overview. Here’s how it begins: “From 1963 to 2005 the Cinémathèque Française, the temple of movie love, was located in the east wing of Paris’ Palais de Chaillot. The south wing was, as always, occupied by the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man), devoted to anthropological and ethnographic study. Jean Rouch, an employee of the Musée and a filmmaker, the Cousteau who documented an unseen Africa, was one man respected equally in both wings—without exactly belonging to either.”