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Moi, un Noir: Affirmation of, or antagonism against colonialism

Published onMar 17, 2022
Moi, un Noir: Affirmation of, or antagonism against colonialism

LOOKING BACK TO MOVE FORWARD

Throughout this essay I aim to problematise prior modes of ethnographic research as a means of exploring, and assessing alternate forms of anthropological enquiry. In doing this, I aim to address the shortcomings of representations of black lives in earlier works, questioning the ways in which discourses of othering have long been conserved and catalysed in ethnographic research. Jean Rouch’s, Moi, un Noir,1 will serve as the crux of this analysis, and a gateway into a wider exploration of the ways in which collaborative works have been, and often continue to be problematic and inequitable in both positional (in relation to power) and representational terms. This problematisation of ethnographic methods will lead to an exploration into alternate forms of collaborative film making, the catalytic significance of self-representation and the future of anthropological enquiry. However, in order to consider these issues in greater detail, it is firstly important to contextualise the trajectory of anthropology more widely.

Anthropology in the early 1900s, entangled within colonialism, often acted as a justification for colonial expansion and occupancy through the reiteration and construction of the ‘other’.2 The ‘other’ (non-western), was often represented as ‘barbaric’, ‘primitive’, and in need of ‘civilisation', whereas the West was often defined as its opposite; ‘rational’, ‘modern’ and ‘universal’.34 More often than not, earlier works captured difference as a spectacle that enforced and strengthened these binaries and thus from the 1890s to the 1950’s, although not mainstream, photographs and other visual mediums were often used in a positivist way; as a source of data, a way of displaying scientific analysis.5 Simply put during this period, photographs and other visual mediums became a ‘diagnostic’ and exhibitionist means by which the ‘civilised’ could observe the ‘uncivilised’; framing differences, and reflecting the colonial conceptual narrative of the ‘exotic’ and the ‘modern’.6

From the 1940s to the 1980’s, visual anthropology gained some more traction, and ethnographic film had developed somewhat as a sub-discipline, but the wider presence of visual methods was still marginal.7 In this phase photography and ethnographic film remained predominantly representational, and western researchers still held much of the power in capturing and representing culture, but some more collaborative and experimental methods were surfacing.8 Focusing on this period, and through the scope of Jean Rouch’s Moi, un Noir,9 I aim to discuss the ways in which his collaborative, and shared anthropological approach does not wholly deserve the adoration they have acquired, putting them under the microscope to best address the ways in which anthropology can move forward. Therefore, I shall explore how we can adopt new methodological approaches in order to move away from problematic power dynamics and representations present even within contemporary or nuanced participatory methodologies.

ETHNO-FICTION AND SHARED ANTHROPOLOGY

To explore the ways in which we can improve, it is firstly necessary to address Jean Rouch’s work in greater detail. Rouch’s works have been upheld for being rather contemporary for many decades as his ‘ethno-fictions’ were often seen to be very collaborative and experimental, despite being filmed prior to the reflexive and decolonial turns.10 Through collaboration, Rouch aimed to move away from common representations of the ‘other’, towards a more shared anthropological approach which stressed the use of feedback screenings, and the involvement of participants in the editing suite.11 Although he published many films, which more or less adopted the same methodological approach, Jean Rouch's Moi, un Noir12 was arguably one of his more participatory and influential films, and thus I believe it is important to reflect on this film in particular.

Moi, un Noir13 was filmed three years prior to independence in Niger, and followed a ‘week in the life’ of two Nigerian labourers, Edward G. Robinson (Oumarou Ganda) and Eddie Constantine (Petit Touré), who moved to Adjame (Ivory Coast) to acquire work. Through a collaborative and shared anthropological approach, the film explores “both the harsh realities…of the exploited working class living under colonial rule”14, and their dreams of finding love and wealth. For much of the filming process and production, Rouch gave the reins over to his collaborators, who created their own characters, shared narration with Rouch, and gave critical direction to the film, which fused the actors’ life-histories, fantasies and dreams into a shared anthropological spectacle.15

Essentially, Rouch aimed to stage and recreate life with the camera as a key part of the whole endeavour, aiming to enter “into a domain that was not reality but rather the provocation of reality, one that revealed that reality”.16 As an ethno-fiction, the film adopts a more improvisational and dramatised approach to research, which facilitated the emergence of truth through the reproduction of another kind of reality, one which was overall mediated, directed and filmed by Rouch.

MOI, UN NOIR - A MEDIATION OR REPRESENTATION

Despite his adulation in anthropology, there are still many problems with his work, and the continued use of similar methodologies in the present day. It is important to note that Rouch, entangled within the colonial framework of the French empire, “had something of an authority on African culture”17. Thus because of these circumstances, and as those such as Godard18 have suggested, one can perceive Moi, un Noir, not as “‘Africa’ speaking to the audience about itself”19, but instead as Rouch speaking to the audience about ‘Africa’. As the main director of the film, Rouch still held the powerful position of a Western researcher. Thus, although the film was more collaborative, Rouch, as a director with prior involvement with the French empire, was still a westerner producing knowledge about the ‘other’, and doing so with immense power. This, however, is a complex issue to settle on.

It may arguably be just as appropriate to consider Rouch as a mediator. As Ousmane Sembène noted, ‘‘in principle, an African could have done it but none of us were in a position to do so at the time” 20 as although many colonised spaces were struggling for decolonisation in this period, they still did not have the infrastructure nor freedom to film for themselves. Perhaps if we adopt this scope then it appears as though that, instead of simply representing the culture as an outsider, Rouch can plausibly be seen to mediate and amplify the voices of the colonised people. Yes, Rouch still held power as a Western anthropologist, but perhaps in this light he utilised this power for good instead of simply representing and translating ‘culture’ through a western perspective. However, to adopt this stance is to overlook the aforementioned issues within his work and thus leads one to question how collaborative methodologies can be adapted in the present day to challenge these issues of positionality and representation. But, in order to do this, it is important to firstly contextualise anthropology now.

THE CURRENT CONDITION IN ANTHROPOLOGY

Anthropology today has certainly developed and improved since the era of colonialism. We have seen a great shift in the reflexive and decolonial turns. These turns focused more generally on epistemologically and politically critiquing issues of representation and positionally, crystallised through the problematisation of anthropology's colonial legacy, ethnographic authority, and the ethnographic quest for truth.21 However, despite being rather influential, many have argued that these turns have not fully resolved these issues. As Zoe Todd22, and Pat Caplan23 have suggested, these turns in anthropology have been led, in majority but not in totality, by white male anthropologists whose position in the anthropological realm further conserved the unequal power disparities of the colonialist period, meaning many works have continued to represent black and indigenous lives through a white lens.24

It is certainly known that the reflexive and decolonial turn had some success in addressing a few of the present issues in anthropological fieldwork. But, siding with Todd25, I suggest that such efforts only skimmed the surface, and failed to counter the deep-rooted nature of these issues institutionally, so much so that power disparities and inequalities have survived, allowing coloniality to live on within the driving force of decolonisation.

So where do we go from here? How can western ethnographers counteract the representational sins of anthropological fieldwork and knowledge production?

TO MEDIATE, OR NOT TO MEDIATE?

Although Rouch’s methods were seemingly groundbreaking at the time of their emergence, it is problematic to continue to use methodologies of those such as Rouch in complete mimesis. At the time of Rouch’s Moi, un Noir26, mediation was a useful tool as many did not have the facilities to speak for themselves, as previously noted, but in the present day, with the increase of digital media, and social media, we see that those involved in movements such as Black Lives Matter, capture their own stories and share their own narratives through (audio-)visual means, representing through their own scope, and as such we see the importance and growing number of self-representations. As Orisanmi Burton has mentioned, “the profusion of activist self-representation and the potency of radical historiography constitute an explanatory crisis (and perhaps an opportunity) for the anthropology of race”.27 He argued that because of rising self-representations we should shift our inquiry in a way that facilitates “transhistorical thinking, enabling us to clarify the particular ways that the past lives in the present” as a means of progressing in the discipline and righting the wrongs of anthropological enquiry.28

Thus, if we take this advice, and keep Todd and Caplan's critiques in mind, then we must look to anthropology today, and how we can best consider and associate with groups such as Black Lives Matter in the anthropological realm. To do this we must decolonize anthropology in a more rigorous manner, shifting our focus inwards, on the way in which unequal power dynamics are perpetuated through both past, and current modes of research, through our universities, our curriculum, through those we cite, through field relationships, methodology and so on in a more drastic way. In totality it is to move beyond what Latham Thomas has named optical allyship, an “allyship that only serves at the surface level to platform the ‘ally,’ it makes a statement but doesn’t go beneath the surface and is not aimed at breaking away from the systems of power that oppress”.29 To decolonise we must make these changes wholeheartedly and with radical reflexivity, as the reflexive and decolonial turns did not do enough.

THEY WHO HOLD THE CAMERA, HOLD THE POWER OF REPRESENTATION

Now this shift towards a more radically reflexive discipline does not eradicate the ethnographer all together, but in the future of research it is of utmost important to explore new methodologies to avoid speaking for participants, and to harness greater reflexivity in all sectors of the discipline. As such, the aim is not to rid of anthropology, but instead, methodologically speaking, to end ethnography as we know it.30

Trihn T. Minh-Ha31 has offered a just starting point for the future of anthropological inquiry. Trinh argued that even the more contemporary works have long perpetuated a problematic dynamic between researcher and researched, failing to truly decanter the power disparities present in ethnographic enquiry, and thus urged for a new mode of enquiry, whereby we do not speak for or speak over participants, but simply “speak nearby”.32 By doing so, the voices of participants are at the forefront, whereas our voice as the researcher no longer takes centre stage, ensuring that those whose voices need to be heard are representing themselves. Such an approach cuts across the divide of researcher and researched into a more subjective and reflexive representation, one that is balanced more so in favour of the collaborators.

However, even though Trinh’s33 approach is more nuanced and challenging to power dynamics than Rouch’s, it is important to note that we can tackle the power dynamics present in production further. Within works that are led, filmed and edited by the researcher, we are still seeing a representation of the world as seen through their eyes, quite simply because those who hold the camera hold the power of representation and framing. Although one may aim to speak nearby, or simply capture a self-representation, the researcher is still capturing such events through their own individual framing or manipulation of the lens, and thus more can be done.

SO WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

If we are to research, we need to do so in a way that allows for voices and self-representation to be absolutely paramount. Andrea Cornwall’s work does just this. Cornwall adopted a collaborative methodology, that eradicated the problem of representation through the researcher's lens even more so.34 Cornwall’s work took place in Salvador, where she went to collaborate with domestic workers in order to explore the realities of marginalised groups. She took collaboration a step further and instead of filming the interlocutors herself, she gave them cameras, leaving them to document their own lives.35 In doing this, the world is seen through their eyes, and as such Cornwall’s authority over representation is further minimised.

Cornwall’s (2014) work demonstrates a move far beyond earlier collaborative works such as Rouch's and aptly conveys how a more collaborative approach can be adopted to challenge issues of representation and positionality further.36 This project is not the West representing the ‘other’ through the camera, or a Westerner using the camera to capture their own framing of self-representation; instead the camera was handed over in totality, proving to be a tool of compelling self-representation. Thus this collaboration verges on a sort of mediation, whereby Cornwall is merely a facilitator of self-representation.

As mentioned above, in a Rouchian sense, mediation is problematic as those collaborating as Rouch did, captured self-representation through their own manipulation of the camera and framing, and thus were still objectifying the ‘other’ or at the very least holding power over their interlocutors. However, here this is not the case. The mediation is the simple process of handing the camera over and allowing the voice, narrative and capturing of empowerment and disempowerment to be framed by the collaborators. Thus, this work emanates a different sort of mediation - a more radical and empowering facilitation of self-representation - one that is more aligned with the works of Benjamin Dix.37

Dix stated that to effectively mediate is to use one's own connections to amplify self-representation and the voices of collaborators, thus avoiding objectifications or Western representations of the ‘other’.38 This is arguably what is being done here. By not representing or capturing her interlocutors through her own “production of ‘fictions”- and instead by facilitating self-representation - we see an approach that extends far beyond the reach of past collaborations of the 1900s or even the standard textual traditions of ethnography; an approach that amplifies the voices of the interlocutors.39

Cornwall certainly strides towards a more balanced anthropology, but this is not the only means by which one can challenge issues of positionality and representation. Andre Bahule and Karen Boswall’s, Nhenha explores women of three generations in Gaza, Mozambique, and demonstrates an alternate and radical attempt to ‘speak nearby’40. The film celebrates the strength of local women, and through songs, dance and stories, the viewer is welcomed into their lives. The work was produced and commissioned by Karen Boswall, who trained and collaborated with Andre Bahule. At the time Boswall was working with students at the University of Creative Arts in Mozambique; many of whom had already acquired a passion for filmmaking, but hadn’t yet produced any films longer than 3-5 minutes.41 Bahule was one of these students, and Boswall aimed to learn through the narratives and aesthetics that he chose in order to collaboratively explore the reception that they gained nationally and internationally.42 The filmic style was shaped by formal static interviews, self-representations, and community music and dances. For the performances, Bahule utilised long, uncut, wide-angled shots, and in interviews he used stationary shots. Although disagreeing with Bahule’s decisions to use these filmic techniques, Boswall agreed that upon reception these aesthetics and methods were effective in evoking emotions. She argued that the long uncut scenes and wide angles gave the viewers time to view what they wanted to, which subsequently proved to provoke reverence in screen backs with local people.43 In a recent panel at the RAI film festival (2021), Boswall claimed that by not interfering with these decisions, by taking the role of the producer, and by giving Bahule the reins of production, the film made a connection with Mozambicans (the main audience) that she could not have achieved herself.44 By surrendering her authorship, Boswall managed to challenge common power dynamics, positionalities, and objectifications, which overall led to a more equal and effective collaboration and self-representation.

Nhenha is an important ethnographic work as the methodology challenges the common inequality present in earlier ethnographic works such as Rouch’s. It is apparent that typically in earlier collaborations the directors’ name takes precedent, they manage the camera and they take the lead in editing the content, meaning they arguably control how culture is framed and represented. In such contexts, we see that the authority and power is still held by the researcher. However, what we see in this film, is Boswall’s assumption of the ‘producers’ role. By taking this role, Boswall still has involvement and input in the film and decision-making process, but this influence is minimal. Instead of speaking for participants, she is ‘speaking nearby’ in a more radical way.45 By stepping aside, self-representation is taken on by the director, Bahule, who gains the power in representing his own people and framing the narrative around their culture; thus avoiding the standard dynamic of a western representing the ‘other’. As the film was made for Mozambicans, the film was not created and constructed for a western gaze. Such a decision removes the West as the observer of the ‘other’, and subsequently counters the diagnostic and voyeuristic norms of the past. What we are left with is instead a truly shared ethnographic film, one is which is led, and filmed by the collaborators. Overall, the film is aware and reflexive of, but far removed from, prior colonial and objectivist traditions in anthropology and demonstrates the way in which visual anthropology, when used in such a radically collaborative way, can be significant in challenging these issues.

It is just to argue that a balance between Cornwall’s facilitative stance and Boswall's positionality can ignite greater collaborative projects that challenge the power of the Western researcher more radically. As Ted Gordon suggests, “decolonizing anthropology becomes more than a negation. It is not, and cannot be, the restoration of anthropology to a discipline which is in some sense passively ‘neutral’ or ‘objective’”46. Instead it is by adopting these approaches and these stances that we can challenge institutional imbalance in academia, and in representation. Through adopting radical reflexivity, we can begin to break down the pedestal that white Western anthropologists have long inhabited, and move towards a more levelled discipline - one that is far removed from, but reflexive of anthropology’s problematic past and present.

SOME CONCLUSIVE STATEMENTS

It becomes apparent that the works of Jean Rouch were perhaps only given due appraisal because of his anomalous methodology that contrasted to the traditional approaches of the time. Rouch’s work was by no means as damning as other works of this period, but through this essay, I have explored the ways in which such filmic techniques were, and continue to be, problematic in their own light. By adopting the approaches of Cornwall or Boswall, and by breaking down the institutional racism and imbalances in anthropology more radically, we can be better allies and stand in solidarity with marginalised groups and movements, such as Black Lives Matter. Overall, the ethnographer should not be eradicated all together, but in order to move away from the inequality and racism that anthropology has long perpetuated, the white Western anthropologist needs to tirelessly work to implement greater reflexivity in their work and recognise when their voice should not be at the forefront of representation. It is not acceptable to speak for, or speak over black or indigenous voices, we must learn and explore the best ways to ally marginalised groups in order to move towards equity and equality.

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