Introduced by Anne-Sophie Dinant
Super 16mm film to digital, sound, 21' 49''
Threading softly on the footsteps of the French ethnographer Jean Rouch, Marine Hugonnier travelled along the Niger River, where she met the descendants of the Songhai, the protagonists of Rouch’s film Les Maîtres Fous (1955). This encounter became the set for a filmic reflection on the role of the artist and filmmaker and its chameleonic condition in-between an invisible observer and subject with its own voice.
Anne-Sophie Dinant: Your work as an artist and documentary filmmaker and your interest in anthropology has led you to make a film in homage to Jean Rouch. An important characteristic of Jean Rouch’s Cinema, father of the ‘Cinéma-Vérité’ and Direct Cinema, and an aspect that you particularly wanted to explore and emphasise through this film is how the filmmaker can endorse different roles within the act of filmmaking - filmmaker, intruder, narrator - and even become himself subject of the film. In your film, this is symbolised by the image of the chameleon. Could you tell us what strategies you put in place to explore the place of the artist in documentary film-making?
Marine Hugonnier: The Secretary of the Invisible describes film as a chameleon and the figure of the artist as a secretary of the invisible. But it also works in reverse. The artist is the chameleon and film is the secretary of the invisible. This film as most of the ones I have made so far, help me to think out loud and to rub these thoughts against reality to see how they stand. My films are the result of an approach, an experience. They raise questions, attempt to find answers and are in the end the result of a thought process.
I worked for a few years at the photography department of the Museum of Mankind in Paris where Jean Rouch had his office. I wanted to pay a tribute to his work so I got in touch with Moussa and Damouré. What particularly interested me being in Niger with them was that I could drift along with them, drift along the shores of the country that saw the raise of modern cinema. Moussa and Damouré showed me around and I recorded in the places they took me to. I knew that meeting them would open the door to the land of the Imaginary realities, of ‘La Pensée Magique’. It did, and things started to happen very quickly when I got to Niamey; they were completely out of my control and not everything that happened was pleasant.
Jean Rouch said “For me cinema, making a film, is like Surrealist painting: the use of the most real processes of reproduction, the most photographic, but at the service of the unreal, bringing into being elements of the irrational… the postcard at the service of the imaginary.” For Jean Rouch cinema is the best tool to grasp an imaginary landscape, and therefore the symbolic constructions of a society. The imaginary is understood as a concrete procedure, a perceptible truth and cinema is his tool to record their manifestations.
Jean Rouch had a camera, which he could rest on his shoulder like a cat. That technical feature helped him to be in the centre of his subject while filming. In Les Maîtres Fous (1955) he is recording a parody of colonialism but also him being caught in a trance. He invented ‘Participatory Cinema’ as the distance between him and the subject vanished. He was the narrator, the film operator and since he was so much in the middle of the action he partly becomes the subject of his films. Serge Daney said “Cinema could teach me to tirelessly touch with my gaze the distance from me at which the other begins”. The Secretary of the Invisible was a way to question the “status of what we are seeing, the objectifying implications of documentary, its reduction of otherness to images which was much contested in Jean Rouch’s oeuvre”. And here that distance almost vanishes and loops back onto the figure of the author himself, tries to sort out his position and involvement as anthropologist or as a “metteur en scène.”
As we were sailing down the river Niger I exchanged a small radio for a strange African mask, a transformation mask, with an unclear provenance. Later that day Moussa and Damouré took me to a Songhai ceremony and the mask provoked the trance of a young girl who described the figure of a chameleon. In the African bestiary, which is rich and vast, the chameleon is a figure that has a demiurge role as it is considered as an interface between our world and the “ouraniennes” (celestial) forces. Its eyes can turn 360 degrees and its ability to mimic its environment is an analogy with the way man likes to disguise. In Western Africa the chameleon embodies the power of transformation and magic. Making an analogy between film and the chameleon seemed quite obvious. Cinema is here a figure of metamorphosis; it is “l' art du double”. It is a pleasurable machine that transforms the world. Coincidently on the 3rd June 2004, a commemorative mass was dedicated to Jean Rouch at the Church of Saint-Merri in Paris, after his death. The five teaching lessons of the Chameleon by Amadou Hampâté Bâ, the famous writer and poet, was read by one of his friends. Retrospectively it seemed that Jean Rouch was with us on set.
Each of my films is the occasion to define the role of the artist, this strange figure that escape social categories. Maybe the artist is a chameleon but he could also be seen as a geographer, an anthropologist, a magician, or a real estate agent, a “flâneur,” a soldier, a madman, a tourist… In fact none of these would resume what the artist does or is, he is the sum of all this and these points of view are the material of his study.
ASD: The title The Secretary of the Invisible is borrowed from Czeslaw Miloz’s Secretaries, where the author describes the work of a poet as being a secretary of the invisible. The notion of ‘invisible’, which is somehow inherent to film and in particular to documentary – as an intention to render something which is not necessarily graspable, such as in this context, the ‘essence’ and meanings behind the rites of possession performed by the descendants of the Songhai or the invisible relation of the film-maker with the persons filmed - is an important element of your work and particularly present in this film.
How do you work with this notion of ‘invisible’?
MH: I don’t work with it. I am at its service.The invisible in this film is the ground of the imaginary realities. It is what bonds them and it is where the psyche of a particular cultural group of people comes together to form a collective consciousness. But in general the invisible is the place of anything that escapes rationality. It is where the mystery stands and it could be interesting to say that it is where the inclusion of the viewer starts. My practice spans from films to abstract collages. Abstraction is a solution to grasp the ungraspable, documentary films as well. Applying a restriction on images, whether it is a black image with sound, an image without sound, an out of frame action or simply abstraction is a way to use images sparingly, to refrain adding unnecessary information and that helps me to think about their status.
ASD: Through your work, you have developed a specific cinematic language in which geographical places are primordial. In your films we encounter a consideration of landscape as a place of history and memory combined with the incorporation of your own voice as a fundamental element within the film. The black screen is often present, as though to mark a pause and a separation between thoughts, or give further written or spoken 'out of field' information. As this film starts, striking shots of landscape are juxtaposed with a reflection on cinema – via a short verbal exchange between two protagonists. The viewer can perceive the connection between history and landscape as the conversation is related to an historical fact: the ancient cinemas of Niamey. Can you say something about why and how you put into place these specific cinematic operations and how they became characteristic of your film practice in general?
MH: I see landscape as a form of cultural mediation, as a social contrast, and I try to understand how they have shaped and informed history, and vice versa. Since the 19th century tools like cinema and photography – which were new modes of analysis and perception that echoed the expansionist mission of the time – have established a particular ideological and perceptual point of view. I have often chosen far away places to have a conversation about different forms of observation. Ariana (2002) which was shot in Afghanistan, questions the military gaze; The Last Tour (2004) which is the second film of the trilogy, shot in the Swiss Alps, questions the tourist gaze; Travelling Amazonia (2006) shot in Brazil is what has made a gaze possible (i.e. the rationalisation of space through map making); Territory I, II, III (2004) which was shot in Palestine and Israel was about the way architecture could become a military optical device; The Cristal Palace (2009) was about the gaze of a viewer in a Museum, and finally my last filmApicula Enigma (2013) is about the naturalistic gaze. These topics define a quest to understand how things are observed, question systems of representation and challenge their conventions. And most of the time these films loop back and become a way to question the observer, her or his point of view as a westerner. It is within this framework that the quest is to define subjectivity, a new one.
1. In Jeannette De Bouzek, The ‘Ethnographic Surrealism’ of Jean Rouch. Visual Anthropology 2(N°3-4), 2003, PP. 301-317.
2. Traffic N°4, autumn 1992, reprinted in Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana, Persévérance, Paris, POL, 1995, pp. 15-39.
3. Michael Newman, Interrupting the Pan: Marine Hugonnier’s Ariana in Marine Hugonnier Catalogue, Film and Video Umbrella-Dundee contemporary Arts, 2004, p. 38.
4. The title The Secretary of the Invisible is borrowed from Czeslaw Miloz’s Secretaries, 1975.‘I am no more than a secretary of the invisible thingThat is dictated to me and a few others.Secretaries, mutually unknown, we walk the earthWithout much comprehension. Beginning a phrase in the middleOr ending it with a comma. And how it looks when completedIs not up to us to inquire, we won't read it anyway.’
5. Those two protagonists are Damouré Zika and Moussa Hamidou, respectively Jean Rouch's sound engineer and one of his central actors, who appeared in many of his films.
Marine Hugonnier, 2007Director of Photography: Jessica ServieresEditor: Helle le FevreSound: Matthias Fayos, Moussa Hamidou, Damien PerrollazProducers: Karen Katz, Lydia Martin, Corinne Castel
WithDamoure Zika and his familyMoussa HamidouSani, the pirogue manHamiidou Yaye, the priest
Thanks toRachal BradleyCatherine PavlovicGrégoire Pujade-LauraineBernard Surugue
Funded by:Arts Council England, London with the support of Film London Artist’s Moving Image NetworkMamco, Geneva; Max Wigram Gallery, London; Alan Djanogly, Mary Greenwell