Friday, March 25, 2011

Les maîtres fous

Les maîtres fous is one of the French director Jean Rouch's ethnographic accounts of Nigeria under European colonial rule. The film is a bizarre and unsettling chronicle of the Hauka movement, a quasi-religious Nigerian sect in which the members enacted rituals where they are "possessed" by various archetypes of European colonialists. Rouch devotes most of his film to a document of one of these rituals, complete with a voiceover that purports to identify the various forms that the Africans are taking on: the General, the Governor, the Doctor's Wife, and other positions of military and political power within the European ruling authorities. While Rouch's narration maintains its deadpan, unruffled calm, the contortions of the ritual become increasingly ecstatic and unhinged, as the celebrants foam at the mouth, spasm and dance spastically, sacrifice a chicken and a dog, and lick up the blood from these sacrifices until their faces are smeared.

What makes the film so odd and challenging is the juxtaposition between its relaxed narration — which affects the soothing tones and distanced objective pose of many ethnographic documentaries — and the lurid, outrageous imagery of the ritual itself. Rouch's perspective is odd, too. His narration makes the claim that the ritual is intended to be a parody of the colonial occupation, that the Nigerians are channeling their disdain for their white masters into exaggerated, stylized appropriations of the Europeans' rites and and dress and manners. He might be right. But it's hard to know just how seriously to take Rouch's claims, as again and again his narration seems less like the result of informed research and more like a series of fanciful descriptions of observed behavior. His voiceover has a searching quality that makes it seem as though Rouch is trying to form a narrative based around the images he's gathered, and this impression complicates the film considerably.

Rouch is reading a great deal into the psychology of the film's subjects, and it's questionable how valid his conclusions are. Is this ritual a defense against mental illness, as Rouch claims at the end of the film? Is it a way for the colonized Nigerians to cope with the stress of their daily confrontations with industrialized Western society, or to deal with their status as indentured laborers for the whites? It's hard to tell, but Rouch's narration, with its loose interpretations of various gestures, doesn't exactly inspire confidence. At one point he puts words into the mouth of a man swinging a chicken back and forth, suggesting that the gesture is of great religious significance when, by all appearances, it's simply idle motion. Such questions about the film's faithfulness to the intent of these rituals are constantly raised, though Rouch's authoritative narration seems calculated not to encourage dissent.

There's also more than a hint of exploitation in Rouch's portrayal of Africans engaged in bloody, wild rites that not only appear as irrevocably exotic to Western eyes, but are explicitly compared to mental illness in the film's text. Rouch is portraying his African subjects as wild men, literally foaming at the mouths, the lower halves of their faces covered in white spray as they vibrate, roll around on the floor, walk with a jerking, frantic stride that truly does make it seem as though their bodies are being propelled around by some external animating spirit that jerks them around like puppets on strings. The images are, undeniably, darkly fascinating, and often horrifying as well, particularly when the celebrants ritually sacrifice a dog and then cook up a stew with its entrails, taking hungry bites out of its head and fighting to get the "best" scraps of the slaughtered animal. One man, picked out for a closeup twice in the film's half-hour, rocks back and forth, his face smeared red with blood from the feast.

Rouch continually locates such provocative images, tracing the progress of the ritual from its tentative beginnings to the point when numerous participants have been "possessed" and taken on these alternate personalities. Rouch's narration wryly notes the appropriation of English and French modes of dress and rituals, but this too is a problem. When Rouch says that the Nigerians are holding a "roundtable conference" on the subject of whether to cook the dog or eat it raw, his voice maintains its steady, even keel, but there's an obvious note of sarcasm and irony in the counterpoint between the colonialists' ceremonies and military discipline and the crudity of the Nigerians imitating their oppressors. Rouch even inserts footage of British and French soldiers on parade, and European aristocrats in their fancy cars, to further solidify the comparison.

Intended for European audiences, the film condescends to its subjects, presenting these rituals with an unmistakable tone of "hey look at these weird Africans," even while the subtext of Rouch's narration points at the exploitation of the African people by their colonial overseers. This adds up to a very conflicted film, simultaneously poking fun at colonialist pretensions and perpetrating the stereotype of the violent, superstitious African primitive. It's obvious that Rouch, who lived and worked in Nigeria for a long time and had a definite anti-colonialist bent, meant well, but Les maîtres fous, despite its compelling, raw imagery and the interesting ideas it explores, can't get over its tonal inconsistencies.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Les Maitres Fous was the exceedingly direct inspiration for Jean Genet's The Blacks On seeing it he realized he'd found an ideal way for saying everythig he wanted to say (at that particular moment) about society, power and racism.

Bobby Wise said...

I don't know why we shouldn't take Rouch's scientific claims seriously. He was a practicing ethnographer. Not some fly-by-night journalist or documentarian.

However, you make some valid points about the ethics of representation and the ambivalent tone of the film. I think this is a great work and it contains my favorite cut in Rouch's cinema.

The extreme jump cut from the Nigerian imitating European aristocracy with a similar hat on his head to archival footage of military parades featuring those same social elites is amazing. For me this demonstrates the power of Rouch's cinema and his often complex method.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting, David!

Bobby, you're probably right about the claims of the voiceover, I don't know why but it just struck me that Rouch was making some rather dubious claims about what he was seeing. I know he was a very serious ethnographer and spent a long time in Africa, though, so I should probably give him more of a benefit of the doubt. In any event, it's undoubtedly a fascinating film with some amazing images, and like you I love that cut from the African rituals to the colonialist military parades. It makes the point that all rituals are somewhat absurd, that all those stuffy colonials in their starched outfits are very ripe for the mockery of the Africans they exploit and subjugate.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Much of what Rouch discovers here turns up in a different form in Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning -- her seminal film about gay underground "Ball" culture and the invention of "Voguing."

Sam Juliano said...

"What makes the film so odd and challenging is the juxtaposition between its relaxed narration — which affects the soothing tones and distanced objective pose of many ethnographic documentaries — and the lurid, outrageous imagery of the ritual itself."

Most interesting Ed. Oh boy, I'm sorry to say I have not seen this film, and honestly have not heard of it. But I haven't mined Rouch's work at all in fact despite the fact that I know he was influential in the maturation of the cinema verite movement, and influenced the likes of Pennebaker and the Maysles. I can see where his surrealist slant is particularly interesting to you even though in the end you saw this as something that really didn't succeed. Your review brings to mind in subtle ways Denis' CHOCOLAT, Tavenier's COUP DE TORCHON, Ouedraogo's TILAI and a few works by the great Sembene. But of course with the exception of Denis and Tavenier, the others are Africans, and the perspective is obviously altered. Sorry to hear of the element of exploitation that you found in this work. As always, an exceptional essay.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. It's certainly an interesting film and I'll be seeking out more Rouch, even though I had some problems with this one. Good comparison points there, to some other films and directors who deal with colonialism from various different angles.

Just Another Film Buff said...

AN out and out negative review of a film at the site after a long time, I see.

I love Rouch's film though. I thought the voice-over was a jab at itself. Its deadpan interpretations, I thought, were a send up of ethnographic films which try to read other cultures using the terminologies and methodologies of one's own. Like the opening section of STAR SPANGLED TO DEATH, where Jacobs uses such an imperial film directly - quoting it - to achieve an ironic distance from it to criticize it.

No wonder Herzog called this one of the greatest films ever. (I think it is his most favorite even).

I don't know about the movie, but you, Ed, are the Mad Master here, given the frenzied and irresistible work at Only The Cinema off late. You should really go on print.


Ed Howard said...

Hey, JAFB. You're right, I'm pretty selective about what I watch and as a result I tend to write a lot more positive reviews than negative reviews (though there are a few more of the latter coming in the next few weeks). Interesting take on the Rouch film, too. And that's a great fact about Herzog; I didn't know that he was such a big fan, but it makes perfect sense of course. Herzog's own anthropological/ethnographic films skirt a similar line in terms of exploitation at times, though not quite as wildly or as blatantly as this film.

Anonymous said...

I've been wanting watch this for awhile now. Was your's subtitled? Or do you understand french? I've been looking for a subtitled ANYTHING with no luck except for that clip on youtube.

Ed Howard said...

Anon, subtitled copies can be found on at least some private torrent sites, so they're out there. I don't understand anywhere near enough French to get by without the subs.