Note : This review is my contribution to the Shorts! blogathon hosted by Movies Silently from May 2nd to the 4th of 2015. Please visit the links and enjoy the readings of the other great writers participating.
Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters) (Jean Rouch, 1955)
The effects of colonialism are exposed in this film on indigenous Africans via specific rituals developed as a reaction to the colonial system. The film turns into a crazy elaboration on both the madness of such a political system and man himself.
Banned in Niger and British territories like Ghana, Jean Rouch’s Les maîtres fous is a docufiction about ethnology and colonialism. Rouch was himself a well known ethnologist and developed the genre ethnofiction. At the time when Rouch directed and presented his film nations were about to get free from their masters. Movements of nationalism and liberation were budding all over the world. In 1958, Niger for example gained its Independence.
Les maîtres fous presents the sect of the Haukas that initiates its participants with possessions and representations of the behaviors of their masters. In a way they try to emulate the actions of their oppressors and simulate and expiate their sufferings. As they do this afterwards the Haukas are shown working with big smiles and happiness despite the poor condition of hard work.
Another explanation of this tradition is an African interpretation of the rituals as it is a way to take their rivals power and eat it. For non-African people this interpretation seems difficult to understand but many rituals executed in Africa are old of hundreds, if not, thousands of years and are anchored deep into the collective mind of these people.
Jean Rouch with his docufiction seems to be exploiting a sensationalist behavior that gives a racist vision of colonialism. Well, let’s face it, colonialism was the act of Imperialist nations wanting to spread their culture and conquer the world with ideas, language, religion. It was also a way to get resources at almost no price with cheap labor. Sure racism has many masks but colonialism was one of them. Discarding the locals’ culture and imposing your own can’t be good for your politics and men.
But Rouch wants to show the reaction of the locals after many years of colonialism in their home land. No surprise the film was banned; it depicted without any filter the direct effects of nations on the verge of their independence living under the leaders of imperialist nations and making benefits on the hard work and land of their locals.
As a film of 36 minutes, Les maîtres fous was less disturbing that I thought it would be. It is straight to the point and narrated by Rouch himself. What’s interesting with documentaries, in this case a sixty years old one, is that it is a document depicting a slice of history very specific to a part of the world where few documents are available since history was more an oral tradition than our academic interpretation of the discipline. It is important that such short films and documentaries are preserved for generations to come to understand the past and the variety of ethnicity.