Les maîtres fous

(The Mad Masters, Jean Rouch, France, 1954)


In 1954, the radical ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch released a short called Les maîtres fous (The Mad Masters). It is an extraordinary document which shows, without a lot of contextualising information, a remarkable social reality of African life: construction workers on the colonial Gold Coast who, on weekends, go into the bush and abandon themselves to the frenzies of the Hauka cult.

Rouch shows, in intimate detail, a ritual of trance possession: music is played, drugs are ingested, the throat of a chicken is cut and its blood spread around. At the height of the trance, the men exhibit a particularly theatrical form of behaviour – they imitate the manners of their British colonial masters, becoming majors, generals, the son of the corporal of the guard or the doctor's wife, and they play-act roundtable conferences and military marches.

Abruptly, at the end of the film, we see these men, with smiling faces, back digging ditches on Monday morning. Rouch wonders on the soundtrack: "Looking at these excellent workers, one wonders – have they found a panacea for mental illness, have they found a way to absorb the inequalities of society?"

Rouch's film was mightily controversial in its day, and can still be an unsettling experience for unexpectant audiences – who, quite understandably, suspect they are watching a typical sequence from one of those violently sensationalist films that pose as educational documentaries in the video store under titles like Dances Sacred and Profane or Savage Africa.

In his book The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch, Paul Stoller describes the well-developed resistances of his present day students to Les maîtres fous: some vomit, some seek rational explanations for the trance behaviour, others are insulted and dismiss the film as racist.

Anthropologist George DeVos explains these "impressions of discomfort" thus: "The spectator is ill at ease, but at the same time he must take in what he has been given to see".

MORE Rouch: Gare du Nord

© Adrian Martin December 1993

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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