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.