The Missing Pieces of Jean Rouch’s Les Maitres Fous (1955)

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Delving Deeper:
The Missing Pieces of Jean Rouch’s Les Maitres Fous (1955)

Untrained as a filmmaker and educated in the field of ethnography, Jean Rouch spent much of the 1940’s and 1950’s exploring the colonialized areas of West Africa. He spent his time immersing himself in African culture, eventually taking a camera along to film what he witnessed. The footage he collected would later be edited in to several short amateur pieces. Over the next several years, Rouch would emerge as an unsuspecting rebel in the filmmaking world. His films became highly revered for their fearlessness and unprecedented subject matter. He struck a unique balance between interesting film and his ethnographic roots. His ethnographic films of the 1950’s helped to set the stage for this repute, one of the most significant from this time being Les Maitres Fous (1955). In Les Maitres Fous, or “The Crazy Masters”, Rouch explores the sacred ceremonies of the Hauka sect. The religion of the Hauka, literally meaning “The New Gods”, was widespread in West Africa from the 1920’s until the late 1950’s. When Rouch filmed this piece in 1954, there were at least 30,000 practicing Hauka in the city of Accra in the Gold Coast (now known as Ghana). Rouch was asked by two Hauka priests to record their annual ceremony. During this ritual, which took place in a rural area several hours from the city of Accra, the Hauka became possessed by spirits associated with the West: the governor general, the engineer, the doctor's wife, the wicked major, and the corporal of the guard. The Hauka movement was a marvel of the African colonial era and Rouch aimed to capture it through his lens. Unfortunately, his lens is that of a man born and raised in France. He is a product of the West. Although he does his best to capture an honest, impartial, and in depth look at this culture, his lens is undoubtedly tinted by his own. He is an outsider to the Hauka, an observer. He spends the entire film making observations of the actions and practices of the sect, but never delves deep in to the reasoning. Les Maitres Fous, although a cinematic feat for its time, does not provide the clearest nor most objective expression of Hauka culture. Instead of offering an understanding of the rituals, Rouch simply offers commentary with sporadic, shallow explanations of select actions. It is as if, through his narration, Rouch is speaking for the Hauka people, instead of letting them speak for themselves. Rouch settles in to his roll of observer and offers a documentary that regrettably fails to ask the most important question, “why?” The film opens with a brief written introduction and explanation of the picture's subject matter, the Hauka and their religious rituals. Rouch writes of their often intense possessions “This violent game is only the reflect of our civilization”, alluding to why the sect takes on the spirits of Western colonial power figures during their possessions. He does little else to explain the causation of this spiritual phenomenon. Although he does admit that it is because of the Western Colonialism that the people have turned to these curious rituals, he fails to provide any more information or clarification. The screen is then flooded with sights and sounds of a bustling Accra. Rouch, in French, begins his narration that continues through the entire film. He introduces the city. He explains that many of the city’s inhabitants are from all over Western Africa, having migrated to the port city in search of jobs. The viewer is then presented with the various occupations the people hold- everything from the “Sumuguly”, the smugglers, to the “hygiene boys”, responsible for exterminating mosquitos. The images and natural sounds of this opening scene provide the viewer with an honest image of the city, while Rouch explains the pictures. Rouch seamlessly transports the viewers to the streets of the African city. He captures and explains the weekend processions through the...
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