Jean Rouch is considered to be the great pioneer in the field of ethnological cinema for his documentaries on black African societies. His film « Les Maîtres Fous » abolishes any border between film and reportage.
Indeed, there is no staging, no place for romantism, here it is a matter of live shots, of reality as raw and disturbing as it may be. It is cinema direct. Indeed, The people being filmed by the camera are not actors and they aren’t playing a written role. This is a real story about real people, describing a real situation that took place at a precise moment. It is safe to say that the director himself, had no idea what he was going to see when he started filming, knowing that he directed it in only one day. There is an authenticity here that we don’t see every day.
Released in 1954, It illustrates the ritual practices of African people found in Ghana (Accra): the Haoukas. They are the ones who represent « Les Maîtres Fous”. Black men, foaming at the mouth and eyes almost out of their sockets, gradually entering into a trance, becoming the various power figures during the colonization: the governor, the captain’s wife, the locomotive driver. This can be interpreted as the representation of the “weak” who enters the skin of the “strong” and finds himself overwhelmed by his accession to a power of which he would not have dared to dream. It leads to scenes of pure violence such as animal sacrifice and crudivorism.
The movie created a huge commotion among the public, white and black people alike and many questioned Rouch position on the matter at hand. What he responded was that the movie was only “The reflection of the violence which the Africans were facing at the time”. It is clearly a matter of perception and representation. J. Rouch’s sentiment for the Songhai people is irrelevant for the understanding of this piece. He directed a film that describes sensitive subjects like violence, brutality, dark rituals; had it been filmed in Europe or Asia, some people would have reacted the same. It seems like the film was meant to be shocking but also educational. Whether we like what we saw or not, at least we learned some things about an African culture; about how some African people dealt with the pain and suffering related to their painful history.