Once again, I wasn’t up to taking on a full-length excursion today, so I opted for one of my remaining short films. Picking entirely at random, I landed on The Mad Masters, Jean Rouch’s “ethnographic” docudrama. The word “ethnographic” comes into play a lot here; the Book cites the film as being an “ethnographic masterpiece”, and the Wikipedia article for this film cites it, and Rouch as director, as the progenitor of the genre of “ethnofiction”. So, what exactly does all that mean; what indeed is an ethnographic film? Well, after seeing it for myself, I really can’t come up with a better word to describe just what I’ve seen.
The short documentary details the culture and arguably religious practices of the Hauka movement. From what I gathered from watching the documentary, this group of African laborers gathers once a year to undergo a spiritual experience, whereby they give themselves over to spirits of deceased British colonialists, becoming possessed by them in an apparent act of power attainment. They gather together, according to a stringent group of principles and rules for inclusion, before the main act begins; first one man stands, with jerky movements, as if he is not fully in control of the body he is moving around, then another, and another, each taking on personas of their own. Their eyes roll, they foam copiously at the mouth, and they pass torches around to burn themselves in order to show they are no longer human. I can’t lie, it makes for fascinating viewing, but there is definitely some stuff here that will not go down the right way with some people, in particular the sacrifice used for the ritual, which is filmed in complete detail.
A lot can be said about this film, and the ideas it presents. This is not a film to be watched for entertainment value; it is a study of a particular culture, meant to spark discussion and instigate theoretical rumination. You are meant to think about what you have seen here, and indeed I believe the imagery and acts I watched will stick with me for the remainder of the day, at least, if not longer. However, therein lies the rub; as I’ve said numerous times before, how I grade a film is primarily based on its entertainment value, and this is not meant to be an entertaining film. It is fascinating, in a very odd sort of way, and it gets points for that, but I can’t give it too many, lest I denigrate the slightly higher ratings I’ve given to more overly entertaining films. The best I can say is, this is only a half hour long, so it’s not exactly a time-waster, but if the subject matter might be too graphic for you (graphic might be the only appropriate word to use), it’s not a half hour you should be inclined to invest.
Arbitrary Rating: 6/10