#282. The Mad Masters (1955)

My friend Elle is fortunately tri-lingual (Spanish English French) and forged of very tough patient stuff—which came in handy for the following reasons:

  1. The Mad Masters is very hard to find. The only DVD I could locate with English subtitles cost over $200.
  2. It’s a brutal documentary depicting the ritualistic violence of some young men in Accra (a colonized city in what’s now Ghana). There aren’t many people willing to take part in the watching of it.
  3. The only version I could find online had the standard French voiceover with Russian subtitles.

So Elle, in a hugely generous display, watched that Russian-subtitled version of Mad Masters with me and translated literally every word of the near-constant French voice over.

Mercifully, for Elle and every other person who’s ever seen this nightmare movie, it’s only a half-hour long.

            When I mentioned at one point on the Thousand Movie Project Facebook page that I was trying to find a copy of Mad Masters in English, somebody got real bristly with me and said to not even try, that the movie is horrific and oughta be skipped; seemed to suggest, I thought, that there was some moral fault to be found in even watching it.

I figured at the time that this person’s gripe was mostly about the film’s notorious violence, which I now know revolves mostly around the ritualistic sacrifice and eating of dogs, but a bit of reading shows that the film was shunned by both sides of the dynamic it’s purportedly exploring: the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized. The movie was banned in British territories, and Niger. (A bit of research shows that Niger was still colonized by the French when Mad Masters was released. It won its independence in 1960s, but I can’t find when the country banned the doc. Another tough thing to know about mid-century movies is how, when, and if they found an international audience, especially indie features and documentaries.)

            The young African men who perform the ritual at the heart of the documentary are allegedly being possessed by the ghosts of Briitsh authority figures, frothing at the mouth and convulsing over open flames with ropes of saliva lashing in pendulous ways from their mouths, as members of what, depending on the article, is referred to as the Hauka cult or Hauka tradition.

            It’s like a ritualized satire.

In this essay by Paul Stoller we can see from his encounter with a Hauka performer/member/subject that the ceremonies are supposed to be kinda playful and fun. He describes, in the opening pages, how he was mortified when he first encountered a man convulsing, and flailing about, vomiting up black bile and then packing his mouth with sand. But then, at a colleague’s insistence, he approached the flailing Hauka person and introduced himself, and the man greeted him with some vulgar jokes that garnered laughs from onlookers. He suggests that the ritual is a way of mocking their colonizers and paying homage to their ancestors.

            So there’s a kind of beauty to it.

But, understandably, it isn’t all that flattering for the people whose susceptibility to colonizers might, to some degree, be influenced by this exact kind of depiction: frothing, puppy-killing, demon-worshipping savages.

            It’s no help that the filmmaker, Jean Rouch, is white; and a Frenchman at that.     

            Rouch suggests at the end of the film, when we see these young men back to work the next day with shaved heads and jolly dispositions, that their whole ritual of self-harm, of surrendering themselves in an almost lusty way to the demonic spirits of their white colonizers, is something therapeutic. They’re exorcising their feelings of rage, sadness, debasement, shame—the cocktail of feelings that spring up from having the devil come along and promise you a new world, prosperity in  comfort, while at the same time he steamrolls your home, your culture, shits on your values and steals your freedom.

            That the ritual is both satire and catharsis.

It reminds me of William Friedkin’s recent documentary, The Devil and Father Amorth, in which he claims to depict an actual exorcism and wants the audience to believe that they’re witnessing an actual demonic possession. Rouch is pretty neutral with his camera, but a camera is inherently biased just by merit of its placement, by the things that are omitted from the frame. I don’t know why I get this vibe, but I don’t think Rouch wants us to believe that these guys are actually possessed by spirits; and I’m not sure if the performers/subjects want us to believe that either.

            It’s a hideous and shocking movie, but rhetorically interesting. I’ll hold off on any kind of moral verdict but…I’ll tentatively argue its relevance as a cultural artifact, if not exactly its veracity.


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