Les Maitres Fous - Jean Rouch 1954 (France -25mins)

, 2006-07-30

Les Maitres Fous - Jean Rouch 1954 (France -25mins) Viewed at Lumiere Cinema London, 9 Oct 04 - ticket price £7-00

Les Maitres Fous - Jean Rouch 1954 (France -25mins) Viewed at Lumiere Cinema London, 9 Oct 04 - ticket price £7-00 See and tell: A documentary filmed in Ghana, with a double edged title(or perhaps it's single edged), which opens with a montage showing work done by men in Accra. It is not so much the depicted work that draws attention, we see men collecting bottles, hammering out old tin cans, unloading small boats and half a dozen other menial tasks. What attracts attention is Rouch's commentary in which he gives the names attached to the Africans who carry out each particular type of work: the bottle boys, the tin boys, the carryboys, the sweepboys. Under the colonial patriarchal system, which mimics the Victorian family the white man is the big father and the Africans accorded the status and nomenclature of children and judged as not yet ready to put away the things of the child. As each group of Africans appears on screen the voice of Rouch tells us what they are called and in so doing sets up a dynamic interplay between seeing and telling, between image and word. In the commentary Rouch tells us what we are seeing; he does not explain refer or interpret. I think this dynamic of telling was adopted by Rouch so that those who viewed Les Maitre Fous, particularly when it made and exhibited - at the height of post WW2 European complacency and satisfaction with colonial structures(the victors of the European war understood their victory as a moral confirmation of the legitimacy of their world oppressive hegemony, in particular African colonies were justified as the winnings) - were not permitted by the structural interplay of image and sound to experience anything other than what Jean Rouch intended. There is no escape in this film from seeing and hearing and that is its awesome quality. As a phenomenological device, in the telling and depicting you perceive only what is before you, and that is as true and as shocking today as in 1954( but with different affect), so that in 1954 the showing of Les Maitre Fous brought a hostile reaction and demands it be banned or even destroyed. In main sequence of Maitres Fous, Rouch films an African trance/voodoo ceremony. The characteristic features of this event is that it is a disturbing hybrid rite. A pre-colonial trance ceremony involving the sacrifice of blood takes on an outer form that is derived from the experience of being a child under the white diktat. The opening section of the ceremony involves the participants taking on new identities, new names in order to enter trance. The names taken are not from the forest or spirit world but from the British colonial hierarchy that controls life: The Governor, the General, the Judge. The basis of the ceremony involves individual empowerment through trance and blood, but the rite as practiced by these Africans involves them taking on the roles of their British masters. It feels as if the original totemic spirits implicit in the event have been psychically hijacked by spirit images derived from their imperial masters. The effect, which is described exactly by Rouch's commentary, is both a burlesque and feeling that these Africans are naughty children playing at being mummy and daddy so deeply have they internalised the power relationships that determine their reality. This degree of psychic penetration into African mind by the social structures of the mother country's colonial relationship is striking measure of the damage wrought by British colonialism. Damage that continues today. This is still a film about today. The unrelenting descriptive commentary generates a filmic effect which opens out the layering of the event as an African and British hybrid which reaches its climax with the sacrifice of a dog "……and the Lord High Commissioner in his white plumed hat now he's got the dog and has the dog held down and he signals to Lord Gort-Brown the Governer to bring him the knife so that he can cut the dogs throat…… and the dog's throat is cut and General Smythe is saying he also wants to lick the blood pouring out of the dogs neck and he bends over the dog and has some of the blood…followed by Lady Smythe who also wants to taste some of the blood …" This is an approximation of Rouch's commentary(I didn't take notes nor do I have a transcript). which as the ceremony reaches its climax with the dog business and events multiply, becomes increasingly rapid and dense but never anything other than descriptive. Colonisation of mind is the last and most enduring of European legacy in Africa and Jean Rouch's film captures better than any other film the outcome of this process. One recent film has a sequence that recalled the method of seeing and telling. In Fahrenheit 911 Michael Moore has a very powerful sequence in which black Americans from Florida testify to the senate their dis-enfranchisment in the US presidential election of 2000. In this sequence the representatives present themselves to the senate, give their names and describe what happened, how they were deprived of their votes. No interpretation, no explanation we see and hear. This sequence contrasts with a later part of the film which shows Bush visiting a primary school on 9 11 2001 and records the moment he is told of the twin tower attacks. At this point Moore's polemic intentions take over the film as the commentary suggests various frames for Bush's mind set as he sits in front of a primary class looking at child's reading book. I think that the sequence would have been the more powerful if it had used a direct commentary describing what we were viewing - the effect would have allowed us, by and for ourselves, to witness Les Maitre Fous as first seen by Jean Rouch. Adrin Neatrour 14 Oct 2004