Mockery & Respect in Les Maîtres Fous:A (Post)Colonial Exploration of Representation and Interpretation

Danielle Lewis

‘They appear to want to become like you,’

the film seems to tell us,

‘but (thank goodness) they really don’t. In fact, just the opposite!’ [1]

…since they merge us with an image and drown us in it, let the image set their teeth on edge… [2]

“Wide, wild eyes slice the darkness like beacons; foaming saliva covers black chins like scraggly white goatees; bellows, grunts, and groans shatter the silence of night” [3]. This is the first “unsettling” flash one experiences of the Hauka, a Hausa religious sect formed in 1927, in Jean Rouch’s ethnographic film Les maîtres fous, “the mad masters” [4]. The immense controversy surrounding the film, which was substantial even before its release in 1955, hinges primarily on this image: the African as a terrifying, violent “savage” Other who utilizes magic, as Rouch puts it, “not yet known to us” [5]. To complicate matters, the Hauka members depicted are possessed by “gods of strength,” quite literally French and British colonial officials. Rouch’s use of the footage of the Hauka is, as one could expect, highly debatable work, and the views of the critics become an equally vital part of the product. Some contend that Les maîtres fous “defies the imperious arrogance of the Western ‘gaze,'” pushing viewers towards an intimate, personal decolonization [6]. While this may sound like a noble undertaking, it leaves unquestioned the implications of using imagery of an African cult that many viewers relate to the historical Western visual construction of the “savage,” in order perhaps to allow Rouch a masking of “his own role as critic of the colonial power structure” [7]. Les maîtres fous, in occupying a blurry region between art and anthropology dubbed by Rouch as “ethnofiction,” sets in motion questions of observation, construction and invention applicable to postcolonial work today [8]. It requires an exploration of power dynamics within the medium and the messages, especially as they pertain to the political nature of representation and interpretation.

The film is focused on the Hauka as part of the Zabrama community of Accra, capital of Ghana, consisting of Songhay and Zerma who moved from Niger [9]. Within the early segments of the film, Rouch depicts the urbanized context of the Zabrama, attentive to the meeting of tradition and modernity, the visual and audible complexities of contemporary life. He splices brief glimpses of the Hauka that seems to underline contrast and emphasize the meaning of the name in the Hausa language: “craziness” [10]. The film takes us from the city to the countryside, from everyday life to ritual, or, in terms of ethnography, from the “known to the unknown” [11]. These quick looks preview the image of “the violence and cruelty” forewarned by Rouch that would stir immense debate. The Hauka are then seen being slowly possessed, and image displayed through their frothing at the mouth and eyes rolling backwards, and eventually through the act of holding fire to their skin, which insinuates to the viewer that they are no longer human. They begin to enact a sort of twisted colonial organization, in which they command and police each other, with sentries posted around the sacred circle clapping together wooden guns. They speak French and constantly switch between making orders and insulting each other, calling series of “round table conferences.” Eggs are broken on a statue of the British governor and on a construction that emulates his palace, in imitation of the plume on his official hat. The peak of the ritual comes with the eating of a dog, a major British taboo, during which fresh blood is drunk right from the throat and the “best” parts, such as the head and bowels, are fiercely argued over [12]. The initial responses to Les maîtres fous are very much based around an interpreted representation of the “savage”. Rouch first screened Les maîtres fous at the Musée de l’Homme in 1954 to a small, select group of anthropologists, filmmakers, students and intellectuals, during which he provided live narration. The reactions to the film were overwhelmingly negative from both Africans and Europeans, though the latter, such as with ethnographic filmmaker Luc de Heusch, soon came to focus more positively on “its technical merit, its compelling images, and its penetration of a world rarely if ever experienced by Europeans” [13]. The visual “penetration” perceived by Heusch and others is perhaps an early signal for why African scholars present at the screening, as well as many to follow, “deplored the content of Les maîtres fous, suggesting that it perpetuates a racist exoticism” [14]. Many viewers demanded that the film be destroyed. Stoller, one of the most prolific writers on Rouch, describes the root of these reactions in a brief sentence: “in the film Africans can be seen as savages practicing barbaric religions from another age” [15]. While this may not be the most careful wording, presented as fact (such as his insistence on “the undeniable brutality of the Hauka”) instead of interpretation, it does summarize the central concern of African intellectuals in regards to the film: that Rouch’s handling of imagery of the Hauka would continue to link the African to the constructed, Eurocentric idea of the “savage”. This anxiety is especially relevant as a response to an ethnographic film, and is embedded in “a historical situation in which possession rituals have functioned to validate a ‘savage’ image of blacks” [16]. One horror story circulating around the film is of Sengalese director Blaise Senghor, who, after viewing the film in Paris, was confronted with comments from other viewers such as “Here’s another one who is going to eat a dog!” [17]. One of the most frequent solutions that critics, especially those writing from an anthropological viewpoint (as most are), pose in regards to the inflammatory nature of Les maîtres fous.

Firstly, this film, like others considered “ethnographic”, should not be taken out of context of the research surrounding its subject. While Rouch’s narration relates the immigration from parts of northern Africa to Accra’s “mechanical civilization,” in which, he says, conflict and new religions such as the Hauka are born, most critiques of the film are directed at a perceived lack of contextual information.

Jean-Claude Muller, an anthropologist specializing in West Africa, elaborates on this sentiment:

It is almost impossible to fully understand and hence appreciate a film that concerns religion and symbolism…without prior knowledge of something about the religious setting of the population filmed…The great wealth of details portrayed in the film can be mastered only after the reading of the ethnographic material. [18]

The film is probably most often presented in a context that provides “prior knowledge” and “ethnographic material,” such as in university anthropology courses. In advance of such classes, the professor is often directed to prepare their students for the aggressiveness of the imagery, and to make sure to present the academic information that surrounded the film such as Rouch’s research and that of his contemporaries. Stoller summarizes in his blunt manner: “Les maîtres fous is long on images and short on explanations. The presence of provocative scenes is the film’s greatest strength; the absence of an explanatory context is its greatest weakness” [19]. While Les maîtres fous, and the varied but dynamic responses it elicits, cannot be taken out of an ethnographic context, it is not certain that the background of detailed anthropological information critics insist upon is the context required. The question of whether so-called ethnographic films such as this one can or should be taken out of an anthropological environment is broadly irrelevant because they have and will continue to (perhaps increasingly) be approached as such. While the dispersal of the film was highly limited by Rouch, for fear of racist interpretations, one can access Les maîtres fous not only in university and some public libraries (without needing to be enrolled in an anthropology course), but now also in various film festivals (with an artistic, not anthropological, slant) and on publicly shared internet databases such as You Tube [20]. Les maîtres fous, in these contexts, is seen by many viewers that are not intimately familiar with the background of the people and situation depicted; does this mean that they cannot “fully understand and hence appreciate” the film? Attempts, such as Muller’s, to create borders around a visual product, much less to want it destroyed, represent a denial of the reality and the possibilities of the medium, as well as one’s responsibility to it as a viewer. It is to evade a probing look at other issues within and surrounding the visual object itself; to stubbornly stand an anthropological ground in the conflicting border area that is Les maîtres fous, perhaps for fear of what Rouch’s subjectivity reflects about the supposedly objective discourse of ethnography.

Rouch’s first contact with the Hauka occurred when he was working to build roads in French colony of Niger in 1942. In viewing the Hauka possession ritual, Rouch “realized he was witnessing an event ‘about which I understood nothing,’ a moment in which, entering a possessed state, people were ‘able to transform themselves simply through bodily techniques that we have altogether lost” [21]. This moment stimulated his move to become an ethnographer, specifically of Songhay religion and the “migratory movements of the young Nigerians who sought work during the dry season in the cities of the Gold Coast” [22]. Rouch was interested in two central things from his experience of the Hauka: colonialism (which he could both see and know, and was, through his background and very identity, quite intertwined with) and indigenous religion (which he could on occasion see but not really know or penetrate in any way). The exploration of Rouch’s film lies not in a mere documentation of a rather reclusive African religion and its practices, nor in a depiction of “the broad ethnographic context of the Hauka in Songhay possession” [23]. Instead, the correlation between these entities and what his own presence could socially, politically and economically represent, and the power dynamics at play, are the central sparks that formed Rouch’s career and, more directly, Les maîtres fous:

The ruptures and dislocations caused by cultures confronting one another, and the adaptive and creative responses this mingling of cultures requires, [are] of particular concern and interest to Rouch. Thus, the release from the pressures of colonialism sought by members of the apparently bizarre and violent trance cult appears an eminently sane reaction to the violence and madness of Western society. Through the double entendre of Rouch’s title, madness comes to be associated as closely with the colonial administration (‘the mad masters’), as with the unusual behavior exhibited by the members of the cult it engendered (‘the masters of madness’). This dialogic relationship, the meeting, mingling, and ‘refusals’ of culture contact, is central to Rouch’s inquiry. [24]

Rouch’s investigation, being part of the discourse of “ethnographic film,” also significantly occupies a region of rupture and dislocation; it cannot be classified, as many critics insist, simply as a film, but neither is it straightforward anthropology. It is a performance of and within these domains, a problematic relationship between the ideas of seeing and knowing, upon which Les maîtres fous is dependent and from which it refuses to be separated. The demand becomes, then, for an exploration of what is experienced with Les maîtres fous and what it does for different audiences, especially in terms of what can and cannot be understood from the film. There are many different approaches one can take to this investigation. From the perspective of, perhaps, a preliminary viewing, Stoller’s blunt, descriptive language presents the film’s challenging visual arena at its most basic level:

Out of context, images of men torching themselves, frothing at the mouth, drinking the gushing blood of a freshly slaughtered dog, and eating boiled dog meat underscore the exoticism that African intellectuals deplore. Here again are images of brooding primitives engaging in savage acts that disgust European audiences and reinforce racist stereotypes. [25]

These are, indeed, the images that could shock viewers, but Stoller weaves them into a narrative based on several interesting assumptions. Again, he determines that the film, even with its imagery of Accra and its varied inhabitants that make up the society of which the Hauka are a part, is not a “context” unto itself. The only possible (and politically correct) context for Stoller here is an anthropological one, whereas he seems to neglect the fundamental interweaving of economic and political factors that will be discussed later. Another conclusion that he quickly arrives at is that the film was made to be seen only by African intellectuals and, one assumes, a more general European audience, and that it is the exoticism that enraged the prior and the “savagery” that off put the latter, whose already-present racism was then reinforced by the film. Although this may have rung more true for the initial audience, I am skeptical that Rouch’s visual and aural treatment and composition of the Hauka and their broader positioning in Accra ever functioned in such a simplified manner. Even if Rouch’s imagery was to be taken alone and at face value as Stoller briefly presents it, it would be hard for one to overlook that, unlike most ethnographic discourse that came before it, “Les maîtres fous does not construct African culture as somehow occupying a sphere discrete in itself and unaffected by Western contact” [26].

From an angle that, though still somewhat simplified, takes into account this Western “contact,” one can experience Les maîtres fous as Jean Rouch’s “thesis that the curative power of the violent trance experience may be its function as a ‘panacea against mental disorders.’ He wonders whether practitioners ‘may have found a way to absorb our inimical society” [27]. Though Rouch later decided that this narration, spoken originally “impromptu” at the end of the film, was not satisfactory, his stated intent remains basically the same: “I wanted to explain that the ritual was a method which allowed [the Hausa] to function in normal society with less pain. I wanted to make it clear that they were not insane” [28]. Rouch suggests “normal society,” one supposes, as a colonized society, with the implication being that “the pathology being cured is derived from the distortions of identity affected by colonization” [29].

This viewpoint illuminates the reasoning behind certain tactics utilized by Rouch, such as with the fundamental structure of the film being an enfolding one, in which layers of ritual become sandwiched by images of social, political and economic life. This is centrally done through the book ends of the film, created by depictions of the structure of urban Accra’s labour systems, the part of the colonial organization with which the individuals filmed would have closest contact. The film opens with overflowing, busy images of the city’s labourers: smugglers, “hygiene boys,” “cattle boys,” “bottle boys,” “tin boys,” “timber boys” and “gutter boys”. They are shown hard at work but also grinning widely, often quite obviously for the camera as with the gold miners, and some, such as the grass cutters, sing and move rhythmically and productively in unison. The film ends, as well, with “contrasting images of them at work (in the marginalized roles they perform daily) with images of them in trance on the preceding day (in the personae of the powerful Hauka spirits)” [30]. Rouch starts this section by informing viewers that the person who had made confession during the ritual, and had previously been cursed with impotency, was cured, and that “his girlfriend is happy”. He then discloses more basic socio-economic information about the various members: the Hauka “Madam Lokotoro” is, in daily life, a sales person, the “guard corporal” has a gravel monopoly and owns three trucks, the “orderly lieutenant” is a pickpocket, and “General Malia” is actually a private [31]. The images of them in their routine occupations, with large smiles, are spliced with already-seen images of the same individuals frothing at the mouth, eyes rolled up, some covered in dog blood, to drive home the point that the latter makes the former bearable, and possibly even enjoyable [32].

This structural enveloping of ritual “cures” to colonial woes is accomplished and supported by other cues as well. For one, Rouch in the first third of the film, after the numerous shots of laboruers, includes footage of Yoruba processions, this time sandwiching a demonstration of prostitutes against low wages between two religious ones; a marriage celebration and the “little sisters of Christ singing their faith”. This manoeuvre functions in part as a converse preview of the structure to come, in which religion is inserted in between labour scenes. However, the grouping of economic protest with the outcome of missionary projects seems also to hint, again in a type of reverse, at Rouch’s thesis before it has been made. After this, directly before moving to the Hauka sect, the Hausa are described as a “calmer” population from the north, with their religious practices functioning as a way to seek “refuge” in the outskirts of the city. Rouch first shows the Hausa’s vehicles driving outside of the city with a brief shot of them around a different truck that holds a painted sign that reads, in English, “Perseverance Conquers Difficulties”. Though this is not the truck they use, Rouch’s quick-splicing technique makes it appear as if it were, hinting again at the curative powers the trip would have for the group. There is another seam created in the center of the middle section of the footage of Hauka ceremony which, bringing the viewer briefly back to downtown Accra. Rouch parallels actual British colonial officers in Accra. Which forms the core stratum of the film, the heart of the problem to which the main subject supposedly represents a cure. To complete the bookend effect established at the beginning of the film, Rouch (“completely by chance”) comes across other members in front of the mental hospital, “happily” digging a ditch for the water works. At the very close of the film, he takes this visual opportunity to emphasize the workers’ smiling faces as punctuation to his thesis on the Hauka possession as therapy for the problem of integration into colonized society; a remedy we “do not yet know.”

It is in these ways that Rouch places the Hauka practice into not only the community’s immediate urban context, but the broader colonial context and his own perspective on it as well, departing vastly from the removed, “objective” history of ethnographic film practice [33]. It is somewhat helpful to consider, in light of the extreme reactions to Les maîtres fous, that Rouch had commented after filming the ceremony to Damoure Zika, his friend and sound technician, that they had “really made a very bad film. It is very cruel” [34]. He changed his mind only after taking film of the sect’s members at their occupations the next day, as well as going through the editing process [35]. By the time it was screened at the Musée de l’Homme, Rouch felt ethically that Les maîtres fous was worthy of viewing and was “disturbed…profoundly” by the negative responses [36]. Despite his former feeling of horror to the footage he took, Rouch’s perspective changed after interweaving his documentation of the Hauka with his study of the influence of “our inimical society” [37]. The intentional ethnographic de-contextualization that many critics point to as the central problem of the film could also be seen as Rouch’s way, through contextual footage and editing techniques, of developing “the socio-political dimension of this cult’s activity while refusing a total collapsing of the ritual into a dimension of religious practice” [38].

A parallel perspective that one could apply to Les maîtres fous in order to see more clearly Rouch’s refusal to allow the ritual to fold only on itself, or to act more directly as an ethnographer, is to compare the Hauka to other forms of cultural performance that utilize symbolic inversion. In addition, Stoller signals the viewer to this by describing the possession ceremony as a “horrific comedy” of paradox, one that “can reaffirm a people’s link to their ancestors and allows them to create new cultural forms which stretch with the expansion of their experience” [39]. In terms of the Hauka, the communal links are made through possession, while the specificity of the possessing spirits being colonists incorporates contemporary experience. Bakhtin’s model of the carnivalesque is similarly a fitting analogy for Rouch’s portrayal of the Hauka practice as an “arena of subversive pleasures, a participatory, ‘second life’ of the people” [40]. Rouch emphasizes that this distinct separation of ceremony functions, like the European carnival, as a “sacred time set apart from everyday life, characterized by a logic of inversions of status and meaning…[enabling] the ‘low’ to comment on, satirize, and burlesque the ‘high’” [41]. To escape and be able to return to and function in “normal,” colonized society, the Hauka are represented by Rouch as embodying the “peculiar logic of the ‘inside out’ (a l’envers), of the ‘turnabout'” that Bakhtin perceived in European socio-economic caricaturized performance [42]. In Rabelais, Bakhtin describes the ritual:

carnivalesque experience which, in opposition to all that was ready-made and completed, to all pretence at immutability, sought a dynamic expression; it demanded ever changing, playful, undefined forms. We find here…a continual shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations, comic crownings and uncrownings. [43]

These bring to mind particularly the constant stream of insults, in Hausa and French, that the Hauka throw at each other, namely the bickering and nonsensicality of the various round table conferences, the complaints from the more “elite” Hauka that “nobody listens to me,” the helmets, fake guns and red sashes, as well as the governor’s crowning/uncrowning by a cracked egg. What Rouch attempts to show is that, through these performances of inversion, the “parodic comment, costuming, and impersonations,” the cultural conflict brought on by colonialism is unravelled and, for the immediate future of the participants, resolved [44]. Rouch’s role as the filmmaker and the function of the medium, as necessarily must be taken into account with the depiction of the Hauka in Les maîtres fous, pushes one to expand the viewpoint of the carnival back to that of the arts, specifically theatre. Though Rouch is not literally directing the Hauka as actors, his incorporation of them into a composition of his choosing places them in a narrative in which they perform a particular role. Stoller employs Wellwarth’s analysis of the avant-garde and theatre of the absurd to associate these genres with Les maîtres fous as common artistic modes that convey the theme of social protest. The “actors” are motivated by the peak of powerlessness, and “can no longer speak directly to their hearers because they can no longer believe that they are heard. They can only express themselves indirectly in sardonic paradoxes” [45]. The most useful theatrical link to Les maîtres fous, as made by Hart Cohen, is with Genet’s 1958 play The Blacks: A Clown Show, which, like Rouch’s film, “emphasizes mockery and exchanged identities between whites and blacks, suggesting that the ground for black resistance lies in the symbolic realms of ritual language” [46].

The “rituals” of Genet’s actors, as Francovich illuminates in the Genet’s Theatre of Possession, allow them to re-structure their alienation as if it were a game, in which “they are free to create the rules and the rival. And they will always win” [47]. This game is reminiscent of Rouch’s description of the Hauka ability to eat dog, to be unscathed by fire and boiling water, as showing strength of a greater degree than other black and white men; in the arena of the ceremony, the Hauka create the rules, they embody the rival, and they win. The game, in The Blacks, is created and played out on a stage that functions comparably to the outskirts of Accra for Rouch’s depiction of the Hauka, upon which the theatricality of the performance holds implications for reality:

There is no difference between a real act and an imaginary one, although the imaginary is real only when it is seen as a projection of possibilities which exist as possibilities because they do not presently exist in the here and now. The imaginary provides us with an open psychological space which might serve as a force against ‘real’ change, but which also can subvert the here and now we accept as ‘real’ and propel us to change. [48]

Just as the “imaginary” acts of the Hauka, according to Rouch, operate as a real catalyst for change in their colonial context, Genet’s actors “can exorcise” the possession of whites, the “presence which has alienated them from their own bodies,” only by allowing “the presence to possess them fully” [49]. These cultural and artistic connections with theatre fall somewhat short, though, in the very moment that Rouch emphasizes as the unknowable, in which the bodily and spiritual possession of the Hauka is not imaginary but very real; Rouch’s “cinéma vérité” as a model for ethnographic film then becomes a somewhat more appropriate schema. The actors in Genet’s play remain under Genet’s direction; they speak his words and move as he tells them to, the fictional game is “known” and, to varying degrees throughout the performance, understood. Dziga Vertov’s reflection on “Kino Pravda,” the inspiration for Rouch’s “cinéma vérité,” is telling in terms of the muddled divergence between Genet and Rouch: “puppets or life? We asked the spectator” [50]. Though Rouch may have used his footage to a similar end as The Blacks, it balances not within the realm of the arts but on the axis of possession within the Western domain of ethnography—the “other” in a state that is unknowable taken into an area that is geared at knowing. Rouch wanted Les maîtres fous to be, like other ethnographic film, an account of a cultural event, but also simultaneously an “implicit statement about the film-maker to subject relationship” which, in this case, takes into account a particular indecipherability of cultural difference [51]. To this end, his cinéma vérité re-centers the ethnographic encounter on the presence of the ethnographic film-maker. It is a process that intervenes—that immediately disrupts what it encounters. Rouch sees a value in this disruptive process if it is embraced fully and not disguised in the film production process. The ethnographic encounter understood in this way is an interaction partly provoked by the film-maker [52].

To meet and expose these goals, Rouch applied a radical shooting methodology at a time when ethnographic film was directed in such a way to support claims to objectivity by supposedly separating filmmaker and the apparatus or technology [53]. He instead, again influenced by Vertov, held the camera by hand to make the viewer aware of his physical presence in the scenes, moving closer and further away from the “action” without the aid of the zoom lens to hint at his literal disruption [54]. Rouch also alternated between long takes and a rapid cutting style, combining shots from varied times and places, that both draws attention to the editing process and questions the linearity of time depicted [55]. Rouch wanted ethnographic film to be participatory and dialogical, with “an ethical awareness of the politics of image-making and a shunning of the positivist ethos of scientific ‘objectivity’” [56]. Through film, Rouch hoped to transform anthropology, the eldest daughter of colonialism, a discipline reserved to those with power interrogating people without it. I want to replace it by a shared anthropology. That is to say, an anthropological dialogue between people belonging to different cultures, which for me, represents the discipline of human sciences for the future [57].

His idea of “shared anthropology” was to meet a central academic issue of the time, “that of greater participation by the ethnographic Other” [58]. As Bahktin called for a freeing of the author’s unwavering control, ethnographic film faced a need to “free itself from the extreme privilege accorded the framer of a text who is empowered to speak for Others” [59]. Diane Scheinman explores Les maîtres fous with the use of Bakhtinian analysis, focusing especially on Rouch’s imposing voice-over in comparison to Hauka voices, music, and sounds such as Accra’s “noise and fanfares”. In these “covert conversations” within the film, Scheinman finds “a more complex, multicultural, and polyphonous text, one that allows the ‘dialogic imagination’ of the culturally distinct conversants to be expressed in idioms not restricted to the verbal” [60]. Though not as successful in Scheinman’s view as Rouch’s following films, she feels that Les maîtres fous’ “diverse film tracks” create room for “dispersed voices of authority” that are “expressive of the inescapably dialogic nature of human life, of cultural contact” [61].

This is accomplished in part through the Hauka’s communication, by way of Les maîtres fous, to non-Western audiences, revealing “potentially subversive spaces of dissent and challenge to dominant ideology and power,” especially in terms of the tradition of ethnographic film [62]. As the opening text to the film details, Rouch took footage of the Hauka ceremony at the specific request of the priests, Mountyeba and Moukayla, “proud of their art,” who also later helped with narration [63]. Les maîtres fous does not only represent Rouch’s perspective on the function of the Hauka within their context, but also, as a step towards indigenous cinema “it represents the first response by a European to the demand by a group wanting to utilize cinema technology to record a traditional cultural practice” [64]. Whereas Fanon provides “a prognosis of a colonized people’s neurosis based on the loss of identity,” it could be said that Rouch attempted to reveal and assist “the indigenous expression of this loss” by pressing ethnographic film to be reflexive [65]. Scheinman elaborates on the political relevance of this alliance:

It is noteworthy that the Hauka, as early as 1954, intended to utilize the potential of cinema, its ability to reach and mobilize a mass audience, for indigenous political purposes. Their recognition that making a film—like the Hauka possession ceremony itself—is inherently a political activity, and that projecting it can induce a strong physical and ideological response in the viewer, predates by several decades other indigenous groups’ commission and use of cinema to draw attention to and seek support for their own political causes. [66]

Though the screening of the film in context of the Musée de l’Homme, specifically for a Eurocentric audience, may have communicated Rouch’s message, the Hauka priests were interested in the impact on a local audience and the potential of the film to expand the effect of the possession ritual itself [67].

Despite the presence of “other” voices, the question of representation in Rouch’s Les maîtres fous remains blurry when trying to understand the intentions, specifically in terms of mimicry and modernity, of those involved in the ritual depicted. Nearly all writing on Les maîtres fous is done through an ethnographic lens; it puts the minds of the individuals and groups involved (and depicted) into the sphere of questioning. While mimesis is well documented as a tool in causing trouble for “cultural and racial boundaries in complex, subtle, and sometimes counterintuitive ways,” any analysis of the Hauka possession ritual in Rouch’s film must be actively self-conscious in regards to agency and interpretation [68]. The lines between the various explanations of the cult are fine but crucial: the Hauka can be posited as an example of how a colonized people can productively manifest the psychological repercussions of colonial missions and techniques, as an act of resistance, or as an assertion of “rights to the city” with claims to “the political and social rights of full membership in a wider society” [69]. The question remains as to whether parody of European behaviour is utilized “to appropriate its magic for use within an indigenous cultural order,” through which Western influence and dominance is defied and indigenous culture preserved, or, taken more literally, whether it functions as an attempt to be integrated, politically and economically, into broader Eurocentric society [70].

While anthropological critics who merely insist Les maîtres fous needed more academic “context” altogether avoided confrontation of the possible social, economic and political goals of Hauka mimicry, the other dominant solution, to interpret the mimesis as a clear “gesture of resistance to colonialism” [71] is also a risky reduction. The use of imagery that can fall in line with racist interpretations of “savagery” is still potently dangerous territory; Rouch’s construction of the Hauka cult through Les maîtres fous reinforces its menace through the use of simplified colonial binaries (us/them) that are “harder and harder to locate in an age of global cultural flows and trans-national organizational forms” [72]. What was apparent for African intellectuals present at the film’s first screening was that Rouch’s use of imagery could fortify the stereotype that “all African performances of modernity [are] mere savage aping—superficially modern but in fact in the service of deeper levels of ‘primitive,’ ‘tribal,’ or magical thinking” [73]. In terms of representation, Genet much more successfully employed an intricate ambiguity in portraying subject and place, emphasizing “uncertainty about the boundaries between the layers of identity. In attacking the contours of persons, acts, events, and objects, Genet displaces the meanings which we as the audience continually attempt to possess” [74]. What Rouch pushes his audiences to possess is a digestible explanation that functions as a sanction to sidestep global responsibility “to address a set of specific institutional and economic needs” [75]. Manthia Diawara addresses that, while the Hauka ceremony may have made, as Rouch portrays, daily life under a colonial system more manageable, there also exists a strong African “desire to be modernized: we want access to education and material wealth; and we are tired of being ignored by the world” [76]. Diawara, through work like his film Rouch in Reverse from 1995, actively reassesses the power of Rouch’s films, especially as it became stock of the Musée de l’Homme, in shaping “all of our perceptions” of Africa [77]. Diawara, like this paper, is interested in exposing subtle hierarchies within Rouch’s concept of anthropology and its expressions in film. Fischer suggests that Diawara, at least in part, utilized the notion of “anthropology in reverse,” situating his actions in an history dating back to 16th-century African ivories portraying Europeans, as a cliché posed against “Rouch’s slightly obtuse, but mainly just romantic, idea of doing ‘shared anthropology’ and ‘giving voice’ to Africans” [78]. Diawara does so by highlighting and reversing certain staple, binary relationships, such as the French ethnographer filming the African subject, placing himself in positions that explore the notion of agency against the backdrop of Rouch’s filmmaking. His most straightforward approach to this is by simply filming and therefore preserving an image of Rouch, who is often considerably evasive of Diawara’s camera presence. He also examines Rouch’s goals, paternalistic as they may appear, of preserving African tradition through film, while also filming Rouch having to confront the physical disintegration of his Ektachrome film. Diawara goes to Paris as a sort of filmed parallel of Rouch’s Petit a petit from 1969, in which an African goes to Paris, making sure to include Rouch’s comment that the film had begun as “a kind of joke, you see,” on reverse anthropology [79]. Originally, Rouch had intended his African “explorer” to bring back totemic objects from France for an African museum [80]. Diawara’s “feigned or forced simplicity in this film” functions mimetically to critique the simplicity with which he feels Rouch depicts African issues: “I have grown fond of Rouch: he is at heart a big child who likes parks, swimming pools, and constantly playing. Perhaps he projects this permanent childhood innocence onto Africa” [81].

To grant either Rouch’s interpretation of the Hauka ceremony as therapy or the oft-used scheme of appropriation and resistance is to also grant the false borders these claim, steering clear of the ever growing, complex responsibilities of decolonization. Reda Bensmaia, in assessing Rouch’s work, pointed out that “to understand decolonization, a European must begin with one’s own decolonizing” [82]. Rouch began his effort at this with Les maîtres fous, but in utilizing a simple binary outlook, did so in a way that enacted, perhaps in an attempt at parody and reflexivity, too closely the entities he wanted to criticize. A statement of his, in which he seems to consistently contort the Hauka into his representation of the Hauka, is revealing:

The cult is an African expression of our culture. The title of the film is a pun. It means the “masters of madness,” but the British colonial masters are the ones who are mad! There’s an attitude of both mockery and respect in Les maîtres fous; they’re playing gods of strength. Europeans are not supposed to be afraid of anything. They don’t care, they break taboos, they do what they want, and I think that the Hauka represent the same behavior, which is very important: people who are afraid of nothing, people who don’t care. [83]

In this, one can sense a tone of urgency and insistence that underlies and contends with the laissez-faire, European approach he at once exemplifies and discusses. Rouch knew that representation was a tricky business that often said more about the maker than the subject, but to reduce the Hauka to an “African expression of our culture” through film is a form of puppetry or ventriloquism that seems artistically and politically irresponsible. The difference with Genet’s work is again useful: while through Rouch’s lens, Hauka members “appear hard at work and happy in the real world,” The Blacks “proposes that the rituals of possession and exorcism must be extended by political action for either to result in the transformation of identity.” Diawara, in his vigorous postmodernist rummaging with a politicized, postcolonial urgency, distinctly steps up in the areas in which Rouch, from his modernist perspective, fell short. What Rouch fails to recognize in Les maîtres fous is, for one, how vastly ambiguous the borders that anti-colonial artists must now run amok through, across and around are, but also the fact that they are very real, very much guarded and “in fact sharply checked by a host of very real institutional and economic barriers” [84].

1. James Ferguson, “Of Mimicry and Membership: Africans and the ‘New World Society’,” Cultural Anthropology 17:4 (2002): p. 556.
2. Genet, in K. Hart Cohen, “From Ethnographic Film to Indigenous Media: Communications and the Evolution of the Ethnographic Subject,” (PhD diss., McGill University, 1988), p. 76.
3. Paul Stoller, “Horrific comedy: Cultural resistance and the Hauka movement in Niger,” Ethos 12:2 (Summer 1984): p. 147.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., p. 151.
6. Ibid., p. 158, 160.
7. Diane Scheinman, “The ‘Dialogic Imagination’ of Jean Rouch: Covert Conversations in Les maîtres fous,” in Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, ed. Barry Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998), p. 195.
8. Paul Stoller, The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch , (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), p. 143.
9. Ibid., p. 147.
10. Stoller 1984, p. 167.
11. Stoller 1992, p. 148.
12. Steven Feld, Cine-Ethnography: Jean Rouch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), p. 189.
13. Stoller 1992, p. 151, p. 153.
14. Ibid., p. 153.
15. Ibid.
16. Cohen, p. 75.
17. Stoller 1992, p. 151.
18. Ibid., p. 152-3.
19. Ibid., p. 153.
20. Ibid., p. 152.
21. Scheinman, p. 191-2.
22. Ibid, p. 192.
23. Stoller 1992, p. 157.
24. Scheinman, p. 191.
25. Stoller 1992, p. 153.
26. Scheinman, p. 192.
27. Ibid., p. 191.
28. Cohen, p. 91.
29. Ibid., p. 58.
30. Scheinman, p. 191.
31. Stoller 1992, p. 151.
32. Cohen, p. 74.
33. Ibid., p. 60
34. Feld, p. 191.
35. Ibid.
36. Stoller 1992, p. 151.
37. Scheinman, p. 199.
38. Cohen, p. 60.
39. Stoller 1984, p. 167-8.
40. Scheinman, p. 199.
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid., p. 200.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid., p. 199.
45. Stoller 1984, p. 168.
46. Cohen, p. 59.
47. Ibid., p. 94.
48. Francovich, in Cohen p. 94.
49. Ibid., p. 73
50. Jean-Andre Fieschi, “Slippages of Fiction,” in Anthropology-Reality-Cinema: The Films of Jean Rouch, ed. Mike Eaton (London: British Film Institute, 1979), p. 72.
51. Cohen, p. 61.
52. Ibid., p. 60-1.
53. Ibid., p. 60.
54. Ibid.
55. Ibid.
56. Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, & Turn-of-the-century Visual Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 316.
57. Cohen, p. 70.
58. Scheinman, p. 193.
59. Ibid, p. 202.
60. Ibid., p. 188.
61. Ibid., p. 194, 190.
62. Ibid., p. 190.
63. Ibid., p. 196.
64. Cohen,p. 70.
65. Ibid., p. 58.
66. Scheinman, p. 196.
67. Ibid.
68. James Ferguson, “Of Mimicry and Membership: Africans and the ‘New World Society,’” Cultural Anthropology 17:4 (2002): p. 557.
69. Ibid., p. 555, 559.
70. Ibid., p. 555.
71. Ibid., p. 554.
72. Ibid., p. 558.
73. Ibid., p. 557.
74. Cohen, p. 76-7.
75. Ferguson, p. 563.
76. Ibid., p. 564.
77. Michael Fischer, “Raising Questions about Rouch,” American Anthropologist 99:1 (March 1997), p. 141.
78. Ibid., p. 140.
79. Ibid.
80. Ibid.
81. Ibid., p. 142.
82. Stoller 1992, p. 159.
83. Rouch, in Feld, p. 189.
84. Cohen, p. 75.