The Mad Masters (Jean Rouch)
World Mental Health Day • 29m
Directed by Jean Rouch • Documentary • 1955 • 28 minutes
The film opens on the bustling streets of Accra, the capital of the Gold Coast (modern-day Ghana), a major colonial port city that serves as a stage for the collision of the traditional and the modern. Among the diverse groups who populate the city are members of the Hauka religious movement, which began in Niger among the Songhay people, and migrated with them to the Gold Coast.
From Accra, the film takes us to the rural compound that is the site for an annual Hauka ceremony, which contains an element of political theater. The spirits who possess the Hauka are figures associated with the Gold Coast's British colonial rulers. Hauka mediums nominate initiates and listen to penitents, before leading them all in a dizzying, spectacular trance ritual. The ceremony swells with the music of a monochord violin as the Huaka are possessed - sleepwalking, speaking in tongues, burning themselves, and collapsing to the ground - before culminating in a series of animal sacrifices. Rouch does not document this from a distance, but, using a hand-held camera and quick cuts, creates an effect he called 'cine-trance.'
After the ceremony, Rouch returns us to Accra, where we see the Hauka in their daily lives as laborers, low-ranking soldiers, or pickpockets. Rouch suggests that the ritual serves in part as a psychological release from the dehumanizing powers of colonization.
"An anthropological classic... One of the most profound explorations of an African view of the colonial world."—Matt Losada, Senses of Cinema
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