Until recently Jean Rouch's ethnographic films have been nearly impossible to see. This is because these movies are, apparently, often shown in college anthropology classes and, therefore, can earn royalties for their presentation. Werner Herzog famously declared Rouch's Les Maistres Fou, (The Mad Masters) one of the greatest documentaries ever made and a personal favorite. But, if you wanted to see the short movie, you had to shell out $250 on the assumption that you were licensing the picture to show to your class of anthropology students. Icarus has now eliminated this problem by issuing eight of Rouch's African films in a box set. Rouch is said to have been a crucial influence on the French New Wave as well as a founder of Cinema Verite and, so, it is exciting to have an opportunity to look at these movies.
Mammy Water (1953-1955) is short, vibrant, and remarkably beautiful. The film is very self-assured and, unlike many ethnographic films, dynamically edited and shot. This is most assuredly not a grainy, surreptitiously recorded collage of blurred or poorly composed footage. To the contrary, the film looks like a Hollywood feature. But the short subject is crammed with bizarre and dream-like imagery. Ostensibly, the movie considers the so-called "Surf Boys" as the narrator calls them using the English words. These are fisherman who paddle enormous canoe-like vessels out to sea to bring back fish for their families and the market in the town of Chama where they live. (Chama is an old Portuguese port on what was once called the Gold Coast of West Africa; the city has bone-white fortresses that tower over the incessantly wild and deadly-looking surf.) The movie's narrative is that the sea is filled with various Djinn, supernatural creatures that have to be propitiated for good fishing. The sea itself is a deity called Mammy Water, a sort of Neptunian female God. When the fishermen return from the sea without success, their boats empty, they embark on an elaborate ritual intended to restore them to the good favors of Mammy Water. This ritual involves leading a white bullock to the sea, slaughtering the animal on the beach, and, then, driving their huge canoe-like vessels through the tide of blood where the animal has been killed and up onto the land. There is dancing and processions. A strangely inert king is carried around in what looks like a huge bathtub -- the king gestures benignly at the people: he's a chubby, ineffectual looking man with a baby face. In one sequence, the fisherman pilot dhow with sails past a reviewing station where the king blandly watches as one ship after another is intentionally crashed and sunk -- the fisherman diving blithely from the vessels and swimming to shore. The ritual accomplished, the fisherman as humble, if immensely photogenic, toilers of the sea set sail again. To reach their fishing territory, the men have to nose their vessels into enormous breakers -- sequences involving the fishermen putting out to sea are immensely dramatic; it seems impossible that the vessels heavily laden with oarsmen can survive the violent surf and, indeed, once they reach deeper water, the waves are so mountainous that the fishing ships vanish momentarily beneath them. (And, of course, the fishermen all have Herculean physiques -- they are like a crew of Michelangelo's ignudo braving the high seas.) The movie is effortlessly exuberant -- small boys surf in the towering waves and turn acrobatic flips on the beach. The narrator tells us that the boys raised on the beach imitate the sea itself with their antics. The film also has a momentary dark side -- during one episode in which women are dancing, we are shocked to see a corpse with white-painted face propped up in the background. This is priestess who has died but still participates in ritual by being carried up and down the beach and through the city streets by the dancers. She has a betel nut clamped between her teeth that the new priestess will have to eat after the corpse has been put in the earth. This little film is only 20 minutes but it contains the world.