Ethnographic filmmaker, Jean Rouch, first showed Les Maitres Fou to a small group of colleagues in 1953. Those who saw the film screened were appalled and urged Rouch to destroy the footage. Rouch was concerned but rejected that advice -- the short documentary was later shown in 1955 in Venice and other world capitols in film festivals where it won many awards. Werner Herzog named the movie as the first of his top ten favorite films and has repeatedly claimed that Les Maitres Fou is the greatest documentary ever made. The movie remains controversial and has been simultaneously reviled and praised.
Les Maitres Fou is akin in some respects to a horror film -- indeed, its middle section features what appear to be zombies. The picture is mostly a study in the abject, albeit with a strange, unsatisfying and upbeat coda. Less than 30 minutes in length, the film is overtly structured in three parts. First, we are shown Accra, a modern city in what is now Ghana -- a kind of multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic Babylon on the Gold Coast. This part of the film features a jaunty soundtrack, many processions (including one of prostitutes followed by a parade of religious women, the Daughters of Jesus) and a tour of the highly specialized labor force in Accra -- we see "boys" who retrieve and repurpose bottles, "timber boys" who sell lumber, "gutter boys" who care for sewers and so on. The workers hang out at bars like one called "Welcome to California!" At last, the film leads us into the salt market where we are shown a half-dozen handsome men who look exhausted -- many of them are sleeping on wooden pallets. The narrator tells us that these members of the Hauka sect (Songhay immigrants from the North) -- Hauka is the name for European machines and tools and these men are worshipers of that technology. This sequence ends with an unsettling image: a man with bulging eyes and mask-like features foaming from nose and mouth, a white froth bearding the lower half of his face -- the image is shot at night in the transient beam of a flashlight and presages what is to come.
In the second part of the film, Rouch shows us a Hauka ceremony or orgy. The men travel far out of town and, then, take jungle roads to a remote forest compound. A clearing has been decked out with colorful fabric banners that are supposed to represent the Union Jack. There is a termite hill painted black to signify the Imperial Governor's Mansion and a very crude effigy of the governor himself, wearing a military uniform and sunglasses and with a plumed hat. An altar, really just a patch of concrete spilled on the grass, stands about three inches above the adjacent meadow. The men take some kind of drug (it's unspecified) that casts them into a trance in which they foam at the mouth and nose -- the men prance around, imitating colonial officers, goose-stepping and saluting one another, wearing red sashes to mimic the red coats of British soldiers. They kill a chicken and smear its blood on the "altar". Then, there is a kind of confession ceremony in which they chatter wildly about their sins -- one man, for instance, has had sex with his buddy's girlfriend. Periodically, people fall down and writhe in the dirt and the penitents are expelled into a nearby thicket in the woods where they thrash around and sometimes emerge, staggering back and forth through the clearing. Things gets more chaotic. The priest, assuming the guise of a colonial ruler, lectures the men, haranguing and jabbing his finger at them in an accusatory manner -- men light torches and pass them over their flesh while hopping around stiffly. (This is supposed to show that they have become wholly spirits and that their flesh is impervious to injury). There is more marching and parading; the men clack wooden guns together and salute one another. Then, they butcher a dog and spill its blood all over the altar, crawling up to the little bloody stump to lick at the gore with their tongues. There's a conclave of spirit-guides who sit at a round table to debate whether they will eat the dog meat (which is taboo) raw or cooked. They elect to cook the dog and boil it. Still impervious to pain, they grab hunks of the dog's head and paws from the pot and gnaw on the meat. It gets dark and the men are exhausted, they fall down and writhe in the dirt and their faces are smeared with dog guts and dirty plumes of mucous. At the climax of the ritual, someone breaks an egg on the effigy of the governor and Rouch cuts away to a military parade to show the actual governor surrounded by his guards in their sashes and be-ribboned uniforms. The ritual is shot in 20 to 25 second sequences -- Rouch used a wind-up camera that couldn't run more than 25 seconds. The whole thing is astonishing -- the celebrants adopt poses like Callot's most grotesque commedia dell'Arte figures: leaping here and there and mock-greeting one another -- sometimes, they salute or beckon or bow to one another before reverting to their stiff-legged marching to and fro around the altar. Elements of the ritual look like some of Ensor's more alarming paintings or borrow poses from Goya. Rouch describes his camera-work as a "cine-trance" and it follows the zombie-like strutting and staggering objectively enough -- we see as the men become progressively more filthy and exhausted as the ritual continues.
The third part of the film is peculiar and, although intended to restore us to some kind of equilibrium, can't succeed in this objective: what we've just seen is so terrifying and inexplicable that this comforting commentary (Rouch claims that the Hauka have found "the panacea for mental illness") doesn't suffice at all. We are back in the sunlit and crowded streets of Accra -- Rouch finds his ritual celebrants, all of them hard at work, clean and chipper, grinning at the camera. In one startling and surreal piece of misdirection, he turns his camera on an insane asylum, but then turns the lens to a group of men digging a ditch in yellowish-red clay in front of the institution. Here he finds two of the most primitive and fearless of the celebrants; they are cheerfully digging a ditch, among the best workers in the crew. They grin happily at the camera and the film ends with a shot of the gore-smeared altar.
The viewer is left with more questions than answers, always the mark of an effective documentary. What we've seen is too terrible, too hideous and abject to be assimilated to Rouch's optimistic coda. So we are left staring into an abyss that somehow stares back at us. (Whole books have been written about the film -- is it staged? what is really going on? What is Rouch's stance toward the material: is he patronizing or objective? Does he exoticize the material to make colonialist points while, at the same time purporting to show the rituals as liberating and, even, salubrious? These are all points of contention that the film has aroused.) It is a wild fever-dream.