A timeless controversial film, Les Maitre Fous depicts the Hauka (West African) religious ceremony, predominantly found at the time to be practised amongst the Songhay and Djerma of the Niger river Basin. Described as ritual exorcising of colonialism.
from the Documentary Educational Resources;
The imagery in Les Maitres Fous is powerful and often disturbing: possessed men with rolling eyes and foaming at the mouth, eating a sacrificed dog (in violation of taboo), burning their bodies with naming torches. Beyond the imagery, the themes are also powerful, and have had an impact in our own culture:Jean Genet's The Blacks was modeled upon the Hauka inversion in which blacks assume the role of masters, and Peter Brook's Marat/Sade was influenced by the theatricality and invented language of Hauka possession. Yet, as Rouch reminds us in an interview in Cineaste, possession for the Hauka cultists was not theater but reality. The significance of this reality is left ambiguous in the film, although Rouch's commentary suggests that the ritual provides a psychological release which enables the Hauka to be good workers and to endure a degrading situation with dignity. The unexplored relation of the Hauka movement to their colonial experience 1-S perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by this ceremony in which the oppressed become, for a day, the possessed and the powerful.
In order to truely be able to contextualise this film and read it within a specific cultural context, Paul Stoller's article "Horrific Comedy; Cultural Resistance and the Hauka Movement in Niger (Ethos, Vol 12 No. 2, 1984) is recommended. Stoller states,
In this paper I consider the Hauka movement of Songhay possession
dance as a dramatic form in which the deities practice horrific
comedy. This comedy, I suggest, provides a symbolic means by
which the Songhay anchor themselves culturally in a world which
the way of the European is rapidly changing. By aping the European
they have resisted culturally the way of the European and have expressed
metaphorically their preference for the traditions of their
ancestors. In so doing the Songhay have used symbolism to protect
their cultural identity from the ever expanding encroachments of
"If a cultural institution is laughed at, its meaning cannot be taken at face value. Laughter must be regarded as a denial of cultural automation and the affirmation of a complex human freedom to follow, change or create culture"(Codere 1956:349-350). The comedy of paradox is therefore a major tool which can be used by people to resist culturally the influence of powerful foreigners.
interview with rouch...
les tambours d'avant Tourou et Bitti - Rouch