Les Maitres Fous
Written by Mildbrodt, Natalie   
Author: Mildbrodt, Natalie
Date: 1998

LES MAITRES FOUS (The Mad Masters)

19*8. Directed by Jean Rouch.

A translation of the opening text in the film:

Venus de la brousse aux villes de l'Afrique Noire,

After they came from the bush to the cities of black Africa,

des jeunes hommes se heurtent 'a la civilisation m'ecanique.

Young men come up against a mechanical civilization

Ainsi naissent des conflits et des religions nouvelles.

Conflicts and new religions are born this way

Ainsi s'est form'ee, vers 1927 la secte de Haouka.

Thus the Haouka sect was formed around 1927.

Le film montre un 'episode de la vie des Haouka de la ville D'Accra.

The film presents an episode in the lives of the Haoukas in the city of Accra

Il a 'et'e tourne 'a la demande des pr'eatres,

It was made at the request of the priests

fiers de leur a Mountyeba et Moukayla

who are proud of their Mountyeba and Moukayla

Aucune sc'ene n'en est interdite ou secr'ete

No scene is forbidden or secret,

mais ouverte 'a ceux qui veulent bien jouer le jeu

But open to those who go along with the game.

Et ce jeu violent n'est que le reflet de notre civilisation.

And this violent game is only the reflection of our civilization


The film begins with footage of Accra, Ghana, a densely populated city on Africa's west coast. The story follows a few men who live in Accra, but leave some weekends to attend Hauka religious ceremonies in the woods outside the city. Most of the film records a day-long Haukan gathering for a possession ceremony. This particular ceremony was a yearly Hauka ritual, held in the Hauka high priest's compound. Rouch's footage and narrative illustrate the interaction between worshippers of Hauka Gods and the rituals these worshippers perform while in their religious trances. Animals are sacrificed, worshippers froth at the mouth and hold torches to themselves to demonstrate the depth of their trances. After a few hours, the ceremony breaks up and the Hauka drive home. The film ends with footage shot on the Monday following the ceremony. Rouch finds the men back in their everyday lives in Accra, working at their jobs.

Within Accra, Rouch establishes the presence of extreme polarity in West African culture. He records two parades, one by the Daughters of Jesus, the other by the prostitutes of Accra. Both are held in the downtown streets, and appear remarkably similar to each another. The city's split personality is a metaphor for the men's divided nature. They work diligently during the year and revolt against society's norms once or twice per anum.

To create an environmental parallel to their urban lifestyle, the men drive into the forest well outside Accra. When Rouch arrives with his camera, people have already begun to assemble at the remote site of the Hauka ceremonies. One of the first things he encounters is the effigy of the Governor who presides over the Hauka ceremony. The Hauka have created a religion complete with gods, rituals and a doctrine. The ritual dances begin almost immediately upon their arrival. Within hours the men have fallen into a deep trance. They have become impervious to pain and have taken on different identities. All the men choose to be someone whose life they covet for some reason. Men who are common workers in the city become a High Priest, Engineer, Corporal of the Guard, and Captain of the Red Sea, among others. They all choose identities in a social class elevated from their own. The Hauka religion has given them an opportunity to live out their fantasies of power. One man dresses as a woman, Madame Lokotoro, the doctor's wife. Rouch describes this man as effeminate when he goes to visit him the next Monday in Africa. Through carefully worded observations, Rouch suggests that the man who dresses as Madame Lokotoro, is a repressed transvestite who can only live out his fantasy to dress like a woman in an anarchic Hauka ceremony.

Ironically, the Hauka use a colonial social structure as a frame for their social rebellion. The most powerful men in the ceremony, all assuming roles which have been imposed on Africans by Western colonists, hold conferences to make decisions about important issues in the ceremony. They argue about when to sacrifice animals and whether to cook them. The men do not seem to recognize that they fervently emulate the social structure which causes their feelings of fleeting individuality.

The Hauka's struggle for recognition as individuals and their need for escape from the culture they find unnatural is valid, whether they objectively realize their motivations and influences or not. The men whose actions Rouch records are acting out their aggressions, lust for power, and sexuality within a structure that harms no one. The Hauka isolate themselves when they have ceremonies and therefore put only themselves at risk. As the film demonstrates, none of the Hauka are hurt by the possession ceremonies either. Indeed, the Hauka have found a ritualistic way to release the accumulated pressures of living in a `mechanical' society. While their frothing mouths and blood drinking might seem frightening to the rest of the world, we must remember that at the end of the weekend, these men return to their regular lives and workplaces to continue operating as productive members of a greater society. As Jean Rouch says of the Hauka possession ceremonies, "ce jeu violent n'est que le reflet de notre civilisation." ('This violent game is only the reflection of our civilization.')

Les Ma'eetres Fous is a documentary made in Rouch's characteristic cin'ema v'erit'e style. He used a hand-held camera with no unnatural lighting other than a flashlight, which occasionally reveals his subjects' faces in the dark. Rouch's approach lends an unpolished and truthful feel to the film. While this film does not offer "direct access to human realities", it does provide an "authored narrative about real lives."

Loizos, P. (1993). Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness . Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stoller, P. (19**). The Cinematic Griot: The Ethnography of Jean Rouch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

(Written by Natalie Milbrodt, MSU, 1998)