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Jean Rouch, ethnologue et cinéaste
Possessions, performances

Re-framing the Ethnographic Encounter: Les Maîtres fous

Re-cadrer la rencontre ethnographique : Les Maîtres fous
Michael Meyer
p. 198-220


La controverse qu’a suscitée Les Maîtres fous de Jean Rouch s’explique à la fois par l’ambiguïté du rituel hauka, peu connu, qui est au cœur du film, et par la complexité du cadrage verbal et visuel de l’événement par Rouch. Ce cadrage dialogique, loin de restreindre l’interprétation, multiplie au contraire les significations potentielles de ce rituel par les façons de voir différentes que propose Rouch, tant de la position de l’ethnographe que de l’objet observé, et ce, non seulement dans des essais, des interviews, mais aussi dans la voix off ou le montage du film.
(Translation: Laurence Petit, Université Paul-Valéry-Montpellier 3)

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Texte intégral

1Many critics describe the contradictory responses of early viewers of Jean Rouch’s ethnographic film Les Maîtres fous (prod. 1953/54; publ. 1957), and then proceed to present ‘more appropriate’ interpretations. Most critics acknowledge Rouch’s innovative use of the camera, but they are divided over the politics of the documentary, or of the Hauka ritual in the British colony of the Gold Coast.

2At the first screenings, Les Maîtres fous divided its audience, who regarded the film’s politics as either racist and imperialist, or anti-colonial and subversive (Bensmaïa 2007: 80-81; Cowie 2007: 210-211, 213-214; Henley 2009: 103-105; Rouch 2003a: 163). African revolutionaries rejected the film as a racist denunciation of Africans as primitive savages (Cowie 2007: 210-211; Stoller 1992: 70). Western students reacted with nausea, shock, outrage, or analytic distance (Stoller 1992: 158), whereas African students were impressed by the intrepid Hauka of the ritual as models of empowerment (Cowie 2007: 211). In 1955, the ethnographer Griaule wanted the film to be destroyed, but 37 years later, his colleague Stoller praised the film as a “brilliant filmic articulation of colonial culture, which, like the works of Fanon, is viewed from the vantage of the colonized” (Stoller 1992: 70) and ultimately resists the Western gaze (Stoller 1992: 158).

3While charges of racism have been refuted, the debate over the film’s politics goes on. Recently, scholars have explored how the ritual’s religious function is related to its politics. Henley, for example, questions predominantly political readings, stressing instead the religious significance of the ritual as the invocation of spirits to help with everyday problems. The Hauka spirits, Henley argues, originally represent Muslim “other-worldly beings” from the Red Sea, rather than real Europeans (2009: 127). The ritual cannot be an intentional parody because the spirit chooses the medium, not vice versa (Henley 2009: 115, 132). However, Henley concedes that evidence of a public parade of possessed Hauka mediums suggests that the “mimetic bodily appropriation” of Europeans might express a counter-hegemonic desire to possess control over technology and politics (2009: 133).

4In opposition to Henley’s skepticism about the politics of religion, Colleyn convincingly maintains that the religious ritual has political potential due to its polysemic symbols:

Les transgressions rituelles, les rites d’inversion, les carnavals, les Cargo cultes et d’autres mouvements messianiques nous ont habitués à des régimes de semi-lucidité, l’ironie s’exprimant de manière oblique, sans passer par des énoncés explicites et univoques. Les adeptes peuvent très bien révérer et craindre des symboles ou des personnages puissants, et cependant les parodier en tentant de s’en approprier momentanément la force. Le rituel sert notamment à réaliser l’incarnation de puissances tourmenteuses, dont en même temps l’on se moque (Colleyn 2008: §8).

5In addition, I argue, the political potential of the ritual itself is compounded by dialogic framing strategies within the ethnographic film and by Rouch’s alternating and contradictory comments on the ritual as therapy or resistance over the years (cp. Henley 2009: 107-108).

6How does framing work? In a semiotic sense, cognitive frames are “culturally formed metaconcepts”, which serve as “basic orientational aids that help us to navigate through our experiential universe, inform our cognitive activities and generally function as preconditions of interpretation” (Wolf & Bernhart 2006: 5). Being subject to historical change, they “depend on a period’s épistémê, norms, conventions and the totality of the ‘frames of reference’ [...] as ‘basic units’ of semantic integration” (Wolf & Bernhart 2006: 4). This model of framing as semantic integration must not reduce cultures to machines that generate monological views of the world, and it must not efface the difference between cognitive concepts and phenomenological experience. Bakhtin’s dialogic concept of discourse and Waldenfels’ phenomenology of the alien will serve to differentiate the semiotic model of framing.

7It would be simplistic to assume that individual cultures develop a coherent set of frames that result in one consistent view of the world. The default mode, Bakhtin argues with respect to discourse, is dialogic. Socioideological language exists on the borderline between oneself and the other, and the word of the other has to be appropriated by the individual (Bakhtin 1981: 677): “Our ideological development is just such an intense struggle within us for hegemony among various available verbal and ideological points of view, approaches, directions and values” (Bakhtin 1981: 685). The combination of the semiotic and the socio-ideological models of constructing meaning in analysis raises a need to scrutinize cultural texts in a broad sense – not only for the dominant frame of reference, but also for competing frames. The issue of competing and ideological frames is compounded in intercultural encounters. Special attention should be given to the dialogic potential of framing the other and appropriating ‘other’ frames, which may result in discrepancies and inversions of perspectives and meanings.

8Frames certainly condition, and possibly contain, the interpretation of experience. The phenomenologist Waldenfels calls attention to the experience of the ‘extra-ordinary alien’ and raises awareness of the difference between the experience of – or the holistic ‘response’ to – the other and the ‘answer’ (conditioned by frames in semiotic parlance): Initially, the subject “appears as patient and as respondent, [...] as somebody who is literally subject to certain experiences” (2011: 28). The discursive answer cannot exhaust the holistic response: “Everything that appears as something has to be described [...] as something which provokes sense without being already meaningful in itself” (Waldenfels 2011: 46). One effaces the “responsive difference” (Waldenfels 2011: 36) between what one responds to and how one answers if one reduces the alien to a meaningful difference according to one’s familiar norm. In intercultural encounters, social agents draw on potentially dialogic frames from their own and the other’s culture, which both condition and contain the interpretation of experience without necessarily effacing its potentially alienating impact.

9In order to apply these concepts to Rouch’s ethnographic record of his intercultural encounter, one needs to specify where and how framing works around texts (epitext and paratext) and within texts (intratext). Epitexts, for example interviews and critiques, relate to and comment on the text under discussion. Paratexts are devices at textual borders, which form privileged sites of orientation that define or trigger generic, social, and cultural frames to mark the border between the world and the artefact (cf. Wolf & Bernhart 2006: 26, drawing on Genette). The paratext offers “introductory, explanatory etc. material that forms a ‘threshold’ to the main text of the work in question”, guides interpretation, and may have a metareferential function (cf. Wolf & Bernhart 2006: 20, 31; Wolf 2014: 129).

10I argue that Rouch negotiates the relationship between the experience of the alien and its framing through his ethnographic reflections and in Les Maîtres fous, and that his answer to the alien in the form of commentary and editing cannot contain the viewer’s potentially disturbing response. In essays and interviews, Rouch takes issue with the assumption of Western authority over knowledge and interpretation, instead promoting shared anthropology. In terms of perception and representation, Rouch experiments with the hand-held camera, literally and metaphorically re-framing the positions of both the subject and the object of observation. Rouch’s interviews and comments on his documentary provide an interpretive frame for the viewer, as do the title, the opening sequence, and his voiceover commentary. In addition, the editing of the footage – which follows a story framed by its beginning and ending, and which suspends chronology in several sequences of cross-cutting – suggests ways of understanding the viewer’s experience of the diegetic world, without providing an exhaustive answer to coping with the alienating response. In addition, verbal and visual information in the film may frame each other, without actually adding up.

11A closer look at Rouch’s reflections about his project, at the visual and verbal interplay in the film, and at the mise-en-scène of the gaze and the spectacle reveals that his diverse framings do not necessarily hedge, but rather multiply potential meanings in dialogic ways. I will first spell out the ambiguous implications of Rouch’s visual and shared anthropology in essays and interviews (1), and then discuss (2) the title and the opening sequence of this film as dialogic framing, (3) the representation of colonial life in Accra, (4) the specularity of the ritual as spectacle, and (5) the closure of the film as flipside of containment and subversion.

Visual and shared anthropology: the new gaze?

12Rouch presented the first version of the documentary, without any narrative comment, to his French mentor in ethnography, who asked him to destroy it because he was horrified (Rouch et al. 2003: 134; Stoller 1992: 151-153). Rouch added narrative comment in voice-over and an opening sequence for publication in 1957. About forty years later, the broadcast on Arte (25 June 1996) was preceded and followed by an interview with Rouch.

  • 1 Colleyn praises Rouch’s visual anthropology as an advance against verbal ethnography (2005: 112-115 (...)

13In that interview, Rouch stresses that when he was studying migration in Accra and showed an ethnographic film in public, a Hauka priest in the audience asked him to film their ritual. Rouch’s subsequent filming and reflexion constitutes a turning point towards visual and “shared anthropology” (Colleyn 2005: 114). Rouch rejects the one-sided, quasi-objective, empiricist, and structuralist approach to ethnography, which observes the other from a distance (Colleyn 2005: 113). Rouch’s cinematic reflections attempt to find an appropriate position and technology of perception, appreciating other ways of thinking and living (2003a: 156).1 Rouch’s perspective is very similar to Balandier’s criticism of anthropologists or ethnographers who consider themselves empirical observers in search of a ‘primitive’, pre-colonial culture that has been disrupted by colonial domination, in spite of the fact that they themselves are members of the colonial culture (Balandier 1951). Balandier stresses the need to look at colonizers and the colonized from the reciprocal perspective of both groups, which are heterogeneous in themselves but part of one ensemble, the colonial situation. Analyzing the somewhat pathological condition of colonized societies in crises cannot ignore the condition of the colonial situation they respond to. This is exactly what Rouch wants to do with his shared anthropology in general, and particularly with Les Maîtres fous, which shows the subjection of Africans within the colonial society of Accra and their response to the colonial situation through a ritual.

14Rouch wants to avoid subjecting the other to the Western gaze redolent of colonialism, but he runs into contradictions because he partly reiterates the traditional asymmetry of the subject and object of observation. He acknowledges the problem that the anthropological “ciné-voyeur” pins the other against the wall if he refuses to be seen himself and does not talk about the product with its actors (Rouch 2003c: 43; Rouch 2003e: 102). The shared visual anthropology he aims at ideally changes both the observer and the observed in a kind of ethno-dialogue, which implies the other’s feedback on how he or she is represented by the observer (Rouch 2003c: 44; Rouch 2003d: 100). Rouch’s participant-observer fuses visual technology and the embodied I in the “ciné-eye” and the “ciné-trance”; the man behind the camera thus becomes an other in the process of filming (Rouch 2003c: 39; Rouch 2003d: 99). Here, Rouch appropriates a concept traditionally associated with pre-reflexive experience, thereby relinquishing some control over the self and the process of observation.

15Rouch seems to reject the claim to objective knowledge, but his “cinéeye” in trance is too pat a solution to the participant-observer problem; the Western camera-man may change, but he hardly becomes a medium in the way the Hauka become possessed by Western spirits. However, Rouch qualifies his apparent departure from ethnographic authority in his further elucidations on visual technology, which recalls heroic colonial travel writing as an adventure and encyclopedic collection of Western knowledge. He dreams of the mobile camera-eye that can be everywhere and allows “being invisible and present at the same time” (Rouch 2003a: 147). Rouch’s mobile camera with a wide-angle lens comes even closer to the panoptic dream of knowledge than the traditional concept of the elevated view from a distance:

...we work with wide-angle lenses, so that we can be very close to the people we film. It ends up reducing our action to an adventure that is the most perfect disorder, since we film with wide angles, that is, seeing everything, but reducing ourselves to proximity, that is, without being seen by others. We have become invisible by being close and by having an extremely wide view; that’s the model of disorder... (Rouch 2003a: 154-155).

  • 2 The Scottish explorer Mungo Park was repeatedly subjected to the gaze of the other as an object of (...)

16The allegedly ‘invisible’ self is the blind spot of the panoptic view (see Pratt 1992; Meyer 2003) and of voyeurism in anthropology; here, the ability to see something usually hidden from the Western gaze (cp. Grimshaw 2001: 6). Rouch attempts to qualify his compromising desire for adventure and voyeuristic knowledge by rendering the self invisible, like a participant involved in the action rather than an object of curiosity under a truly reversed gaze.2

17However, it is rather improbable that a white man with a camera remained unnoticed in an African setting. The invisible self represents the fantasy of omniscience and voyeurism. Yet Rouch’s concept of disorder qualifies this ambition. Disorder may relate to his own comparative lack of control. This is due firstly to his embodied position as a participant-observer with a hand-held camera near the other; and secondly to the difference the ethnographic stranger’s presence makes, because others may perform as different others for the camera-eye (cp. Henley 2009: 150). Cholodenko understands Rouch’s concept of disorder as the disturbance of the observer, as much as the disturbance created among the observed (2009: 168). Rouch’s contradictory concept of ethnographic filming between panoptic-voyeuristic observation, trance-like participation, and mutual dialogue is also revealed in his assessment of his medium: film. He does not claim to represent ‘the truth’, but rather to generate a filmic truth between documentary and fiction (Rouch 2003d: 98), “science-fiction” or “hyperethnography” in Cholodenko’s terms (2009: 160). In other words, Rouch seems to be torn between a desire for enlightened Western knowledge, an attempt to dissolve the boundary between observer and participant, and a postmodern insight into the dialogic construction of a reality that straddles the division between representation and invention.

  • 3 There are hints in Rouch that suggest that the camera provokes disorder, but Kien Ket Lim (2002) go (...)

18How can Rouch’s Maîtres fous fulfil the claim to show a dialogic “anthropology in reverse”? (Rouch et al. 2003: 134). Neither Rouch nor the Western spectator can really see through the eyes of the possessed in the ritual. ‘We’ look at the possessed in the act of their performance of ‘us’, or rather the spirits of the British colonizers – ‘us in them’, if taken with a grain of salt. The self-reflexive foregrounding of the documentary’s production reveals the limits of the ethnographer and his gaze. Disorder, subjectivity, and mediality are rendered visible and audible by Rouch’s use of the handheld camera, by abrupt cuts, and by a bare, mostly descriptive commentary (Fieschi 1979: 69). According to Fieschi, Rouch discovers the materiality of the cinema itself, “a materiality whereby the scientific statement of the evidence, slightly dislocated, becomes the fluctuating expression of an elusive subjectivity that is simultaneously present and withdrawn even as it is being formulated” (Fieschi 1979: 69). Rouch’s commentary displays a “voice which mirrors the action rather than explaining or commenting on it, withdrawn from the images and ‘charging’ them” (Fieschi 1979: 69).3

19In sum, Rouch negotiates his own ethnographic authority against the tradition of colonial discourse and the discipline of ethnography. Like imperial explorers, he aims to see everything, but he resents the position of the ultimate authority and the “monarch-of-all-I-survey” (Pratt 1992: 205). He gives up the detached position of the observer and becomes a (visual) participant, who renders his own position visible through the palpable movements of the hand-held camera. Moreover, Rouch dissolves the conventional bond between perception and knowledge: his desire to see everything (voyeurism) does not translate into the assertion that he knows everything (‘omniscience’). On the contrary, his comments do not claim objective authority, but mark the boundary between European insight and African knowledge – a fact that I will come back to in discussions of individual scenes (see below).

Dialogic framing at the threshold of the film

20The producer’s dialogic opening before the films’ titles warns the audience of the violence and cruelty of certain scenes, but it simultaneously titillates voyeuristic interest by claiming that it will let the (European) public participate in an African ritual, as if the difference between observation and participation did not exist: « il veut le faire participer complètement [!] à un rituel... ». The ritual « est une solution particulière du problème de la réadaptation, et qui montre indirectement comment certains Africains se représentent notre civilisation occidentale » (00:00-00:07). Thus, the text promises that we, the audience, will share an experience with ‘the other’ and so obtain a new perspective on ourselves: the experience of the alien may prove to be alienating.

21The titles and the subsequent lead-in are projected onto the photograph of a vessel, touched by the fingers of those sitting around it, and accompanied by Ghanaian high-life music, suggesting that African culture partakes in both tradition and modernity (00:26-00:32; Stoller 1992: 147; Henley 2009: 300). The enigmatic picture takes the perspective of one of the black participants sitting around the vessel, but the non-expert Western viewer, who visually shares ‘their’ perspective, would have no idea what this was about. The oxymoronic title adds to the defamiliarizing perspective on Europeans and Africans, “meaning at the same time that these people were masters of their own craziness, but also that the Masters, i.e. the white men, were crazy” (Rouch et al. 2003: 134; cp. Henley 2009: 105). Here, ‘the other’ seems to be an inverted mirror of ‘us’, undermining Western assumptions of superiority. At the same time, the title alludes to the colonial perception of African ‘madness’ as an effect of deculturation, i.e. as a label expressing white fear that African acculturation threatens the boundaries between ‘us’ and ’them’ and may lead to a loss of control (cf. Loomba 1998: 138-39). Rouch’s title ironically turns colonial discourse on itself, that is to say the attribution of madness to Africans as an expression of the coloniser’s own mind.

22After the titles, Jean Rouch’s introductory text (00:32-01:17) first establishes a dichotomy between African people and cultures embedded in nature (migrants from villages in the bush) and ‘mechanical’, urban, and Western civilization in Accra, a contrast that triggered conflicts and the establishment of the Hauka sect in 1927. The phrase “mechanical civilization”, however, implies a negative variation of technological progress, contrasting with the purportedly humanist “civilizing mission” the British laid claim to. Then Africans are shown to have appropriated Western technology with Rouch’s help: a Hauka priest asked Rouch to record their ritual after having seen one of Rouch’s ethnographic films at a public viewing. Thus, the question remains open as to who has authority over the film and who it is for: is the Hauka priest the director and Rouch the camera man? Rouch’s concept of shared anthropology suggests close collaboration, but it is also possible that the African ‘employed’ the Frenchman Rouch in order to subvert British colonial authorities.

23The text goes on to say that everyone is free to join the game since it is neither secret nor forbidden, evoking a light tone, only to temper it in the next phrase: “Et ce jeux violent n’est que le reflet de notre civilisation.” Here, the voyeuristic Western gaze at a sensational spectacle is simultaneously invited and inverted. Cholodenko already locates this strategy in the seductive and ironic Hauka game of reversible simulation, which presents an inverted mirror, in which Western culture appears to be violent and insane (2009: 162, 167-168, 172). However, Rouch’s argument reduces the other to a reflection of the self (Cooper 2002: 484). He explains the inexplicable trance as perfectly meaningful to us in an inappropriate appropriation of the alien. However, he inverts colonial ideology, i.e. the ideological Manichean opposition of civilization and barbarism, because he does not define barbarism as the opposition but the effect of civilization. Rouch’s statement draws attention to violence as a key element of the colonial encounter and to the revealing mimetic art of the other as a complement of the mimetic film (Taussig 1993: 242). The game is “the ‘malign inversion’ and the violent rehearsal of the ‘drama’ of colonisation and the submission of men to a regime which threatens to annihilate them. What is therefore exhibited is not the inferiority or savagery of certain men in relation to others but the ‘cruelty’ of the relations that links the colonised to his ‘master’, the coloniser” (Bensmaïa 2007: 77). Thus, the dialogic documentary with two ‘authors’ disappoints the expectation of an unmediated Western gaze upon the ‘authentic and primitive other’: the pictures serve as a mirror ‘commissioned’ by Africans, but the pictures are framed – i.e. captured, edited, and commentated – by a European resisting the hegemonic colonial ideology.

Colonial civilization and its discontents

24In the ‘civilized’ streets of Accra, bustling with life, the violence ‘promised’ in the opening sequence remains invisible. The film literally and metaphorically re-frames the image of Africans hitherto triggered: it is uncertain whether the street life portrayed illustrates ‘our civilization’ as imposed upon ‘natives’ or as appropriated by ‘natives’. Cowie draws attention to the fact that “‘meaning potential’ arises not only from the complex and multiple reality recorded, but also in its juxtaposition across the film, and its impact upon audiences as shocking and impossible to assimilate within the conventional (Western) understanding.” (Cowie 2007: 212). The sequential re-framing of the images through editing and the difference between potential European answers – guided by Rouch’s voice-over commentary – and responses to the images generate an alienating, dialogic quality of experience.

25Accra is introduced by the narrator, in a mix of French and English, as the “Black Babylon” of West African migrants. This evokes connotations of a great and multiethnic city, but also of chaos and decadence. The footage presents the city as a zone of contact between the West and West Africans. The establishing shot reveals a train passing a railroad crossing from left to right, a loaded truck passing an intersection from right to left, an African policeman with his motorcycle, African cyclists and pedestrians. These images suggest progress, trade, and order, and are not very different from European cities at the time. The juxtaposition of scenes in modernist montage conveys the city’s energy (Grimshaw 2001: 93, 96).

26More trucks, buses and cars (and another policeman regulating traffic) are juxtaposed to a series of scenes of barefooted African workers at work with their tools. Rouch describes them in English using denigrating colonial terms, such as “grass-boys”, “hygiene-boys”, “cattle-boys”, “tinboys”, “timber-boys”, etc. (Schüttpelz 1998), but often refers to them in parallel and more respectfully in French as “marchands”, marking the African perspective and more specifically their economic function. No European is visible, only a single white arm that apparently wants to silence two cheeky Africans about to go down a mine-shaft (03:10-03:22). These terms in voice-over, the pictures of technical equipment and machines, and the single white arm (not ‘working’ but ‘directing’) indicate a pervasive, if somewhat ghostly, colonialism that recalls Balandier’s concept of the colonial situation that reduces the colonized to instruments in a fastpaced, technological order (Balandier 1951). The odd white arm directing Africans forms an uncanny analogy to the white man with the camera, who directs the viewer’s gaze onto Africans. According to Balandier (1951.), the anthropologist is part of the colonial situation, but as a white stranger, Rouch occupies a liminal position between the British colonizer and the African colonized (cp. Nafici 2007, 97). The camera man himself remains invisible, but his presence is time and again acknowledged by people in the streets. White viewers could take these pictures of a busy colonial city as a perfect example of the African adaptation of and to Western socioeconomic order and discipline (cp. Grimshaw 2001: 96). African spectators might be disturbed by the foregrounding of Africans working in menial jobs and the names by which they are called.

27The scenes of men working are followed by a shot of an African man entering the “Week End in California Bar” (03:23-03:34). The Western titles of bars (also “Weekend in Havana Bar”) sell dreams of unattainable places, which come down to booze, dancing, and a pleasure only alluded to by the subsequent shot of African prostitutes in a protest march against low wages. These are juxtaposed with shots of women in Yoruba marriage processions and in public professions of Christian faith: the streets indeed reveal a Babylonian mix of cultures, sub-cultures, and languages, which mark the social heterogeneity within the colonial situation (cp. Balandier 1951). The voice-over commentary provides some information, but does not explain the images of these women or translate their foreign voices for the European viewer, thus leaving a gap between experience and understanding.

28The colorful – if not uncritical – image of Accra in daylight is literally darkened by a glimpse of rituals on the city’s fringes in the evening. The commentary suggests a quiet retreat from the noisy city. Pictures show people dancing to music in the waning twilight; all of a sudden, there is a close-up shot of an African’s face from below, with bulging eyes and spittle around his open mouth, partially lit by the unsteady glow of a flashlight in the dark (04:18-04:25). The commentary stresses the estranging impact of that ghastly face, as the ritual is said to be devoted to the new gods of the city, technology and power: the Hauka. While white viewers might share the hyperbolic appreciation of Western technology and power expressed in the words, its particular form of veneration, embodied in the picture of the African in trance, creates an uncanny effect. That African seems to fulfil the colonial dream of subjects adoring their masters, but its abject and grotesque form is likely to provoke shock and horror. The dialogic conjunction of stereotypical notions of civilization (light, ‘reason’, ‘progress’, ‘order’) in ‘logocentric’ words and barbarism (darkness, ‘madness’, backwardness/atavism, abject chaos) in affective images unsettles boundaries and jars with previous footage of obediently working men.

29This brief glimpse at the African’s face in trance creates suspense, and it seems to confirm the colonial fantasy of the invisible observer’s penetration of the dark continent. The proximity of the European observer to the African, who is visible to us in the moving camera and the unsteady spotlight, creates both an awareness of the camera’s and the spectator’s voyeuristic gaze, and an uncertainty about the object of the gaze. Is the African oblivious to the ‘master’s’ presence? Does he accept it or does he simply ignore it? At any rate, there is no acknowledgement of the ‘master’s’ controlling gaze: the colonial hierarchy is not explicitly endorsed in the image, in contrast to the commentary which states that the ritual is devoted to the new God of (Western) technology.

30Before the film spectators get to watch the ritual itself, the performers are introduced at their social gathering spot: talking, resting, playing cards, and, as the commentary claims, pretending to read the newspaper (04:27-05:01). Why would Rouch stress illiteracy and mimicry, which seems to contradict the picture as one of the Africans is wearing glasses? The discrepancy between picture and comment shakes our faith in the mimetic truth of the film, and implies that the presence of the camera changes people’s behavior and turns them into performers, since it is not likely that the African would try to fool his peers, who would know whether he can read or not.

31In his essays, Rouch reflects on the change that his camera provokes in the other, but it is hardly visible in the footage of this film. His comment on pretense raises the question of who and what the other is when they are not performing for ‘us’, whether in the colonial economy or in front of the camera. Thus, the Western spectator cannot trust the appearance of civilization in the film, if we take literacy as a distinguishing marker of colonial superiority. The gap between commentary and image becomes even more ironic if we consider it in the light of Rouch’s notion of disorder created through the camera-eye (see above). The mimicry of ‘civilized performance’ as a marker of disorder creates uncertainty – does it signify emulation or ridicule? (Bhabha 2004: 123) Finally, Rouch’s comment questions the British ideology of the civilizing mission, because colonial subjects do not necessarily have access to education and (democratic) participation according to Western ideals.

32In this context, the slogan “Perseverance Conquers Difficulties” (05:0105:03) on the bus that transports the members of the Hauka sect to their ritual space in the jungle takes on an ironical meaning. The motto, typical of Victorian self-help ideology, attains political connotations as it marks a vehicle (Western technology) that transports Africans to their potentially subversive ritual performance relegated to the margins by the British authorities (Taussig 1993: 240). That is to say, continuing with the ritual in spite of colonial repression may help the Hauka to counterbalance the impacts of colonialism, to appropriate colonial power through mimicry, and therefore to undermine colonial hierarchy/hegemony and segregation.

The specularity of the ritual spectacle

33Critical debates tend either towards attributing or denying political critique to the Hauka ritual as such or towards recognizing the politics of Rouch’s cross-cutting the Hauka ritual with a British military ritual. However, the decisively dialogic quality and the re-framing of the ritual space and actions in footage and commentary do away with a monologic ‘either-or’. Cholodenko appropriately draws attention to the ambivalence of both the ritual and Rouch’s commentary, because both are at once familiar and unfamiliar – the ritual in its strange mimicry of colonial work, and the English commentary with its strange French accent that highlights the problem of ethnographic authority in mediating between cultures.

The Hauka are seen at once to conform to the words spoken and to exceed, absorb, and annul them, remaining veiled, lost in translation. So the film leaves the viewer not with a sense of knowing its subject, as in classic ethnography, but rather of not knowing it, at best of knowing only that one does not and cannot know it (Cholodenko 2009: 161).

34Rather than succumbing to total skepticism, it is necessary to tease out the cultural and political implications of the ritual and its representation through its dialogic visual and verbal framing.

35The ritual space of the performance (culture) is carved out of the jungle (nature). New individuals need to undergo an initiation ritual. They have to be introduced, get a beating, and go into the jungle until they get possessed. If the white man with the camera is invited to take part and produce the documentary without an explicit initiation ceremony, he seems to belong through the power of his camera as a mechanical mimetic force similar to the quasi-mechanical mimetic force that erupts in the grotesque trance.

36Cowie mentions that the items on the stage of the ritual are “‘found objects’ whose redeployment produces a change of role” (Cowie 2007: 210). The staging and the props are fraught with meanings, which far exceed the bare descriptive words and challenge the viewer’s hermeneutic skills. The stage is organized into two opposite centers, the (British) government palace and the (African) sacrificial stone. The apparent dichotomy between secular British politics and religious African ritual is dismantled in many ways. Ironically, the sacrificial altar (under a tree) is made from enforced concrete, as the voice-over tells us: we would not have noticed, but the comment precludes the association of the African pole with primitive nature. The government palace is a painted, abandoned termite mound – one could have guessed from the shape but it could also have been a ‘primitive’ imitation made of clay. The commentary ensures that we understand the inversion of the materiality and provenance of the signifiers and their cultural signification in the ritual (technology – African, nature – British). The altar is a solid disk, the palace a sturdy but hollow structure. Henley (2009: 130) reads the termite mound as a symbol of fertility, but he disregards the fact that this one is apparently emptied of life, a ruin abandoned by its population. The abandoned termite mound is an apt metaphor for late British colonial rule that has outlived its raison d’être. Both the altar and the palace are subject to sacred rituals because both are sprinkled with the blood of a sacrificed chicken – and with gin in a hybrid performance.

37The voice-over also tells us that the pieces of cloth above the “governor’s palace” represent the Union Jack. The pieces of thin African/Indian/ British cotton cloth all look a little different, but in no way resemble the Union Jack: the words do not correspond to visual mimesis, a gap that challenges colonialism (Cooper 2002: 488). These banners are literally floating signifiers, imprinted with African (?) traces. They could be seen by Western eyes as caricatures of a political symbol or as an appropriation of the power to define the significance of arbitrary signifiers, because it certainly would have been no problem to imitate the design and colors of the Union Jack. These ‘union jacks’ are ‘migrant signifiers’ that aptly represent the migrants that flood Accra and perform roles that transgress the boundaries between the self and the other.

38The camera takes a shot of a film program behind the government palace (09:36-09:39). Holiday in Havana (1949) is a Hollywood production about the very unlikely transformation of a sports star into a singer and about his romance, promising escapist entertainment. The Mark of Zorro (1940) is a romance and action movie about revenge and resistance to political repression and corruption in California under Spanish rule (www. The posters recall the names of bars in town, Havana and California, and both reveal the escapist options not chosen this weekend by the members of the sect. The fact that the posters are tacked up behind the palace suggests that Hollywood movies help to contain – or foster – potential resistance to foreign rule. Citing these films highlights the difference between using an exotic space and culture for the heroic adventures of individual white men (in the BE and in Hollywood) and Rouch’s adventure, which focuses on African agency and performance in this ‘commissioned’ film. In addition, these posters self-reflexively recall the contrast between entertainment and ethnography, the illusionist seamless suture of Hollywood camera work and Rouch’s ‘palpable’ recording of voices and pictures through the wobbling frame of his hand-held camera.

39The ritual begins with a public confession of those who feel guilty, their contrition, their promise to adhere to the rules in the future, and a purification sacrifice by the priest. The confessed sins relate to hygiene (dirt), social rules (adultery), and religious rules (tampering with bodies, blasphemy). The penitents, not yet in trance, promise to subject themselves to medical, moral, and spiritual discipline. These submissions can be read as a form of internal colonization or as an African form of civilization, or a combination of both, which we can also see in the sacrifice of a chicken and gin. The fact that disbelief in the Hauka, Western forces manifest in African spirits, is mentioned as a sacrilege signifies a dialogic fusion of cultures that is hardly acceptable to colonials.

Fig. 1: Sculpture of the governor

Fig. 1: Sculpture of the governor

Film still from Jean Rouch, Les Maîtres fous (1957, 05:57). Later, the governor wears glasses (16:51)

40The governor appears in two manifestations, as a sculpture and as a possessed performer. Stoller more or less repeats Rouch’s commentary of the offering made to the governor: “Monkaiba makes an offering of an egg to his wooden statue of the governor-general, a rotund white figure with a pith helmet and a moustache. He recites an incantation and breaks the egg on the governor’s pith helmet [...] the comportment of the Hauka recreates in exaggerated form the theater (sic) of British military ritual” (1992: 150). A closer look at the visual representation calls into question Rouch’s comment about the mere reflection of a colonial ritual. The sculpture is tanned or brown, not white like the governor’s horse or the palace. The sacrificial liquids changed its appearance, marking the appropriation of the ‘governor’. The black color on the head could represent black hair in the style of Africans or a dark fez rather than a light pith helmet, and the “moustache” is a bunch of hair or a feather ‘savagely’ pierced through the nostrils (as opposed to the goatee neatly fixed to the statue’s chin). The sculpture resembles an African mimicry of a white ruler in general, rather than the British governor in particular. The visual scene makes a decisive difference to the mere description and underlines the hybridity and mimicry of the appropriation. Henley is right when he questions interpretations of breaking the egg as an intentional political parody (2009: 112): it is a sacrifice rather than a sacrilege. However, the cross-cutting of this scene with that of a British military ritual suggests its dialogic quality and insinuates an anti-hegemonic interpretation.

41The footage of the real British governor (16:55-17:26) shows a military ritual from a bird’s eye view, which makes the governor and the lined-up African soldiers appear like puppets in uniform. It is as if Rouch wanted to cut the governor down to the size of the sculpture in the African ritual, or to draw an implicit analogy to the possessed Hauka. Moreover, the inserted footing can be read as a self-referential device, “incorporating the element of fabrication proper to every system of representation” (Fieschi 1979: 72). Rouch remarks that the British and the Hauka rituals are of a different order, but follow the same protocol. The dialogic Hauka ritual endorses and questions the colonial order at the same time. Ignoring the colonial hierarchy, the possession of Africans by the Hauka spirits transgresses all boundaries of race, class, gender, and status: whatever their positions in real life, the Africans can be possessed by the spirits of the engine driver, the doctor’s wife, the soldier, the general, the secretary general, the governor, and so on. In their new roles, however, their negotiations of authority and “round-tables” seem to confirm the colonial rule. The discrepancy between the serious and concise description (without which the Western spectator would hardly understand who or what is being “mirrored”) and the mechanical and grotesque mimicry of a steam engine, the “slow march”, “inspection”, and “round tables”, is uncanny. The uncanny doubling does not yield any insight into the other, since mimicry “exists by being detected by the other (the white man) as the gaze (from the natives), even though the natives do not actually ‘look back’, whose subjectivity is not in any case determined (structurally, dialectically) by their own alleged mimicry” (Lim 2002: 51).

42Hohenberger claims that the characters’ voices indirectly address the films’ spectators, and criticizes the fact that they are not translated and therefore remain inaccessible to the spectator (1988: 277). This may be true, but the narrative voice in Rouch’s ethnographic film does not pretend to yield a transparent reality, and therefore stresses the gap between the response to the other and the answer. The commentating voice makes us recognize something, but always reminds the spectator of the limits of his or her understanding, which become particularly obvious in the face of the other in trance.

43Rouch pays much attention to the process of becoming possessed, a veritable spectacle of the other: “It’s the ability to become possessed, the ability that signifies to Europeans awesome Otherness if not downright savagery, which allows them to assume the identity of the European and, at the same time, stand clearly and irrevocably eye-bulgingly apart from it. What’s being mimicked is mimicry itself – within its colonial shell” (Taussig 1993: 241).

44Rouch takes close shots of shaking limbs, frothing mouths, and above all, rolling and bulging eyes. The voyeuristic gaze at someone who does not or cannot look back or defy the gaze of the viewer pries into the other’s intimate secrets. Geiger argues that the illusion of fully knowing the other by gazing through native eyes conceals the effort of control via representation (Geiger 1998: 6). However, at this moment of transition and in trance, the other is not even him – or herself; instead, he or she is a radical other whose perspective cannot be shared by Western eyes. Stoller’s view that the film “defies the imperious arrogance of the Western ‘gaze’” (1992: 158) does not take in the whole picture because Rouch’s gaze invites voyeurism, but his simple descriptions of what we see confronts us with our voyeurism and our lack of understanding. Thus Rouch does not indulge in a fantasy of omniscience, but dialogically uses and exposes the voyeuristic gaze.

  • 4 A famous historical precedent of eating dogs serves to maintain the boundary between civilization a (...)

45The sacrifice of a dog is a sacrilege that violates both an African and a European taboo, as Rouch tells us. However, Rouch ignores the fact that sacrifices of dogs were known in Africa in order to exaggerate the power of the Hauka. The pictures are revolting to Western sensibility, but Rouch’s comments imply that the Hauka dare to do this only because they embody Western spirits, questioning any stereotypical interpretation of the act as simply ‘barbarian’ or African. For a Western spectator, the sacrifice seems to present the worst of both worlds, but for the Hauka, the act is an empowering gesture. The “round table” discussion about eating the sacrificed dog raw (‘nature’) or cooked (‘culture’), and the decision to cook it, is a perfectly hybrid course of action that subverts colonial categories of civilization and barbarism.4 The ritual is a spectacle of relevance to the possessed themselves and to the African audience as witnesses of trance and empowerment. The merging of the African actor and the ‘European’ role in trance undermines the segregation of the races upon which the colonial hierarchy is based. In addition, the possessed perform for Rouch and his sound crew, whose documentary will dramatically expand the ritual’s audience and offer a reciprocal view to both the colonized and the colonizers.

46Cowie aptly warns us not to subject the surreal and uncanny excess to a normalizing psychological or political reading:

  • 5 See also 206 and 213-24. Henley develops a similar reading of dog-eating as representation of becom (...)

The power of the other is signified in the deployment of its signs while it is also superseded by the superior power of the spirit, demonstrated by the inversion and transgression performed by the spirit through the Hauka adept. The ritual presents an in-mixing of elements which remain distinct in a drama of their very juxtaposition, a conjoined image of embodied self and spirit, of power and weakness, where the abject and taboo are celebrated and valorised. The boundary of self and other is permeated as meaning and identity slips between, for the adept both is and is not the spirit (Cowie 2007: 212)5.

47Cooper also warns us not to assimilate the Other, advising that we should instead acknowledge the Other beyond what is visible, what we can represent and understand (Cooper 2002: 493-494). I would qualify and extend Cooper’s argument. First, Rouch’s verbal representation makes Western spectators aware of the mimesis of the ritual in the first place, and at the same time draws their attention to the fact that it is not a literal mirror image of the colonizers. Second, the visible representation itself is already beyond ‘our’ comprehension, which in turn questions the referential use of Rouch’s descriptive words about the ritual (as opposed to the glossolalia of the possessed, which we cannot understand anyway). The call for the acceptance and tolerance of the other can only be supported, but should not prevent a political reading of the ethnographic film as a whole.

Flipside images in terminal framing: containment and subversion

48The third part of the film juxtaposes the modern life of urban civilization from the first part, and the ritual space from the second part, by crosscutting brief shots from both spheres, underlining their interdependence (cp. Grimshaw 2001: 93-94). The third part also combines images of workers in the city with the sounds of the string violin that evoked the Hauka spirits (Henley 2009: 300). The link between the ritual and ordinary life is established by images of the Hauka travelling back to Accra on Sunday evening and (probably) taking dog broth with them for their peers who could not attend the ritual. The return to the ‘civilized’ working week on Monday morning is marked by inscriptions on walls, suggesting a connection between politics, mechanical time, and mental illness. The camera offers a bird’s-eye-view of a paved street, cars, a shop with pictures of Queen Elizabeth, and the ad “Rolex, Omega watches”. The African workers probably would not be able to afford these watches, but are subject to the mechanical time of their (white or Westernised) owners at work: time is money. A close shot shows a black sign with a cross in a white circle and the white lettering “MENTAL HOSPITAL.” The black inscription of mechanical time on a white wall metonymically complements the white inscription of a mental institution as its potential consequence, a fact that recalls the mechanical civilization mentioned at the beginning.

  • 6 Henley argues that it does not suffice to interpret the film as a parody of colonial power, even if (...)

49The parallel editing of shots juxtaposes the ‘same’ individuals as working citizens, most of them smiling and acknowledging the camera’s gaze, and as grotesquely performing Hauka with “visages horribles”, apparently oblivious of the camera. Thus, the ambivalent documentary (as a whole) not only “turns from mimicry – a difference that is almost nothing but not quite – to menace – a difference that is almost total but not quite” (Bhabha 2004: 131). The documentary suggests that the energetic African in trance represents mimicry and menace at the same time, as the mimic doppelganger of his other selves – both the African in ‘ordinary’ life, and the colonial masters (Henley 2009: 108-110).6 The parallel editing implies a positive answer to Rouch’s final (rhetorical) question as to whether these Africans have a remedy for not being abnormal but perfectly integrated: “pas d’êtres anormaux mais parfaitement intégrés à leur milieu.” (27:30-27:35). For Fieschi, Les Maîtres fous is “no longer simply recording a ritual, but making a more complex survey of an essentially cathartic collective practice, a sacrifice whose exceptional nature is clearly understood to be an assurance of social normality [...] established at the outset” (Fieschi 1979: 71). Fieschi’s generalizing interpretation follows Rouch’s concluding remark, but neglects the potentially resistant perspective in context.

50In the beginning of the movement in the late 1920s, the French imprisoned the Hauka for their public refusal of the colonial rule, as did the British authorities in the Gold Coast in 1935. This policy was changed to toleration if the ritual was no longer performed in public (Stoller 1984: 177; Taussig 1993: 240). Rouch’s rhetorical question could, but should not, be reduced to a message of containment, because it refers to a defective, mechanical Western civilization and colonial system that ironically needs not only African workers but also African culture, in the shape of the ritual, to maintain public order. Rouch’s verbal comments neither exhaust nor delimit the aesthetic impact of the spectacle, which testifies to the power of the attractive – but mysterious – object of the gaze. The identities of the colonial spectator and the colonized object are dissolving:

To become aware of the West in the eyes and the handiwork of its Others, to wonder at the fascination with their fascination, is to abandon border logistics and enter into the “second contact” era of the borderland where “us” and “them” lose their polarity and swim in and out of focus [...] mimetic excess [] spending itself in a riot of dialectical imagery (Taussig 1993: 246).

51The confusion of identities per se can have a political effect, as it opposes the careful policing of the boundaries that justify colonial rule. Thus, the documentary of the Hauka ritual can be understood as a questioning of the Western gaze, decolonizing us (Stoller 1992: 159-160). It has been argued that the opposition of the Hauka and the colonial regime in Rouch’s montage of the rituals in the center of the film moves towards integration and closure in the final montage sequence (Grimshaw 2001: 95; Henley 2009: 297). However, history suggests that the Hauka ritual had more potential than ‘merely’ being a means of bearing and stabilizing colonial rule, because it simulates the appropriation of white power. The beginning of the movie shows Africans mastering Western technology in everyday life, and the ritual adds the simulation of economic, social, and political power. History would prove that Africans could indeed master technology and power in reality, a few years after the film was made, with the independence of Ghana in 1957.

52In conclusion: in his essays and in his documentary Les Maîtres fous, Rouch re-frames empiricist and structuralist ethnography in metaphorical and literal terms. He envisions shared anthropology as a participatory project that represents the reciprocal views of the colonizers and the colonized, in accordance with the sociologist Balandier’s concept of the colonial situation. Rouch is aware of the fact that the presence of the camera changes the performance, which turns the movie into a dialogic and collaborative work. In literal terms, his mobile camera-eye embodies participant observation, revealing his subjective view in palpable movement close to the action. The alienating experience of the alien is framed in Rouch’s voice-over commentary, which is informed by his own critical position towards colonial rule and by the priest of the ritual as an African expert. However, Rouch is not free from the desire for voyeuristic insight, and he promises to provide a titillating experience to the viewers of his documentary, a stance that jars with the reciprocal view of shared anthropology. The Hauka ritual itself not only offers but also embodies the reciprocal view of the colonized on the colonizers, as the possession and empowerment of African participants in trance by the colonizers’ spirits reveals the dialogic – and potentially instable – interrelationship between masters and servants, civilization and barbarism, actors and roles, mimicry and menace.

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1 Colleyn praises Rouch’s visual anthropology as an advance against verbal ethnography (2005: 112-115). However, the radical distinction between visual and verbal ethnography and anthropology is inaccurate because, since the late eighteenth century, expeditions took on-board artists to provide visual documentation of ‘new’ worlds, which fed ethnography and anthropology (Mackenzie 1996: 296-317). In addition, the kind of visual anthropology enabled by the use of hand-held cameras does not leave ethnographic discourse behind, but rather expands its options.

2 The Scottish explorer Mungo Park was repeatedly subjected to the gaze of the other as an object of curiosity and a potential victim of robbery in West Africa 150 years earlier (Meyer 2015).

3 There are hints in Rouch that suggest that the camera provokes disorder, but Kien Ket Lim (2002) goes too far when he claims that the camera breaks the taboo for the Hauka priests to slaughter the dog in the ritual in the article “Of Mimicry and White Man: A Psychoanalysis of Jean Rouch’s Les Maîtres fous,” Cultural Critique 51: 58.

4 A famous historical precedent of eating dogs serves to maintain the boundary between civilization and barbarism: at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exhibition of 1904, semi-naked people from the Philippines were exhibited in the Hall of Anthropology, eating roasted dog-meat. Henrietta Lidchi (1997) argues that the spectacle that was clearly taken to represent savagery on the lower levels of human evolution in contrast to the civilized spectators in her article “The Poetics and Politics of Exhibiting other Cultures,” in Stuart Hall (ed.), Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi, Sage 2007: 196197, fig. 3.8. However, in the photograph one of the ‘savages’ wears a white gown and a small cap, and it seems that they are very well aware of staging a performance; four of the eight are looking at or even smiling at the camera, a fact that questions the ‘authenticity’ of the performance.

5 See also 206 and 213-24. Henley develops a similar reading of dog-eating as representation of becoming an other through transgressive spirit-power, rather than taking it as a political parody (2009: 131-132).

6 Henley argues that it does not suffice to interpret the film as a parody of colonial power, even if the Hauka of ordinary workers are part of the mechanical system, because then they would be parodying themselves. However, Henley seems to imply that the film has to have one – and only one – dominant meaning, whereas I hope to show that it is essentially ambivalent and contradictory. Thus, mimicry and menace goes along with integration into the colonial economy, its critique, and the empowerment of the adepts of the cult (2009: 108-110).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1: Sculpture of the governor
Légende Film still from Jean Rouch, Les Maîtres fous (1957, 05:57). Later, the governor wears glasses (16:51)
Fichier image/jpeg, 541k
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Michael Meyer, « Re-framing the Ethnographic Encounter: Les Maîtres fous », Journal des africanistes, 87-1/2 | 2017, 198-220.

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Michael Meyer, « Re-framing the Ethnographic Encounter: Les Maîtres fous », Journal des africanistes [En ligne], 87-1/2 | 2017, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2019, consulté le 20 août 2019. URL :

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Michael Meyer

University of Koblenz-Landau

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