The films starts out with a run through the city of Accra, the various jobs people keep, the evening fun at the bar where one can hear calypso music through the night, and the weekend festivities. In his Rouche-esque style, still new in this early movie, he recounts with some imagined exaggerations who and what we are seeing on the screen. As we are getting familiar with the city, we are slowly shifted to an area 25 miles away, between a few trees. Soon enough, a cult of men and one woman all come together in the name of the spirit of the Hauka. There is an alter and a small icon, a man made of wood with glasses and a moustache. Rouche’s ominous voice still leads blurring the line between the reality of the situation and his humour in explaining it.
He introduces each person within his or her role in the upcoming ceremony. The ‘general’ (leader of the cult) wears a red sache around his chest. As the scene progresses we see the ceremony begin and continue. Their bodies convulse, they stand in awkward positions with legs stretched out and toes pointing upwards, they are foaming at the mouth making loud sounds and shouting. But most importantly, their actions resemble those of colonial military. They put on helmets and march with wooden guns, collecting them and putting them back on the alter. They are all clearly in a trance having walked with sticks of fire burning their chests but not reacting to it at all.
The voice over explains that a dog is now to be introduced into the séance. Eventually, they slaughter the dog, drink his blood, lick his blood, and then decide to cook it and send its meat to those who couldn’t attend the ceremony.
Once the ritual ends, the viewers are taken back to the city streets of Accra. We are then re-introduced to the member of the cult. We see them in their daily routine, at work, selling at the market, digging for the water works company, and finally, the military where the ‘general’ is a guardsman. Images of all the men and one woman we saw yesterday with foam and blood at the mouth are today people working in sunny Ghana, faces bright and smiles wide. They are soft and look friendly in contrast to the violent possession lead ceremony of the night before.
For various (and somewhat clear) reasons, the film was considered quite controversial. Most importantly, people in the Anthropology field felt it might be used as a push towards racism showing African men in a situation seen out of the ‘norm’. On the other hand, some were worried that that type of depiction of colonial figures may invite some kind of reaction. Ghana at the time was a British colony and some people found it may be offensive to the Queen and her representatives. But overall, many found it (and still do) to be a disturbing film, particularly the scenes with the dog.
The film however, is extremely rich, from the title to the commentary that Rouche spins with serious respect for his subjects, yet with a humour that puts you in a place that is light hearted despite the gruesome images audiences are witnessing.
The title Les Maitres Fous has been a source of long debate. The term ‘maitres’ in French meaning both ‘master’ as opposed to ‘servant’, but also refers to the head of a cult, a rather respectable spiritual position. The word ‘fous’, meaning ‘mad’, in that case would refer to either the mad masters they are impersonating – making a strong statement about the colonial leaders, or a comment on simply the madness of the cult itself. Rouch ends his commentary within the film by noting that perhaps the men of Accra have found a clever way to fight the madness: we are not sure which madness then, he is speaking of. Taken by those in the region of Ghana and Niger as a strong anti-colonial piece, it is left to each person’s interpretation.
The question still goes on to what extent the activities of the Hauka were indeed reactions to colonial powers of the time. According to the visual anthropologist, Prof Paul Henley, Rouch himself was contradictory about his own reflection, and eventual recollection, of what the cult were actually engaged in.