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Herdsmen of the Sun and Les Maitres Fou

Not rated. Directed by Werner Herzog, Jean Rouch.

REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., Jan. 17, 1992

Herzog returns to Africa (where he made the astounding Fata Morgana) to document a celebration of the nomadic Wodaabe tribe. In this 1988 documentary, Herzog films a yearly festival in which the men of this tribe adorn themselves with beads and makeup and parade before the women. The women make their choices among the men for an evening of pleasure or for marriage. Women, who in general marry at a very young age and remain with their family until puberty, receive a dowry taken from the tribe's herd of cattle and thus enjoy economic independence from their husbands. Therefore, divorce is possible and not uncommon. It's great, liberating, to see these huge tall men preening, fretting, worrying that they won't be beautiful enough to be loved, but it's not the looking glass aspect of the Wodaabe's culture that's most interesting. It's the people themselves. Perhaps they are gentler than most of us because of the relative equality of the sexes, but according to Herzog they are despised by the other tribal peoples of Africa. Threatened by drought, often forced to give up wandering and subsist on the outskirts of towns, what is wonderful about the Wodaabe is their resilience and pride. They consider themselves the most beautiful people in the world and they have a case. Herzog intersperses the most lovely and ethereal of Western music, music by Handel, Mozart and Verdi, with tribal chants. The effect of this confluence is a celebration of beauty, humanity and transcendence and it is over much too soon. ¶ This 1957 documentary, Les Maitres Fou, may be influenced by the work of the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, but it's also an example of the sensationalist documentaries so popular at the time. In this short film, members of a strange African sect leave their jobs to travel deep into the bush for a religious ceremony that involves possession by various demigods. In the throes of possession, the faithful foam at the mouth (a lot) and they take on the personalities of gods who resemble members of the ruling class of British colonials. Rouch doesn't quite know what to make of it all, so he records it and in true 1950s documentary style, tacks a specious explanation on the end. It's amazing. However, the inclusion of Les Maitres Fou with Herzog's film is at least problematic. Does seeing these two films together make them a trip to the side show when Herzog was attempting something slightly more exalted? Perhaps. But perhaps I am underestimating the type of audience these kinds of films will draw. Certainly, it was an experience I enjoyed.
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