One perk of French employment is an annual stack of discount movie tickets. Like the chance to become a ‘friend’ of any big museum, they’re great value. But even these don’t really convey just how movie-mad Paris is; here, people will go anywhere for a special film. Maybe that’s why we ended up at a festival symbolised by a wrestler in a suit.
This image was advertising for Ethnology Will Surprise You! – a weekend of free events at the Musée du Quai Branly. Lectures, readings, concerts and all-day films, this was all meant to get the public excited about…ethnology. Quai Branly, a museum of “indigenous peoples”, is already one of the city’s most visited spots. So the weekend turned out to be a hit.
Its documentaries kicked off with one of San Francisco, shot just before the 1906 earthquake. It continued with classics such as Dziga Vertov’s Man with A Camera and Salesman, by the Maysles brothers. Also screened, however, were two of cinema’s weirder offerings.
The first was Diatoms by Jean Painlevé. Painlevé was a bunch of things: a total failure at school, an fervent anarchist and a close associate of the Surrealists. Mainly, however, he was a nature filmmaker – one who liked to explain his method as “science is fiction”. Although his work is stuffed with serious facts, its presentation is bonkers; crazy soundtracks and startling visuals combine to make a psychotronic experience. Diatoms, a film which “stars” various algae, features the voice of a breathy starlet posing all the science questions. (They receive stern replies from a disembodied ‘professor’).
Unexpectedly punctuated by an explosion, it’s both impressive and hilarious. In terms of Painlevé’s oeuvre, however, Diatoms is nothing. His Le Vampire combines F.W. Murnau, blood-sucking insects, a South American bat vampirising a guinea pig and Fats Waller playing “Honeysuckle Rose”.
All the day’s films were, in their day, ground-breakers. But by far the strangest was Crazy Masters (Les Maîtres Fous), by Jean Rouch. It was commissioned by some West African Hauka priests, who were keen to show the power of their practices. Hauka was a cult whose members – here, grass-cutters, salt-sellers and bottle-collectors – become possessed by the colonial bosses. One anthropology magazine summed it up as “…a short film showing Hauka adepts possessed by spirits of generals, doctors and truck drivers from the British power structure as they slaughter a dog, cook and eat it, march violently back and forth and foam at the mouth”.
Crazy Masters, however, concludes the “morning after” all this. Then, in tranquil vignettes, everyone is shown back on the job.
Even if you know what’s going to happen, however, the film is a shocker. Its rolling eyes, foaming mouths and animal sacrifice show just why so many viewers have been enraged. Yet: its critique of colonial power is incredible. The cult’s ‘governor’s palace’ turns out to be an anthill, the ‘Union Jacks’ the men salute are a clothesline – and their ‘uniforms’ are represented with strips of cloth. As the men start to “become” their everyday nemeses (‘the governor’, the ‘wicked captain’ and the ‘doctor’), they brandish guns, hold long meetings and, using French, start to insult and abuse each another. In trying to prove their importance, some even set fire to themselves.
Artist Isaac Julien had told me about Crazy Masters. He’s just the latest in a long line of artist fans, from drama’s Jean Gênet to theatre’s Peter Brook – not to mention the Nouvelle Vague film movement.
At the end of the séance, there was a quick Q&A. A dapper young Nigerian took the microphone to say he saw it as a searing castigation of power. Of course, he added, the film turned the Left, the Right, Africans, animal lovers, ethnologues and academics – “essentially everyone” – against its maker. But he added, handing back the mike, “that’s a different story”.
• The “legacy” project of French president Jacques Chirac, the Musée du Quai Branly was controversial fifteen years before it opened. An interesting encapsulation of all the politics behind it can be found in Science Is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé.
• The weird nature films of Jean Painlevé are collected in Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly.
* Every home needs a copy of Michael J. Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopaedia of Film; there’s nothing else like it.