Les Maitres Fous is about the ceremony of a religious sect, the Hauka, which was widespread in West Africa from the 1920s to the 1950s. Hauka participants were usually rural migrants from Niger who came to cities such as Accra in Ghana (then Gold Coast), where they found work as laborers in the city’s lumber yards as stevedores at the docks or in the mines. There were at least 30,000 practicing Hauka in Accra in 1954 when Jean Rouch was asked by a small group to film their annual ceremony. During this ritual, which took place on a farm a few hours from the city, the Hauka entered trance and were possessed by various spirits associated with the Western colonial powers: the governor-general, the engineer, the doctor’s wife, the wicked major, the corporal of the guard. The film is a critical commentary on the effects of colonialism in Africa
Jean Rouch (b. 1917) breakthrough work in cinema verite in the 1960s helped inspire the direct cinema movement in the U.S. and the nouvelle vague (new wave) in France where he was a key figure in the cinemateque francaise and the founding director of the Comite du Film Ethnographique at the Musee de I'Homme. His African work, characterized by innovations such as “shared anthropology”' and “ethno-fiction”, is noted for its embrace of both the daily life and imagination of a new generation of Africans. He also played an active role in helping to launch African cinema.