Spirit possession, power, and the absent presence of Islam: Re-viewing Les maîtres fous

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In the history of ethnographic documentary, the late Jean Rouch's film Les maîtres fous is widely regarded as initiating a new phase in the development of the genre. It concerns the hauka spirit-possession cult of Songhay-Zerma migrants from the middle Niger river who had come to work in Accra, then the capital of the British colony of the Gold Coast, West Africa. When released in 1955, the film was both banned by the colonial authorities and simultaneously denounced by African intellectuals and leading French anthropologists. Since then it has gone through a progressive rehabilitation and today, some fifty years on, it is hailed in many sources as a remarkable counter-hegemonic representation of European colonialism in Africa. This article proposes a re-interpretation of Les maîtres fouS, arguing that in order to defend the film against criticism, its counter-hegemonic features have been over-emphasized, thereby obscuring its continuity with other forms of Songhay-Zerma religious belief and practice. The article concludes with some brief reflections on the place of film in anthropology. © Royal Anthropological Institute 2006.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)731-761
Number of pages30
JournalJournal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2006


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