Translating ritual into film – Notes on Paul Henley’s ‘spirit, possession, power, and the absent presence of Islam: re-viewing Les Maîtres Fous’

Author Biography

David Vanden Bossche, Ghent University

Faculty of Arts and Philosophy 

Main Article Content

David Vanden Bossche (Ghent University)

Published Feb 1, 2018


In his 2006 article for the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, ‘Spirit Possession, power, and the absent presence of Islam: re-viewing Les Maîtres Fous’ (Henley, 2006, pp 731-62), Paul Henley gives an in-depth analysis and re-examination of the seminal classic “Les Maîtres Fous” by the late French film director Jean Rouch. One of the most striking elements in the text is the rift Henley detects between what he calls ‘Rouch The Author’ and ‘Rouch The Film-Maker’. The article goes to great lengths in its analysis of possible new viewing angles for the anthropological material at hand, being the hauka – cult in Accra, West-Africa – as observed in the film. Henley has a clear view on all possible alternative interpretations and re-viewings of the film from an anthropological point of view, but seems to struggle when it comes to juxtaposing these with the reality of the film. He chooses to make a sharp division between the two sides of Jean Rouch (‘Author/Anthropologist’ and ‘Film-Maker’) without ever delving into the historiography of anthropological films at the time, nor the influence Rouch was under from directors such as Luc De Heusch and Alain Resnais. He also neglects to place Rouch’s work within the broader context of filmhistoric developments of the 1950’s. Henley’s paper does not attempt to address these questions and there is the clear choice of interpreting the work only from an anthropological point of view. This paper will address these gaps, offering a few possible explanations which address Rouch’s work as a director, a side that should complete the anthropological data in Henley’s paper. This text will provide a basic layout for understanding the cinematographic choices Rouch made, placing them in a larger framework and making a case for the interpretation of the film on its own terms and not only as an (seemingly) objective account of an anthropological study.

Key words: Jean Rouch, Paul Henley, Luc de Heusch, anthropological film, self-reflexivity 

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