Exploring the world through global cinema

In The Lap Of The Gods

This week, Coke bottles, clumsy scientists, crazy rebels and credulous natives in the most famous African film of all time discussed in a review masquerading as an analysis pretending to be a review. Er…yes.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

(1980) Written & Directed by Jamie Uys

(You’ll find a trailer at the end of the previous post)

“One day, something fell from the sky. Xi had never seen anything like this in his life. It looked like water, but it was harder than anything else in the world. He wondered why the gods had sent this thing down to the earth.”

When worlds collide: the clash of civilisations with 'hilarious' consequences in 'The Gods Must Be Crazy'.

When a carelessly-tossed Coke bottle is discovered by an isolated tribe of San (Kalahari Bushmen) one day, it quickly disrupts their peacefully-balanced community, introducing the concepts of possession and greed. With their community falling apart, elder member Xi decides to return the evil object to the gods from whence it came. However, the gods are not particularly concerned, having problems of their own.

In 1980, two South African film companies released what would become the continent’s most successful film ever. 31 years later, the record has still not been broken, despite the rise of the Nigerian film industry, whose output is second only to Hollywood. The lighthearted tale of the stereotypical African tribesman, free of the trappings of ‘civilisation’ and his subsequent encounter with it in the form of white scientists and schoolteachers, along with warring political factions and colourfully-dressed agrarian villagers ever-ready for song, ticked all the boxes for the global audience. Here was the gentle image of Africa, without the darker realities of racial slaughter, rampant poverty, or the fact that the land mass actually comprised many countries and cultures, casually reinforced through smiling natives, slapstick and Johannesburg’s answer to Hugh Grant.

Sandra Prinsloo stars as Kate, love interest and bringer of enlightenment to the natives of Botswana.

For the general theatergoer, either uninterested by the film’s quiet cementing of their preconceptions or simply unconcerned by it, The Gods Must Be Crazy was a wonderfully exotic comedy adventure, filled with warmth and old-school humour reminiscent of Hollywood’s silent clowns – thanks in large part to the many sped-up film sequences. The more critical viewer, however, saw the lament of the White Man’s Burden all throughout: the poor, yet content Batswana villagers in need of a white woman to educate them, Aryans depicted as gods by primitive tribes people, while those of African descent who did attempt to recreate Western civilization reproduced only instability and civil war. Worst of all was the depiction of the San, or Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana, who, since this was after all ‘Darkest Africa’, lived in total ignorance of the age of industrialisation. Not that this was a problem for them, we are informed by the casually authoritarian narrator during the opening scenes, since the Bushmen lived in their own, perfectly-balanced Eden-like desert paradise. The carelessly-tossed Coke bottle symbolised the disease of Western consumerism, forcing the happy natives to learn the concept of possession, greed and jealousy: having not been inoculated against such viruses, they spiral rapidly downward into misery until one brave and incorruptible Bushman takes it upon himself to venture into the world of the gods and put everything back the way it was.

Ultimately, both points of view are correct, with extremists on both sides missing the point. The Gods Must Be Crazy is, I feel, an intentionally light-hearted comedy, informed by neither the self-righteous nor the ignorant points of view imposed upon it by the rest of the world. It was produced by two South African film companies (CAT Productions and Mimosa) and informed by a very South African perspective of their nearby neighbours. That the film-makers may have had a very patriarchal view of the African native races is an easy conclusion to reach as it is to cry ‘apartheid’ by those who never lived through it. It is inevitable that the chief protagonists will be white, since the film is made by white people for white people. Is Hollywood, Bollywood, Media Asia or indeed Nollywood any different? Note also during the Johannesburg sequences early on the way in which Kate (played by Sandra Prinsloo) and her fellow office workers of both races are seen to work on equal terms. Interesting side note: Sandra Prinsloo would seriously test proponents of apartheid when in 1985 she played a white woman seducing a black man in the play Miss Julie, causing much of the audience to walk out. For these people, The Gods Must Be Crazy would certainly reaffirm their viewpoints, yet if the film’s producers shared these views, it is unlikely the sequence I mention earlier would be present – nor the overall warmth of the piece. Such prejudice does not produce feel-good films.

“Here was the gentle image of Africa, without the darker realities of racial slaughter, rampant poverty, or the fact that the land mass actually comprised many countries and cultures, casually reinforced through smiling natives, slapstick and Johannesburg’s answer to Hugh Grant.”

Attempts at 'civilisation' by the locals are seen as chaotic and unstable...with 'hilarious' consequences.

Another point I think is overlooked is the obvious one: The Gods Must Be Crazy is a film, not a documentary. That its opening narration does not help this fact is something I will return to later. Either way, the film follows the same formula that one would find in Hollywood to achieve the same ends: romance, adventure, and silliness. Everyone present is a caricature: Marius Weyers predates Jeff Goldblum’s bumbling, yet capable scientist by a decade while Michael Thys as M’Budi is the archetypal sidekick – dismissed, put-upon, but ultimately wise, funny, and existing entirely to elevate the hero. Prinsloo’s Kate is the heroine-by-numbers – young, blonde, attractive, sexy, motherly, and above all, straight. The credits are not allowed to roll until the two end up in each other’s arms – the previously irritating stupidity of the lead male having been reinterpreted as cute by the female.  The villain is no less two-dimensional. Sam Boga (Louw Verwey) may be a political revolutionary, but his chosen lifestyle and belief systems are never intended to be explored. His villainy cannot extend beyond gruffness and peaceably kidnapping children who are never in danger of physical violence beyond that of a mandatory hiking trip. He exists to be vanquished five minutes before the leads profess their undying love. At no point is any of this meant to be an educational discourse on political instability in Botswana. If the action had taken place in Idaho, it is unlikely the matter would even have been brought into question.

Then of course there is the true star of the film, the symbol of everything good and indeed everything wrong with it: the Bushman himself. N!xau the performer is the genuine article – an actual descendant of the San tribe, or ‘Bushmen’ as they were called previously, which is now considered derogatory. Interested parties may wish to check out the special follow-up feature on the DVD release, where one of its biggest fans journeys to Namibia, where N!xau resided, and discovers how the San really live. Far from the isolated paradise depicted in the film, the San eke out a poor life of subsistence, while the introduction of technology to the area has been readily-embraced, particularly by the young, rather than feared. N!xau was however, every bit the hunter that Xi was, no less unconcerned by wealth, and no less likeable. His personality secured him the role, though he knew better than anyone that he was being called upon to re-enact a world that may never have existed. The fantasy holds together on the strength of his performance, more being than acting. It is a performance, however, and no-one involved is unaware of the fact. That the San would be depicted in a Southern African film is hardly exotic: they are the indigenous natives of the region.

Slapstick and overcranked film sequences provide much of the production's humour and helping to distract from any political statements that may unwittingly hove into view.

When all these elements are pulled together, The Gods Must Be Crazy cannot help but be a feel-good comedy. The formula guarantees its success. Admittedly, the slapstick humour only works on children, and I would like to think we have all become a little more sophisticated in the decades since.

The trouble with all this is that films do strongly imprint our perceptions of the world – along of course with television, Twitter, and advertising. Information, whether correct or incorrect, weaves its way into our subconscious and takes root when packaged in an attractive, believable form. Crocodile Dundee, in many ways the Australian counterpart to The Gods Must Be Crazy, still quickly comes to mind when generations of Americans think of the world Down Under. The easy-going, knife-wielding larrikin inhabited by Paul Hogan is no less a caricature than N!xau, the film no less a fantasy image of Australia. Far fewer critics accuse Crocodile Dundee of attempting to undermine the Australian character, clearly recognising it for what it is. There was no public outcry bemoaning the Hugh Grant oeuvre for reinforcing the American perception of the British as bumbling, uptight and inept, nor against The Serpent And The Rainbow for suggesting that all Haitians practice voodoo. Yet the imprinting is no less powerful, particularly among the youth, where the Third World image of Africa makes The Gods Must Be Crazy all too believable.

In this world, only the white man can be the scientist, only the white woman the educator, the latter of whom is shown to literally leave the ‘civilised’ world in order to step into this role, where the natives are the untamed Other. Yet despite this role, only the actions and desires of these two people are shown to be of any real import. The natives are simply part of the backdrop against which this entirely Western romance-comedy takes place, existing only to provide the means for their coming together.

“Information, whether correct or incorrect, weaves its way into our subconscious and takes root when packaged in an attractive, believable form.”

N!xau stars as Xi, the San (Bushman) trapped in a world he cannot understand.

The native Africans essentially fall into two camps, both of which are deemed to be lower than their white masters. The villagers are poor, yet happy: educating them is seen as a duty of those more fortunate, but we don’t have to feel sorry for that they toil the fields as they don’t yearn to better themselves or desire equality. Indeed, the film goes to great pains – particularly through the initial narrative – to point out that Western civilisation is not especially desirable, that it bears the price of advanced development. And yet only the products of this civilisation are able to solve the problems faced in the ensuing drama, which leads to the second category: ineptitude.

The Sam Boga subplot involves the revolutionary-on-the-run sending his followers to assassinate the local heads of government for reasons not widely explored. The plan fails, with his soldiers shooting the wrong targets and hiding in a banana plantation after having stirred up the hornets’ nest. A good deal of this ineptitude is heightened by the sped-up film sequences and the fact that machine guns rain bullets yet rarely strike their target. In the end, both the revolutionaries and the public officials are unable to stop the other without the assistance of the real masters of the land, the message clearly telegraphed that they are only playing at civilisation.

Unwitting star N!xau, shortly before his death, watching 'The Gods Must Be Crazy' for the first time in 'Return To Nyae Nyae', a special 'Where Are They Now?'-type feature on the DVD release.

The San, meanwhile, occupy the role of the ‘noble savage’, and here, the narration steps into play to reinforce this image. Like the disclaimer at the beginning of a Dan Brown novel, it misleadingly attempts to establish its credentials as gospel. There is every indication from this masquerade that we are watching a documentary as the melifluous tones of Paddy O’Byrne permeate the moving image and control our perceptions of the harsh wilderness on screen. Our host suggests, in his comforting authoritarian voice that clad in animal skins, able to produce food from a seemingly barren desert and of course, innocently happy, the San are our living ancestors who have somehow retained a primitive wisdom we, the builders of the future, have lost. It serves the dual purpose of satisfying that yearning animal desire for natural simplicity, while at the same time assuaging any guilt we may feel over the fact that here is a people living in complete poverty – the ever-smiling and good-natured Xi cannot help but give us a warm feeling of satisfaction that we needn’t do a thing about his complete lack of modernity. Were the film to journey to the real Botswana or Namibia, as our DVD documentarian did years later, the overwhelming guilt would only spoil the good mood.

This, in a way, brings us back where we started by reminding us that The Gods Must Be Crazy is little more than exaggerated fiction. It is too ridiculous to be taken seriously on a conscious level, yet too pervasive in its reinforcing of stereotypes not to be convincing on a subconscious level. I struggle to believe that it is anything more than a feel-good farce, intended as a comedy best-suited to lovers of slapstick and disposable cinema, but its implications are subtle to those not paying attention, ie – most film-goers. If it is guilty of racial profiling, however, then so is every film studio in Hollywood and beyond. Of course, we are pre-conditioned not to tar them with the same brush.


Next Time

A window into the lives of Rio de Janeiro’s shanty towns, the gangs that rule them and the spectre of hopelessness hanging over the lives of the people who live there in the Brazilian drama City Of Men. Click below to view a trailer:

3 responses

  1. Lisa

    Best movie ever!!! Just watched it with my 11 year old and he loved it!!

    April 17, 2011 at 8:51 am

    • Hi Lisa – definitely a good choice for family viewing. I myself must have been in the fourth grade when I saw it. Since you both really enjoyed the film, you might also like part II, where Xixo’s children make contact with the outside world and he has to rescue them.

      April 17, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  2. Jailson

    I was watching yesterday with my daughter… its a treasure betwem my titles.

    October 21, 2011 at 10:19 pm

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