Monday, February 12, 2007

Book Review: Sweet & Savage

Sweet &Savage: The World Through the Shockumentary Film Lens.
By Mark Goodall
Published by Headpress
160 pages

Reality TV shows have become the staple bread of TV viewing from police car chases, to natural disasters, to groups of people stuck on tropical islands, but long before these became part of our television culture, there were mondo documentaries or shockumentaries. These documentaries can be traced right back to the early days of cinema, but it wasn’t until Italians Jacopetti and Prosperi’s 1962 seminal Mondo Cane that the genre finally took hold. This landmark documentary consisted of a travelogue of bizarre rituals and practices from the third world as well as the western world. It was tinged with a sense of black humor, but would also leave the viewer feeling unsettled. An example of this is a close-up of the breasts of girls parading to attract American sailors along the French Riviera to cut suddenly to the breast of a New Guinea native suckling an orphan pig. Mondo Cane contained all the elements which would follow in future shockumentaries such as: the bizarre rituals of world cultures and religions; man’s cruelty towards animals; the encroachment of technological ‘development’ onto the ‘natural world’; sex and death in the modern epoch with the combination of visual savagery with audio sweetness. Another notable element in these documentaries is the inclusion of faked scenes leaving the viewer to question the authenticity of the movie and the neutrality of its producers. The Italians were the domineering force in the production of the documentaries and following Mondo Cane these movies became more extreme in their content to eventually contain some of the most shocking images put to film.

This book looks in detail at the different elements in the shockumantary and looks at the key examples of this rather overlooked genre including; Brutes and Savages, with the obviously faked African tribesman being eaten by a crocodile; Mille PeccatiNesuna Virtù, with fake German painter Kurt Rumbhild who creates paintings by pouring pigment onto his canvasses while his model couples have sex and Magic Nuda, where Yanomamö tribesman mete out an adultery punishment which consists of whacking each other over the head with abrushi canes until one of them falls bleeding and unconscious.

A lot of the book deals with the director of Mondo Cane, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and looks at much of his work. His 1965 movie Africa Addio is one of his movies that are looked at in detail. Three years in the making, Jacopetti traveled more than 130,000 miles across Africa to show the turmoil of the old Africa as it changes to the new. Because of this movie Jacopetti was criticized for delaying an execution so that the camera man could get a better picture. This was subsequently refuted by Jacopotti. Eventually after years of traveling and at times putting his own life in danger Jacopetti decided to settle down and make a new type of documentary. These were historical ones consisting mainly of actors. In these ones the film crew fictitiously traveled back in time to either 17th century France to make a documentary on French author Voltaire in Mondo Candido or to 19th century America to film the slave trade in Addio Onkel Tom. This last film probably being his most politically incorrect. At the end of the book Jacopotti also contributes an essay on ‘the considerations of the mondo film’.

Also included in this book is a quick overview of the composers of the mondo soundtrack, most notably Riz Ortolani as well as an interview with J G Ballard who is a fan of these movies.

This is a good book if you want to get started in the hair-raising viewing of these movies or if you want to find out more about an area of documentary making which has been regarded as relatively taboo up until now. This book should definitely be a required addition to the very detailed Killing For Culture: Death Film from Shockumentaries to Snuff by David Kerekes and David Slater. Both of these books are published by Headpress.

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