Chez les buveurs du sang/ Le vrai visage de l’Afrique [With the Drinkers of Blood/ The True Face of Africa] (1932) – Napoléon Gourgaud and Joseph Barth *

Maasai warriors – ‘Chez les buveurs du sang’ (1931) – Napoléon Gourgaud and Joseph Barth

55 mins., b&w, sound – French voice-over commentary

Production : Films J. de Cavignac

Source : CNC-Bnf

Background – This is an expedition film shot in 1929 and released in various forms and under various titles in the early 1930s. Commissioned by an aristocrat, Baron Napoléon Gourgaud, a big game hunter and collector of l’art nègre, it was shot by Joseph Barth, a leading cinematographer who had recently worked with Jean Epstein on Finis Terrae and would later work on P.W. Pabst’s 1932 reversion of L’Atlantide.

The film follows an expedition led by the Baron, first by sea to South Africa through the Suez Canal, and then northwards by land through Central Africa. It ends with a strange coda, as the expedition descends the Congo River to the Atlantic coast and then makes its way by sea to the island of St. Helena, where the Baron’s great-grandfather had been a companion to his namesake, the Emperor Napoléon, in his final years of exile.

Film Content – It is in the central part of the film that there are certain passages of ethnographic interest as the expedition proceeds from the Cape, through Mozambique and the Belgian Congo to British East Africa.

On the way, the expedition encounters various indigenous groups including the Zulu and San ‘Bushmen’ in South Africa, ‘Kaffres’ in Mozambique, Pygmies and Mangbetu in the Congo, and finally the Maasai in East Africa whose occasional practice of drinking blood drawn off directly from the necks of their cattle provides the pretext for the sensationalist title of the film. Gourgaud also shoots a substantial quantity of big game and there are many dramatic shots of the natural environment.

At the time of its release and for many years afterwards, this film was hailed as a masterpiece of documentary cinema and it does indeed include a number of very well executed sequences of dance accompanied by on location sound recordings, notably those featuring performances by the Zulu, the ‘Kaffres’ and the Maasai.

But most present-day viewers will probably consider it to be no more than a self-aggrandizing safari film, punctuated by various egregiously racist passages, particularly the sequence in which two San women are presented as if they were zoological specimens.




© 2018 Paul Henley