The Gods Must Be Crazy – Reductionist Film

Thoughts On: The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

Though this is, in part, a South African film, this will serve as the Botswanan film of the series as this is where the narrative is based and the film shot.

The Gods Must Be Crazy is one of the most commercially successful African films of all time – certainly of the 80s for South Africa in countries such as Japan and America. It is centred on the journey of a Botswanan ‘bushman’ who aims to rid his family of an evil glass Coke bottle by throwing it off of the edge of the Earth, but runs into other modern people, including a foreign biologist and school teacher.

For the most part, this is a slap-stick comedy with silent film aesthetics achieved through a use of fast-motion in the numerous physical comedy sequences. You then have to be somewhat sympathetic to not just dismiss this movie as just ridiculous, so, if in the right mood, this is a very amusing movie. Its only real downfall concerns the sound design, which is rife with (in the version I watched) terrible ADR performances. Everything else about this film is pretty good; the direction, acting, story and characters all work very well for what is trying to be achieved. There are two things that really make this movie worthwhile however. The first is the almost alien nature of this cinema – both the visuals, the concept and the story are something you’d have a really hard time imagining coming out of a Hollywood studio. But, the second element I really liked was its application of reductionism.

We see this primarily in the opening in which we are given narration that is so incredibly basic that it becomes absurd. The use of the San people (indigenous hunter-gather groups) in this story is an extension of this as their lifestyle can only be examined through a lens so simple that it makes all other forms living seem absurd. (That said, this film shouldn’t be considered a documentary on these people). A large part of this narrative is then concerned with reducing the complex, yet inarticulated and innately understood, elements of a society to their basic rules as to reveal an uncanny and overlooked truth. This truth is connected, in large part, to the complications that humans invent in society that make life better in certain respects, but much more difficult in many others. This is why we are initially told about the simple, yet idealistic, approach to life of the San people in contrast to modern people in cities. Later in the narrative, we get further reductionism of a similar kind through comedy that, again, utilises silent film tropes through its use of complicated machinery – mainly with gags centred on a truck connect to a Western man who cannot successful communicate with a woman. The most profound implication of this narrative is, however, the ‘evil of necessity’ – as represented by the useful glass Coke bottle which only separates the family which find it. The Gods Must Be Crazy then doesn’t just attempt to romanticise simple and primitive forms of living (though, this is a large part of the narrative), but point out the dangers of complex human ideas that invent complicated, possibly dangerous, behaviours – one of the most basic being possession.

This reductionist approach to narrative can be seen in another film which we’ve covered on the blog, Island Of Flowers. This short film describes attributes of society whilst following the production of a tomato from its initial destination to its last. Island Of Flowers thus explains poverty and freedom in such a way that they almost become comedic – though, all as to set up a profound idea of freedom and human desire. Other examples of reductionist film can certainly be found in the filmography of Yorgos Lanthimos. It is through a movie like Dogtooth, Attenberg or The Lobster that Lanthimos creates an absurd world from small truths put on display in their most unelaborate manner. Dogtooth, another film we’ve covered before, does this so brilliantly with what can be considered a coming-of-age narrative, one that makes a commentary on the poignancy and lasting effects of childhood and parents.

Taking these three examples of reductionist film we can develop a spectrum. On one extremely overt end is Island Of Flowers, which isn’t attempting to be a narrative film, rather a comedic ‘documentary’. On the opposite end of the scale is the subtle films of Lanthimos who, if you don’t recognise what he’s doing, will just seem like a terrible and insane filmmaker. What then lies around a centre-point would be The Gods Must Be Crazy. It has both elements of narrative and ‘documentary’, and brings these elements together with direct reductionist commentary as well as more subtle forms of storytelling. So, despite their differences, there are two things that connect all of these films. Firstly, it is their reductionist approach, and secondly it is the fact that they all contain comedy (dark or otherwise) and striking social commentary.

Whilst a lot more could be said about this topic in general, I think these films are three tremendous examples of how to make a film with meaning. The approach of reductionist films then lays bare the process of boiling complex entities down to simple ideas that exude absurdly power truths. To do this you do not necessarily have to create a reductionist narrative, merely encapsulate the its approach in your processing of your story’s themes and topics. So, this is where I’ll end with a few questions. Have you seen the films covered? What are your thoughts on them? What are your thoughts, more generally, on reductionist film?

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