THE SKY ABOVE, THE MUD BELOW (Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau, 1961)

Documenting a seven-month expedition by Europeans, accompanied by guides and Muyu porters, through jungle, river and across dauntingly high mountains in Dutch New Guinea beginning in September 1959, Le ciel et la boue is a French film that won the 1961 Oscar for best documentary feature. In the best possible version it comes equipped with Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau’s—the filmmaker’s—own commentary, presumably read by Gaisseau; but in the English-language version that I’ve seen, with which (for the time being) I must be content, some Brit intones the voiceover narration, substituting “London” or “London and Paris” for “Paris” at least twice. (I have no idea as to whether any Englishman even participated in the adventure.) The purpose of the astoundingly dangerous expedition was to chart territory that as yet was “off the map.”
     Mesmerizing, visually arresting, with subjective shots that extend the European outsiders to include us, this is a good movie; but from the English narration I couldn’t determine the extent to which its disclosures of European colonial mindset are cunning or inadvertent. Surely a line such as, “[I]n the jungle, one must never admit to being lost,” could cut either way. How, also, do we process the description of a native tribe as living for war when “civilized” colonial France herself was embroiled in the Algerian War, before which she was at war in Indo-China? Amidst heavy mists, then, the film evidences possibly a mind of light, possibly a heart of darkness. Either way, though, it documents a helluva trip.
     An early encounter between the Europeans and a tribe of “headhunters” fascinates. There are the tribal masks, which to the narrator’s eye (intriguingly!) resemble the surrounding trees, and the ritual whereby village boys, each with (tactfully, offscreen) a lopped-off enemy head between his legs, are transformed into warriors—a rite of passage linked to communal defense and survival.
     Much about Gaisseau’s film reminded me of King Kong; it, too, seems a journey into the distant past. (At one point the narrator anticipates seeing a prehistoric beast.) The 1933 fictional adventure, you may recall, was directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack—two former documentarians.
     A hokey touch: At one point, the narrator reduces his voice to a whisper during a tribal ritual. But the voiceover narration was applied to the shot, edited footage only later; there is no danger of disturbing the ritual therefore! Or is this humorously sly rather than hokey? Is Gaisseau mocking a show of respect that white Europe might pay the Third World?

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