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Film: Masters of the Congo Jungle
Director: Henry Brandt, Heinz Sielmann
Performers: Orson Welles, William Warfield (narrators, English version)
Production information: Belgian International Scientific Foundation, 1958 (Belgium)
Breed featured: Congolese village dogs (domesticated hunting dogs)

I had expected this documentary filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from the final years of Belgium’s colonial rule (1908 ~ 1960) to unpack the very notion of who “masters” the jungle, as indicated in the title, by charting the political history of this central African region. However, there is no mention of politics or nationality at all. What you get instead is an uncritical safari-ethnography featuring lots of African animals and native dances, all stitched together by sonorous God-narration, courtesy of Orson Welles and William Warfield in the American release.

One segment featuring Barimba men and their hunting dogs begins about 57 minutes into this 90 minute long documentary.

Sensing danger, they turn suddenly. The dog runs forward to scout what’s ahead. Showing a good deal of courage, the dog acts as his master’s antenna.

[gorilla screeches, bursts out of the jungle, chases dog through the bushes]

The intruders put to flight, the gorilla tribe settles down for refuge on the branches for the night.

The dog darts so quickly through the thick foliage, the obscured shot above was the best I could manage. The milliseconds where you can see the dog’s face are so hard to distinguish through the thicket and the low quality video transfer, they weren’t even worth posting.

Then at 1:02…

Why are the men of the baraza so sad this evening? “We eat only bananas and green plants,” says one. Another says, “The game escapes us. Hunting is poor.” They bring their problems to the village master of mystic affairs. He is believed to be the link between man and nature. The chief asks him, “Our spears, our nets, our dogs are useless. Tell us why! Throw the bones, interpret their meaning, we will follow the bidding of the spirits.”

oracle bones

It is a sign of graave events.

“Throw the bones again!”

Then the wizard speaks. “The understanding between you and the world is broken.”

The chief orders, “Tell us why! Why is the understanding broken?”

The soothsayer replies, “It is because the dog has been offended. The dog is angry, and no longer wishes to hunt. The dog is sacred. It is he who stole the fire from the gods to give it to the huntsmen of the forest.” Then the priest blesses the dog with a dried banana and chants the prayer, “Forgive us oh Kabamba [?] oh dog. Tomorrow, go out and hunt many animals, so that we, our wives and our children may eat. Do not seize the leopard or the snake. Only the wild boar and other savory beasts.”

appeasing the offended dog

And so, the offense to the dog is wiped out. For man, speech is power.

Morning has come again. The dogs of central Africa do not bark — a punishment for stealing the fire of the gods. So wooden bells are hung from their necks. The bells are filled with leaves to muffle them, and they’ll be allowed to rattle only when the game is close by.

bringing dog out for belling

[…] Women and children follow after the hunters. In these regions, dogs are scarce. Should one of these dogs die, it’s considered a great calamity.

Then they proceed with the hunt, but the camera remains centered on the activities of the men or the wild animals they’re attempting to capture. Despite the narrative build-up, it’s disappointing how little the dogs actually appear to participate. I hope this doesn’t mean they were shut out of their share of the meat that is finally procured, otherwise I imagine they’ll really have offended the sacred dogs…

The man in front is leading a dog on a rope, walking just outside of the frame.

This probably was a fantastic anthropological feature for its time, preceding the lurid excesses of Mondo Cane and the technical advancements of National Geographic documentaries. I particularly appreciate the sound design, as several sequences masterfully blended environmental ambiance with the rhythmic chants of group dancers to most hypnotic effect. However, nobody bothered to clean up the print for this DVD release, which robs this document of much of its potential richness. Along with the frustrating obstructions that ruined every shot with a dog (believe me, I tried hard to get some clear screen captures but there was very little worth presenting), there’s precious little to see in this film. And if a film is unwatchable, then half the medium’s power has gone to waste…

So is this a dog film? No, not at all. And now that I’ve watched the whole thing, I can attest that anyone who’s hoping for just a glimpse of vintage native Basenji in action won’t find it here. But I was misled by other online summaries, and had to watch the whole thing before I could report my letdown. You need not make the same mistake.

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