The most successful South African film in history, Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy is a lot of things- clever, ridiculous, offensive, insightful, funny- but most of all, its like no other film out there, which is the best reason to watch it. An idiosyncratic combination of anthropological documentary and old-fashioned slapstick comedy, Gods is an all-ages and totally fictional takedown of modern life and the social customs and values White People have foolishly embraced.
Despite the authoritative narrator and the seemingly-realistic footage of African Bushmen, Gods is completely fake- though, like any great parody or satire, it completely passed itself off as real with audiences worldwide when it was released. It starts off like a classic PBS documentary, dryly introducing us to the world of the San, a nomadic and truly egalitarian African tribe that knows nothing of ownership or money… until one day from the sky, a gift from the Gods arrives.
Suffice to say, our protagonist, Xi, must go on a quest that takes him into the sphere of the White Man and all his silly modern trappings, hooking up along the way with a well-meaning biologist named Steyn who tried to help him out. Hilarity ensues, and though a lot of that hilarity comes in the form of sophomoric gags like fast-motion keystone-cop-style antics and Jerry Lewis-like bumbling, the whole thing somehow ends up quite charming and hilarious.
Not so charming, depending on your level of 21st Century offensiveness, is the obvious- first, the complete lack of awareness of any racial issues and inequalities between Black and White in South Africa (this film is from 1980, after all, while apartheid was still alive and well.) It’s also quite patronizing, treating the indigenous Africans as cute and innocent simpletons (even if that simplicity is also their secret to true happiness) which perpetuates that classic British colonial attitude. But the criticism is unfair, in a way- the film is clearly parodying a particular film genre in order to portray European life as actually more backwards than anything one could say about the San. For 1980, the film is actually quite woke.
Which makes it, quite simply, “of its time.” But even with that disclaimer, The Gods Must Be Crazy is a unique beast with a poignant message that rings even truer today: we have long forgotten how to be happy, and all the modern inventions we’ve created for ourselves only push us further away. Thankfully, we have an indigenous tribe around to remind us of everything we’ve forgotten… even if the whole thing is absurdly unreal.
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