Africa Ama (1971)

Africa Ama (1971)

The Castiglioni Twins are when mondo movies take a dark turn. Suddenly these movies began to focus on the intense taboo-adrenaline of seeing sexual and/or violent imagery to its grotesque limits. Unlike the mondo movie of a decade earlier, the Castiglioni's shifted the genre from allure to repulsion. This is why they're key figures in the development of shockumentary cinema.

Africa Ama is advertised as a taboo / forbidden look into the sex rites of African tribes. The English poster clearly states, "Not for the squeamish!" & "WARNING!" & "ADULTS ONLY."

 The giant list of "SEE!" 's so typical to the poster of a mondo movie, here seems to be explicitly focused on the sexual extremes of these tribal people (as seen from Western, colonizing eyes) :: 

SEE - Primitive Surgical Operations for Female Pleasure

SEE - Savage Initiation of Adolescent Virgins

SEE - Bestial Fertility Rites of Bassari

SEE - The Male Prostitutes of Mandala

SEE - Strange Sexual Customs of the Jungle


I'm not going to get into a long defense of why I think this is fundamentally horrible, or how the perspective is obviously fucked, or what it even means to capitalize on such brutal stereotyping, and etc etc etc ... I wouldn't make this movie, I wouldn't watch this movie for fun. 

However, here it is. It's my belief that shockumentary cinema is the operative mode of media in the 21st Century, and possible all of cinema. And yet it's roots go largely ignored.

Africa Ama is a total displeasure to watch... yet, that's sort of the point. I'm not sure who the audience for this would be exactly. In Miami, there's a few small theaters that play some movies like this. When I interview the theater owner about who comes to these kind of movies, he'd describe the screenings as being mostly empty with a few "weirdos" sitting glassy-eyed in front of the screen. He said they'd sit there, watch the movie, not interact much, then leave.

So, perhaps fifty years ago the case was similar with this era of mondo

The local weirdos would come see Africa Ama, or Mondo Magic, or Shocking Africa, then slink away when the theater turns on the light. I have no idea. 

But I just saw the movie & did not enjoy it. I'm watching it for academic reasons, and even then it's yuck. Even the Italian narration is harsh, which just adds to the overall displeasure. But I think that's the point...

The movie sells a spectacle of extreme "real" life. The spectacle isn't neutral, however. It humiliates African people (through the continuing depiction of their pain or vulnerability); it titillates with pure adrenaline (images of sex & violence); and it reinforces stereotypes + beliefs about one's own culture & the exotic culture depicted. 

This is a powerful cocktail of emotions served in the 70's era Castiglioni-style mondo films.


Of course, this is actually an intensification of the exotic exploitation films of the 1930's, movies like Ingagi & Gow Forbidden Adventure. 

If anything, Jacopetti & Prosperi paused the 50+ year development of the shockumentary form, and mastered it. They exalted & heightened true taboo+forbidden spectacle with films like Mondo Cane & Africa Addio. So, all throughout the 1960's, in the intoxication of their mastery, replicators tried to re-figure out the formula to shockumentary cinema.

Racist ethnography would no longer do. This is the era of free love & social justice, after all. So tits stayed front & center, but it they were mostly the tits next door. The exotic locations changed from disadvantaged ethnographic tribes to all around the world, as if a cheaper (and safer) plane ticket to a new country... an obvious extension of the new & booming airline industry. 

But after a while, the social climate changes... and the form slowly returns to its roots: a capitalistic, imperialist carnival of extreme documentary footage. 


Every few minutes, there was a new intensely gross thing: A child's circumcision, a close-up of teeth removal using rocks, a woman giving birth, extreme piercings in the neck & face, animals being slaughtered, people drinking the pouring blood of the animal, a girl being penetrated by a shaman with the village dildo to see if she's a virgin... etc etc etc

A lot of "AH!" & wincing was going on. The feeling is one of an assault of extreme imagery. The visceral reactions is coupled (& differentiated) by the knowledge of the footage's authenticity.

And in the case of the Castiglioni Twins, the footage appears to be (for the most part) authentic. Nothing looks staged in the traditional sense. Perhaps they instigated for certain things to play out in front of the camera, and perhaps they staged the actual ceremonies in terms of how they look & unfold... but as far as I can see with my eyes, nothing in the movie looks totally fake. (More research would need to be conducted on this subject).

The obvious fake MONDO aspect to Africa Ama lies, interestingly, in the sound. It's as if they went out into Africa with no sound person at all. They filmed their extreme footage, basically, 100% MOS... and dubbed the entire fuckin' thing in the studio!

If you think about it... it's kind of insane. Like... I don't think I'd ever do that willingly (unless I have to!) Because, c'mon... Think about it. The spectacle relies on intuitive knowledge of the footage's authenticity. The sound, however, is like a loophole around this.

Obviously, they made this choice either because they could not afford to record sound on the field, or if they did it probably sounded horrible. So, at minimum, one could conclude that the next generation of shockumentary cinema will offer original crystal-clear novel sounds recorded on the field of taboo & forbidden spectacle... No dubbing, no ADR.

Sound is heard & not seen. Therefore, in theory it could be faked without ruining the visceral reaction of the footage itself. But sound is required to elicit strong emotions. So these Italian twins just faked the sound (probably in an Italian movie studio...)

But by faking the entire soundtrack, they essentially strip their film of a vital layer of authenticity. Meaning, Africa Ama is fundamentally false.

Movies are only motion pictures & synchronized sound. If the motion picture is "authentic," but the sound is forged... Is the documentary still real? 

So, why do we still watch?

Human voyeurism is a powerful drive. We all have it. Each one of us experiences this. How it manifests, however, may be different. But it is a universal drive.

Voyeurism is universal because it is linked to our genetic framework. 

We crave stimulation & knowing what is going on around us, and we cannot refrain from looking at disasters or accidents. In fact, we are drawn to being downright nosy, as it is built into our genetic disposition. On some level, we must all be voyeurs, as knowing what is going on surrounding us has survival value.
— Michael S. Levy PhD
africa ama 5.jpg

Being a voyeur helps us survive. We stick our noses into situations to see if we should be genuinely concerned about the thing, or to extract value from the thing observed. 

But this drive gets warped in the dimension of illusion & spectacle.

Obviously, the things on the screen are not true dangers... the buxom women dancing in a row are not actual potential mates. It's all a fantasy. But our brains can not tell the difference. This the source of our adrenaline when watching movies: We sense what we're seeing is genuinely experienced, although we rationally know it is just a stationary picture-play. 

And so we are captivated as voyeurs in front of the movie screen. We see things we should fear in real life, drawn toward it (or naturally repulsed) but never truly afraid... never running for your life. Likewise, we see bare-chested women seductively batting their eyelashes, and yet nobody leaps to the screen to make true love to the image... This voyeurism dawns from helping us physically survive for over a million years, but in this case it's helping us survive psychologically... Not as real-world data, but as distraction.

The distraction function of voyeurism is moderated by deep breaths & active rationalizations. Yet, the immediate allure of the imagery sits on an ancient animal foundation. Both extremes of human experience are activated when confronted with the imagery of Africa Ama: heights of thought, depths of instinct... It's a weird sensation (not exploited intelligently by the Castiglionis).

castiglioni mondo 2.jpg

So, this is why voyeurism is a universal in entertainment.

But with the exotic exploitation films of the 1930's & the mondo movies of the 1970's, there's another function of voyeurism at work...

It's known in psychology as "downward social comparison." 

Downward social comparison is a theory that suggests that when people compare themselves to others who are less fortunate than they are, this can help them feel more positive about their own lives... So we see that reading about others’ hardship, misery, & tragedy helps us feel better about our own lives. We are essentially saying that if they have problems, then perhaps our lives aren’t so bad after all... We compare ourselves to them, and particularly when their lives are filled with significant tribulation, it helps us feel more satisfied about our own lives.
— Michael S. Levy PhD
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