Volume 3, Number 3, Summer, 1985

Film: The Real Thing

The Gods Must Be Crazy

written, produced, and directed by Jamie Uys

starring N!xau Ç‚Toma. Released by 20th Century Fox
Reviewed by JOHN AHRENS


JAMIE UYS HAS PRODUCED ONE OF THE most original movies I've seen in years. The plot is a variation on the quest, and the knight-errant is an African Bushman named Ky. One day, a careless pilot tosses an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. It falls unbroken, near the campsite of Ky's family group. Since Ky's people have never had any contact with white people or civilization, they have no way of recognizing airplanes or Coke bottles as artifacts. They assume that it must be a gift from the gods.

The usefulness of the Coke bottle lends credibility to this assumption. The Bushmen live in an environment devoid of stone, in which the hardest substances are wood and bone. The bottle is smooth and very solid, and water will not leak out of it. It becomes the most prized tool of Ky's family.

But, as so often happens, the tool which is not understood becomes an instrument of loss rather than gain. The Coke bottle is the Bushman's first experience of something unique; there is only one and, thus, the family cannot share it as they do all other things. Soon, the family is torn by selfishness, the desire for ownership, and even violence (all of which are almost nonexistent among Bushmen).

All this happens in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie. The next one and a half hours chronicle Ky's journey to the edge of the Earth to dispose of the evil thing. This brings him into contact with "civilized" society, and the results are delightful and enlightening.

It would be easy to go on for pages about the technique displayed in Gods. The first 10 minutes are literally indistinguishable from the travelogs that used to proceed movies, and this gives everything that follows the stamp of certain truth. Uys edits the film to give parts of it the jerky look of old slapstick comedies. And he makes effective use of voiceover narration to comment on the philosophical significance of the action.

The characters are also outstanding. The white microbiologist who helps Ky on his quest is portrayed by a slapstick comedian in the same league with Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, and Lou Costello. The choice of N!xau. a Bushman, to play Ky turns the whole film into a kind of guerilla theater. The problems of communication involved in getting a group of Bushmen to act in a movie. and one to star, were no doubt as funny as the film.

But what makes this movie more than just a very well produced comedy is Jamie Uys's sensitivity to the philosophical ambiguities involved in the interaction of two cultures whose most fundamental concepts are polar opposites. The Bushmen have no concept of ownership, no concept of guilt, and virtually no aggressive impulses (they even make ritual apologies to the animals they kill). Industrial society on the other hand, is anchored in these very concepts and impulses.

If this movie were standard Hollywood fare, one would expect a very superficial treatment of this contrast. Ky's society would likely be portrayed as the paradise that industrial societies have traded for a mess of technological pottage.

But Uys does not do this. Although the Bushmen are depicted as inordinately happy, the harsh and demanding conditions under which they live are not romanticized, and the fragility of their society is evident in the disruption that a mere Coke bottle causes.

Uys's message is much more subtle. Much of the humor in the film arises from one of two sources. First, there is Ky's utter innocence of Western conventions: when the jeep he has (more or less) learned to drive gets stuck in reverse, he has no compunctions' against jumping onto the hood and steering from that more suitable perch; when the policeman who catches Ky poaching takes the whole goat "for himself," Ky merely thinks him rude; and clothes, guns, and criminal trials are thoroughly incomprehensible to Ky.

A second source of considerable humor is a group of communist revolutionaries—the Keystone Kops with class consciousness. They manage to slaughter a good many people, but always by accident and never anyone of real importance to the government.

The underlying problem in both cases is ideology. Ky comes from a very simple environment in which there is very little that needs to be explained. Consequently, his view of the world is quite simple: the gods put only good things on Earth because they care for their children, the Bushmen. Oddly enough this view of things enables Ky to cope quite adequately with the artifacts of technology that he encounters on his quest. These things are new to Ky, different from anything he has ever encountered, but he is not prevented by prejudice from accepting and surviving them.

But he is completely incapable of coping with the mannerly conventions. and laws of industrial society. In his world, there is simply no need for such complex mechanisms to mediate the interaction of one human being with another. The welfare of each individual is so clearly dependent on that of every other individual that a distinction between self and other, or mine and thine, is suspicious. Nothing has prepared Ky to understand such distinctions or the social institutions which embody them.

Just as Ky cannot, the Communist revolutionaries will not understand the complex set of conventions—the ideology—that allows us to create and then live in an industrial society. Like Ky, they have a very simple view of the world: the existing order is evil in all its parts and must be totally annihilated. In quest of this, the revolutionaries flout the manners, conventions, and laws that Ky violates through ignorance.

By thus juxtaposing the quests of Ky and the revolutionaries, Uys offers up a powerful critique of authority and violence. Both Ky and the Communists are on a quest to rid the world of an evil thing—the former, a Coke bottle, and the latter, capitalism. At a deeper level, both are trying to prevent their worlds from changing. We can forgive Ky this futile exercise in Luddism; nothing in his world has prepared him to accept the notion that change is inevitable. But the revolutionaries ought to know better.

Ky succeeds, at least temporarily, but the revolutionaries fail utterly. Ky's tolerant and helpful treatment of others doesn't always keep him out of trouble; but it does ensure that he will have friends to come to his aid.

The Gods Must Be Crazy is not a libertarian movie because it is not an ideological movie. It is much too kindly. We laugh at the failings of Ky, the microbiologists and even the revolutionaries in much the same way that we laugh at the antics of a friend. They are far too human and dear to us to be mere symbols for an arid philosophical theory.

However, Gods embodies a view of the world that libertarians should find quite congenial. Authority is portrayed as anti-progressive, mere Luddism in disguise. Violence is portrayed as thoroughly impotent, a farce that renders any social order—primitive or modern—unviable.

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