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A Sho in the Kalahari desert encounters technology for the first time--in the shape of a Coke bottle. He takes it back to his people, and they use it for many tasks. The people start to fight over it, so he decides to return it to the God--where he thinks it came from. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a school teacher assigned to a small village, a despotic revolutionary, and a clumsy biologist. Written by
Colin Tinto <firstname.lastname@example.org>
N!xau was paid less than $2000 for his role as Xi, even though the film grossed over $100 million worldwide. Before his death in 1996, Jamie Uys supplemented this with an additional $20,000 as well as a monthly stipend See more »
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I've probably seen this film five or six times over the years, from its initial U.S. "art-house" run in the late 1980s (I can still vividly remember my experience seeing it in the Coconut Grove theater near where I was going to university) to last night. It's been one of my most consistent 10s. Although my ratings tend to fluctuate on multiple viewings for many films, I don't believe that I've ever thought The Gods Must be Crazy was lower than a 10.
The film works so well because of its odd confluence of styles, which gradually merge. You could almost say the structure is Hegelian, with a thesis, two antitheses, and something of a synthesis at the end. The common thread throughout is a very tongue-in-cheek critique, in the mode of a parable, of both culture/society/civilization and views about culture/society/civilization, including politics, religion, mores, and so on.
The film begins with the story of Xixo, or just "Xi" (N!xau, in one of the many spellings of this actor's name) and his fellow bushmen, who live in the Kalahari Desert. A narrator (Paddy O'Byrne) tells us about their lifestyle. Before long, this is contrasted with footage of life in the big city in Johannesburg. The narration continues with the same tone, as if we're unfamiliar with modern, western culture. We meet Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), who is getting fed up with her white-collar existence. We move back to the bushmen. A man in a passing small aircraft nonchalantly tosses a Coke bottle out the window. It lands close to Xi, who has never seen anything like it before. Eventually it causes all kinds of problems and Xi tries to get rid of it. We are also introduced to a thread about Sam Boga (Louw Verwey), who is leading rebels in Burundi. We see them try to assassinate the President. After this, they're pursued by the Burundian military. Meanwhile, Kate has decided to go to Botswana to be a teacher, and there she meets Andrew Styne (Marius Weyers). Eventually, all of these threads come together.
The plot may sound like a mess, and it probably would be under lesser hands, but producer/writer/editor/director Jamie Uys keeps the disparate threads remarkably focused and coherent. His timing for each and for the transitions between threads is impeccable, and the way they move together is nothing short of ingenious.
There has been no shortage of ink spilled in (often-negative) criticism of The Gods Must be Crazy. Unfortunately, a lot of the criticism is ridiculous and profoundly misconceived. Many see the film as racist. A lot of people who can't comprehend the fact/fiction distinction have criticized the film for inaccurate portrayals of bushmen and other characters. Uys' humor and social critiques are frequently misunderstood.
It's significant that O'Byrne's narrative tone is very similar to Peter Jones' narrative tone for "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy". Whether this was a direct influence on Uys is not as important as the contextual clues it provides (the Hitchhiker's Guide mini-series featuring Jones was not completed until 1981, but the BBC radio show, which was the original format for Hitchhiker's Guide and which also featured Jones' narration, aired in 1978). The narration is extremely tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic. Uys is spoofing bushmen, civilization, and also some of the misconceptions about bushmen. The narration is also meant as a kind of distancing technique. Modern western civilization is explained to us as if we're aliens learning about this world.
This is all in service of a much more serious, different kind of point. The bushmen are shown as they are to enable a Lord of the Flies (1963 & 1990, based on William Golding's 1954 book)-like examination of civilization. The bushmen are the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies in their initial shipwrecked state. The Coke bottle symbolizes the entrance of civilization in that "virgin" culture, and we see the havoc the new concepts cause. The Johannesburg and Burundi material both exist in the film to give us a "flash forward" to what that introduction of civilization can lead to. In the case of Burundi, it's a direct extension of the fighting over possessions, including land. In the case of Johannesburg, it's a spiraling web of miserableness. It's not a coincidence that the bushmen learn both violence and unhappiness when civilization appears, and it's not an accident that we initially examine these things from an "alien" perspective. Uys wants us to look at where we stand as a civilization and reassess it--an especially poignant message coming from a South African in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Don't forget that Xi is a hero here--he's the most authentic character in the film, and he's the one who enables the resolution of the dilemma in the climax.
The material in Botswana, especially as the threads merge, suggests a kind of solution, a kind of balance, although it's significant that the solution is far from perfect, and to an extent, parties go their separate ways again. Uys seems to be saying that even if there is a solution to civilization's woes, it's going to be complex and probably less than perfect.
Easing up on the analysis for a minute, all you may need to know is that The Gods Must be Crazy is a very funny but poignant film. The humor ranges from subtle and intellectual to crazy slapstick (especially whenever Weyers is around--he's very gifted at slapstick). Uys delivers beautifully filmed exotic locations, a maybe surprising amount of violence in the Sam Boga segments (although somewhat cartoonish and funny violence--these segments often resemble Woody Allen's 1971 film, Bananas), a lot of adventure, a fair amount of suspense, and even a charming romance.
Do not let the ridiculous, negative ideological criticism dissuade you. This is a classic--a masterpiece--that presents both surface entertainment and complex, "deep" themes and subtexts. If you haven't seen it yet you must.
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