BBC Four is about to air The History Channel’s remake of Roots, the 1970s American television miniseries based on Alex Hailey’s bestselling novel of the same name which caused a stir for its unflinching portrayal of the transatlantic slave trade. The original remains one of the most watched television series of all time. Returning to our screens after 40 years this new adaptation draws from the original series but also numerous more recent films about slavery in America, such as Birth of a Nation, 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained.
While much has been said about these acclaimed, Oscar-winning films’ honest brutality and their willingness not to shrink from the horrors of slavery, their unflinching stance owes a debt to a series of much less reputable films from an earlier era: the European “mondo” films, the “shockumentaries” which in their day also caused a stir.
Mondo is a genre invented by a team of Italians: journalist Gualtiero Jacopetti, marine biologist Franco Prosperi, and TV film director Paolo Cavara. The first of its kind was the 1962 film Mondo Cane, a Tuscan colloquialism that translates roughly as “it’s a dog’s life”. At the time, documentary films were serious, factual, respectful and (most importantly) black and white. Mondo Cane, on the other hand, was based on Jacopetti’s sensationalist independent newsreel, with rapid-fire editing and mocking narration that was far from the more conventional, sedate, state and church-sponsored reels of the era.
Mondo Cane took the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of weird rituals and practices from around the word, presented in glorious Technicolor and accompanied by Jacopetti’s sneering narration and a lush score by composer Riz Ortolani. It took box offices by storm, along the way offending nearly every film critic of the day – an exception was the novelist JG Ballard who loved Mondo Cane and the Jacopetti aesthetic, working it into his anti-narrative classic novel The Atrocity Exhibition.
Ballard noticed what the intelligentsia failed to see: the mondo methodology was symptomatic of a growing obsession with death and mutilation as glossy entertainment. “Screen the JFK assassination enough times and people will laugh,” he told me when I discussed the Jacopetti films with him. It was the moral relativism of the films, where “civilised wrongs” (the absurdities of Western culture) were as much in evidence as “primitive rites” that confused and angered the critical establishment of the day.
Jacopetti and Prosperi’s subsequent film, Africa Addio (“Goodbye Africa”, also known as “Africa Blood and Guts” and “Farewell Africa”) focused on the harrowing dimensions of the post-war decolonisation of Sub-Saharan Africa and the civil and independence wars fought there and was even more controversial, leading to a debate at the United Nations and accusations in Italy that they had colluded in genocide.
But it was the duo’s next film – Addio Zio Tom (“Goodbye Uncle Tom”) – that connects with contemporary portrayals of slavery. Addio Zio Tom pushed the mondo envelope as far as it could go: a dramatised pseudo-documentary in the style of Peter Watkins, whose nuclear war masterpiece The War Game was deemed sufficiently harrowing that it was 20 years before the BBC would release it.
In Addio Zio Tom, Jacopetti and Prosperi land by helicopter in the American deep south, cine-journalists on the lookout for a scoop. What they find and document are the stomach-churning perversions of the slave trade, from the deadly shipments of Africans to the “New World”, to human stud farms by way of what can only be described as the continuous sexual exploitation of the African body by jaded and evil whites. The point-of-view camera brings us uneasily close to the sensations of both the exploited and the exploiter. It sounds gross, yet as with all Jacopetti and Prosperi’s work it poses a moral conundrum.
The coda of the film features a wild and psychedelic retelling of the Confessions of Nat Turner (the same text adapted in Birth of Nation). But in this version the setting is late 1960s America, where black consciousness and the Black Panthers are gathering pace. The horrific revenge violence of the finale to the film was intended to express the African-American anger that had simmered since the 18th century and boiled over in the urban America of the 20th century. Never has John Grierson’s definition of documentary film as the “creative treatment of actuality” been so severely contorted and stretched.
Each of Birth of a Nation, 12 Years a Slave, and Django Unchained owe a debt of sorts to the mondo sleaze aesthetic, be it in depicting the sadism of the white plantation owners, or the framing of those sumptuous colonial white mansions stained with blood. Humans are pushed around like animals and dragged along on leads. We witness the dangerously repressed sexuality and stomach-churning violence of the slave trade, not to mention the cruelty that can exist within all violent rebellions against such brutality.
The mondo film, for all its faults, encapsulates our tangled responses to the darkest moments of our collective history. For that reason the modern rendition of Roots will consciously or subconsciously – perhaps even grudgingly – owe Jacopetti and Prosperi a debt of gratitude.