Different concepts of sexual beauty and mating rituals find expression in Werner Herzog's HERDSMEN OF THE SUN, a documentary about the Wodaabe, a nomadic tribe that tends its herds in the south Sahara where the borders of Mali, Algeria and Niger meet.
The film opens with intertitles discussing the mysterious origins of the Wodaabe and a note that they consider themselves the most beautiful people on earth. A tracking shot reveals a series of heavily made-up and exotically dressed Wodaabe, seen from the neck up, so that their actual sex is
ambiguous to inexperienced eyes. A few minutes later, when the camera turns to a group of women, we learn that the previous faces were young men; a cluster of male elders are seen in the more familiar turbans and robes associated with North Africa.
The tribal seniors we see greeted with a set of prescribed greetings recalls their history in terms of folk tales, while a more accessible retelling comes from a pair of younger Wodaabe men who lament the loss of herds and the scattering of their tribe during a mid-80s drought. They also recall
the government's failure to relocate them as farmers. Herzog's English-language narration comments on the wives' property rights and the household goods, as his cinematographer, Thomas Weber, inventories the animals and sparse furnishings.
The Wodaabe mating and marriage rituals receive the most attention from Herzog, who details the meticulous preparations by the young men for the events which occur over several days. We are shown how they apply makeup, braid their hair and don various regalia, including ceremonial swords. To
emphasize their height, the men bob up and down, and grin widely and show off the whites of their eyes--all considered marks of beauty. By contrast the women, who pick out their nightly mates, are demure and tend to turn slightly away from the lens. In separate interviews with the men and women,
they are charmingly universal, disclaiming any interest in the current crop of aspirants, speaking abstractly about what they look for and declining to say very much about the individuals they seek to court.
In an aside, Herzog examines the lives of some of the 10,000 Wodaabe who have migrated to regional centers, dirt-road towns with small one-story buildings under the telephone lines. One tribesman, wearing his ceremonial sword, laments the loss of the bush as he walks the street, and we see an
expanse of rubbish through which some of the Wodaabe forage. On an arrid plain, we see scores of households separated by skins or cloths stretched between poles.
In a return to the bush Herzog shows us a marriage betrothal ceremony, an arrangement for prepubescent children to be honored after puberty. There is also a final mating ritual, in which the men must wear similar clothing and makeup to level the playing field. A woman must choose as her mate the
most handsome of the young men, who must also display their riding skills and property. Following the rites, the Wodaabe break up camp and move on. The last image is a dusk-filmed sequence of a lone camel and rider crossing a modern bridge, over much water, a dramatic change from the semi-arid
landcape with which the screen has been filled.
Werner Herzog has had a continuing interest in extreme eccentricities and exotic locations, whether actors under hypnosis, mad adventurers or lone villagers living on the slopes of a volcano. HERDSMEN OF THE SUN successfully links his interest to an informative documentary structure with a few
quirks. There is his use of operatic and romantic music over some of the sequences and a few unanswered questions about tribal structure. For example, what are the responsibilities of other, older men and how are decisions made? Notwithstanding these queries, Herzog's documentary does make us
study his visuals and illustrates the Wodaabe's rituals dramatically, without reducing them to the quaint. (Adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Different concepts of sexual beauty and mating rituals find expression in Werner Herzog's HERDSMEN OF THE SUN, a documentary about the Wodaabe, a nomadic tribe that tends its herds in the south Sahara where the borders of Mali, Algeria and Niger meet. Th… (more)