What do you mean, you never heard of Botswana? It’s an African territory. It’s got the Kalahari Desert. It’s even got a one-man movie industry named Jamie Uys.
This odd little movie was made in 1979 and was already an international success before its premiere in the United States five years later. It became the biggest foreign box office hit in history.
Uys, who wrote, produced, and directed The Gods Must Be Crazy, has concocted a mad farce that defies convention. In theme and structure, the movie has a spirit of its own that resists any ordinary attempt to describe it.
It begins as a documentary with dry, straight-faced narration about a peaceful primitive tribe of tiny bushmen who live in a gracious, simple world, digging for roots and foraging for berries, without any knowledge of crime or violence.
Their tranquillity is suddenly shattered when somebody throws a Coca-Cola bottle out of a plane window and it lands in the middle of their village.
This cursed, troublesome Coke bottle is believed to be a gift from the gods as, at first, it’s a symbol of beauty and usefulness – for carrying water, pounding roots, smoothing out snakeskins and many other uses. But later, the bottle becomes a cause of hate, jealousy, and violence.
The artefact of civilisation disrupts the loving, placid happiness of these tribal innocents, and one brave young native called Xi (a real tribal bushman from the Kalahari named Nixau) is dispatched to return the awful thing to the god that sent it in the first place.
The story is interrupted by Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a flaky microbiologist from a nearby game reserve – a pretty, prim, and very proper girl who is on her way to teach in a mission school in the desert – and a group of murderous revolutionaries – led by Sam Boga (Louw Verwey) – who have just bungled an assassination attempt on the president.
How these disparate elements end up in the same place – and what any of this has to do with the offending Coke bottle – is what this wacky comedy is all about.
The poor bushman thinks the white people he encounters are gods and keeps trying to return the evil Coke bottle. They don’t want the thing. Confusion reigns, while everyone encounters shoot-outs, a rhino that stamps out campfires, and a jeep that drives backward.
The most delightful thing about The Gods Must Be Crazy is the way it undercuts the goofy people it invents with real animals, natives, and nature that surround them. The absurdity of modern life – complete with cars, processed food, and nervous breakdowns – is brilliantly contrasted with the simplicity of the childlike natives. The result is a cross between National Geographic and Mad magazine.
Uys extracts a rich and sincere set of performances from all his actors and keeps a manic energy going from start to finish. Marius Weyers (who plays big-city journalist Andrew Steyn) brings a Buster Keaton-like quality to the film.
The laughs do not come from slick American style comic turns, but from a head-on collision with logic that is refreshingly different.
Nic de Jager