Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature (2003)
By: Stuart Giesel on July 8, 2013 | Comments
Blue Underground | Region 1, NTSC | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 1.0 | 341 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Directors: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi, David Gregory
Starring: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
Screenplay: Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
Country: Italy, USA
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A good documentary can engage, inform and thrill, even when the subject matter is decidedly unsavoury (just check out Capturing the Friedmans if you don't believe me). Blue Underground's Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature three-disc DVD set contains three documentaries that capture some of the absolute worst of humanity, but they're unmissable if you're even faintly interested in the subject matter.

In the early 60's, documentary filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi, along with Paolo Cavara, set out to achieve something different in the medium: capture the weird, the cruel, the freakish and the perverse in unflinching, unsparing detail. What they created in Mondo Cane was probably the world's first "shockumentary". Audiences flocked to it, presumably relishing in the film's lurid and grotesque content. It showed western audiences things they couldn't even dream of, and the film made an absolute mint. Soon after a bunch of rip-offs flooded the market, and everything became Mondo this and Mondo that. The term mondo came to signify any documentary with shocking or bizarre content, despite the fact that mondo actually means "very" or "extremely".

After the success of Mondo Cane, the filmmakers travelled to Africa during a period of extreme upheaval and unrest for their 1966 follow-up Africa Addio (also charmingly and a little misleadingly titled Africa Blood & Guts in the Western versions). Jacopetti and Prosperi captured a continent in sudden and often violent transition from European to native rule. As we watch the Europeans depart the various colonies, leaving African political leaders, rebels, warlords, poachers and mercenaries to fight it out, we are witness to many horrifying scenes of brutality exacted against both animal and man with callous indifference. The filmmakers claim that all footage in Africa Addio is real, that nothing had been staged. If so, this is certainly an eye-opener; at one point we clearly see Jacopetti and Prosperi taken out of their taxi ready to be executed by rebel soldiers in the street, and according to their commentary in The Godfathers of Mondo the only thing that saved them was that they were able to confirm that they were Italians, not Englishmen. Other journalists end up being not so lucky, and there are numerous scenes that prove the balance between life and death is a precarious one for many people - luckily for Jacopetti and Prosperi they are able to get around in a helicopter, which makes for some great (and occasionally disturbing) footage. Africa Addio's most controversial moment takes place near the end of the film, which resulted in critics accusing the directors of staging an execution for the purposes of the documentary - i.e. essentially creating a snuff film.

Despite its controversial elements and vitriolic backlash from some reviewers, Africa Addio was another hit for the directors. You'd think after all that arduous and risky filming that the pair would tone it down for their next film, but they certainly didn't shy away from controversy for their next project, in which they would tackle the delicate subject of American slavery. Of course, there would be no filmed archive material from the period available to them, so they set about recreating the American south, essentially making a "pseudo-documentary" where actors would play figures from the time period, provide narration and respond to questions in character as if a documentarian was right there filming them in the pre-Civil War era. Goodbye Uncle Tom (or Addio Zio Tom as it is known in its original Italian title) is a plotless exploration of the relationship between master and slave, the horrific treatment that slaves had to endure and the brutal and dehumanising nature of the slave trade in general.

The third film in the set is the documentary The Godfathers of Mondo, covering Jacopetti and Prosperi's careers, the filming of Mondo Cane and its subsequent success, their dislike of the copycat films that followed, the dangers of filming Africa Addio and the controversy surrounding Goodbye Uncle Tom. Of great interest is their eventual falling-out, and how the two men were never able to patch things up between them.

Both Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom greatly benefit from superb cinematography. There are shots in both films - primarily Africa Addio - that are truly staggering, and would have looked sublime on the big screen. Tonally, Africa Addio is all over the place. It tries to capture a slice of life in various African countries as the Europeans leave and the locals deal with the chaotic fallout, but the obnoxious and occasionally condescending narrator (at least, in the English-language version) is off-putting at best. The English voice-overs range from adequate to downright silly. Fortunately, Riz Ortolani's score is equally as strong as the visuals, and you're so swept up in (and in many cases, sickened by) the events that the narrative doesn't end up mattering as much as it probably should have.

Be warned: Africa Addio (or, more specifically, the Westernised version Africa: Blood & Guts as presented in this set) contains some absolutely despicable and revolting scenes of animal slaughter, equally as or even more upsetting than the most notorious scenes in Cannibal Holocaust. And the violence enacted against people is pretty horrifying as well, although we're mostly witness to the aftermath of violence rather than the acts themselves. Life is cheap in the African continent, a point that the film makes time and time again as factions war against one another, tyrants try to seize and maintain power and the formerly majestic wildlife preserves shrink to nothing as borders are reshaped and animals are slaughtered by the tens of thousands, ivory and other parts poached and the rest left to rot. Africa Addio wants to elicit an emotional, rather than intellectual, response from the viewer, and in this way it succeeds marvellously. As a document of this destabilising transition period, the film lacks a certain something, though that's not due to its unflinching eye. Rather, it's probably because we're seeing a snapshot of life here and a snapshot there without fully understanding the big picture, something that a more traditional documentary would have addressed. Apparently the version we get here, Africa: Blood & Guts, has kept all the nasty footage from Africa Addio but cut out some of the commentary and background material which would have helped put all this brutality into some sort of context. Without it, all we get is exploitation masquerading as a noble attempt at documenting reality. Don't get me wrong, what the filmmakers have achieved - apparently at great personal risk at times - is laudable. It just feels like we got the grubby, streamlined version of Africa Addio because all we Westerners care about is the violence and gore and killing. Perhaps that's true.

The obviously fake footage of Goodbye Uncle Tom helps to sanitise the horrific goings-on, but only a fraction, because we know what we're seeing is just some of what African slaves had to endure. The film takes pains to demonstrate that whippings, beatings, branding, rape, lynching and other horrors were a part of everyday life for a lot of slaves, that as well as the ongoing psychological torment and mental abuse. As the white actors ham it up in front of the camera, African men, women and children are stripped, graded, priced, sold, born, killed, punished and made to work for their masters until death. But it has a similar problem as that of Africa Addio - it wants to titillate with shocking footage, but admonish you at the same time. Goodbye Uncle Tom undoubtedly has good intentions with wanting to show us the suffering that slaves had to endure in this period, but it also feels like it's relishing in the depravity at the same time. And Goodbye Uncle Tom doesn't shy away from some particularly strong stuff, including a prolonged rape, a slave having his teeth knocked out and a castration scene. This is as un-PC as you can get.

The gorgeous cinematography, along with the strong set design and costuming, sell the period beautifully. But it's hard not to get past the niggling feeling that this is merely exploitation in a frilly costume, particularly by the end when we get a modernised reenactment of Nat Turner's bloody rebellion, presumably to try to illustrate that even now (or, at least, in the time that the film was completed, 1971) African-Americans are still suffering despite slavery's abolishment. As part of this reenactment we are treated to the charming sight of a man smashing an infant's head against the wall in a spurt of crimson. The gore is ridiculously fake in these scenes of violent retribution, but it's still unpleasant to say the least.

Free from much of the graphic nature of Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom, The Godfathers of Mondo documentary is able to delve into the psyche of its protagonists and not rely on lurid, shocking content to maintain interest. The directors maintain pride in their creations, but at least possess enough awareness to be able to admit to the films' shortcomings. Their answers are informative and candid, and you can't help but feel disappointed by the end that Jacopetti and Prosperi weren't able to rebuild their friendship, or at least their professional relationship, to make more documentaries together after Uncle Tom.

Ultimately this three-movie set is a steal for anyone interested in the "mondo" series of films or Jacopetti or Prosperi's careers in particular. It's hard to recommend to general viewers considering the strong nature of the material, but if you're interested in the particular history behind either or both of the two films you'll probably appreciate and admire, if not love, what's been captured by these groundbreaking Italian filmmakers.
The Disc
As mentioned, the cinematography in both Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom is superior, and the anamorphic DVD transfer is about as good as you would expect for standard def -- I await a high-def release with baited breath. Still, Blue Underground has done a great job here. The mono audio tracks are satisfactory, Ortolani's music comes through loud and clear, but the dodgy English dubbing and cheesy voices in Africa Addio - and parts of Uncle Tom - detract from the experience.

Africa Addio's extras amount to a Theatrical Trailer, TV Spot, Poster and Still Gallery and U.S. Press Book. Nothing much to write home about here. Goodbye Uncle Tom gets a Theatrical Trailer, two Poster and Still Galleries and nearly an hour of 8mm Behind-The-Scenes Footage with audio commentary by second unit director Giampaolo Lomi. And there are no features on the third disc, The Godfathers of Mondo.

Probably the biggest disappointment is that we're only given the Westernised version of Africa Addio in Africa: Blood & Guts, which apparently excises some of the supporting material that makes the original film somewhat less unsavoury. Shorn of more contextualised material makes Blood & Guts feel way more exploitative than probably the directors intended. Still, at least we're getting the uncut versions of Africa: Blood & Guts and Goodbye Uncle Tom in the pack, even if they are the English versions only.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Both Africa: Blood & Guts and Goodbye Uncle Tom dish out evocative and stunning cinematography that just happens to feature some extremely disturbing footage - beautiful shots of ugliness, basically. This was to be expected considering the subject material: the upheaval following the end of colonial rule in Africa, and the plight of Africans under American slavery. The Godfathers of Mondo documentary is a good accompaniment to these two features, and provides a satisfying portrait of those filmmakers ballsy enough to bring such inflammatory material to the big screen. As a whole, Midnight Movies: Shockumentary Triple Feature is a solid purchase for those with an interest in the material and strong stomachs.
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