Look Out, It’s Real!: J.G. Ballard on Mondo Cinema and the 1960s

By Mark Goodall

mondo-cane-gualtiero-jacopetti.jpgMondo Cane, 1962

Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool is one of the most powerful films made during the momentous socio-political and cultural upheavals of 1968. The film documents the events of the US primary elections in Chicago where protests against the Vietnam War were violently quashed by the National Guard. Wexler’s documentary technique was seen to be revolutionary: mixing fiction and non-fiction. Wexler, by his own admission, tried to “get deeper into the true reality of the scene by playing with what you might call reality”. Yet Medium Cool copied a technique that had been invented earlier by the Italian cinejournalist team of Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi.

Their 1963 film Mondo Cane caused a sensation with its compilation of bizarre global rituals; rituals that were both sacred and profane (in one scene the protagonist of Medium Cool discusses the ethics of Mondo Cane with his girlfriend). In Mondo Cane the weird practices of ‘primitive’ tribal peoples were supplemented by sequences where the exotic rituals of the ‘civilized’ world were laid – quite literally – bare. Mondo accounts of the evil underbelly of the 1960s became pervasive. Even Claude Lelouch, a member of the Godard team that closed the 1968 Cannes film festival, made his own mondo feature.

The author J.G. Ballard recognises the importance of mondo films. In his avant-garde classic The Atrocity Exhibition he acknowledges the influence of the mondo film, notably its style and its combinations of the real and the faked (“Zooms for some new Jacopetti, the elegant declensions of serialised violence” he wrote). For Ballard, mondo cinema exemplified the violence and death of late twentieth century life and the public fascination with, and complicity in, that darkness. Sequences of the ritual suicide of Buddhist monks – familiar from still photographs but not seen ‘moving’– are one of the most haunting examples. Later, Jacopetti and Prosperi made Goodbye Uncle Tom, a reinvention of the atrocities of the American slave trade where the words of poets of 1968 like LeRoi Jones were adapted into coruscating psychedelic explosions of shock cinema.

Documentaries of all kinds have ‘learned’ from mondo cinema. The world of corrupt images prefigured in Ballard’s writing has arrived: modern life is like a mondo film. There is a moment at the end of Medium Cool where a sound recordist shouts (as the crowd are tear-gassed): “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” It turns out that this was faked too. As the following interview reveals, J.G. Ballard knows that while truth is stranger than fiction, syntheses of both are even more effective.

mondo-cane-gualtiero-jacopetti-2.jpgMondo Cane, 1962

Mark Goodall: What were your initial impressions of the films of Gualtiero Jacopetti (Mondo Cane, Mondo Cane 2, Women of the World, Africa Addio etc.); where did you see them; what was the audience like?

J.G. Ballard: I was a great admirer of Mondo Cane and the two sequels, but if I remember they became more and more faked, though that was part of their charm. We, the 1960s audiences, needed the real and authentic (executions, flagellant’s processions, autopsies etc.) and it didn’t matter if they were faked - a more or less convincing simulation of the real was enough and even preferred. Also, the more tacky and obviously exploitative style appealed to an audience just waiting to be corrupted - the Vietnam newsreels on TV were authentically real, but that wasn’t “real” enough. Jacopetti filled an important gap in all sorts of ways – game playing was coming in. Also they were quite stylistically made – good photography – unlike some of the ghastly compilation atrocity footage I’ve been sent. It is lovely to think that he had his retrospective in a British university [1] (as in Atrocity Exhibition, which is not set in the US, as some think).

I saw all of them from 1964 or so onwards – they were shown in small cinemas in the West End, and to full or more-or-less full houses, and my impression is that the audiences completely got the “point”. As far as I remember, the response of the people sitting around me was strong and positive. I think there was comparatively little sex in the first Mondo Cane, and I can’t recall even one dirty raincoat. The audience was the usual crew of rootless inner Londoners (the best audience in the world) drawn to an intriguing new phenomenon. At the time, some twenty years had gone by since the war’s end, and everyone had seen the World War Two newsreels – Belsen, corpses being bulldozed, dead Japanese on Pacific Islands and so on. All grimly real, but safely distanced from the audiences by a sign that said “horrors of war”.

mondo-cane-gualtiero-jacopetti-3.jpgMondo Cane, 1962

What the Mondo Cane audiences wanted was the horrors of peace, yes, but they also wanted to be reminded of their own complicity in the slightly dubious process of documenting these wayward examples of human misbehavior. I may be wrong, but I think that the early Mondo Cane films concentrated on bizarre customs rather than horrors, though the gruesome content grew fairly rapidly, certainly in the imitator’s films. But the audiences were fully aware that they were collaborating with the films, and this explains why they weren’t upset when what seemed to be faked sequences (they might have been real in fact) started to appear in the later films – there was almost the sense that they needed to appear “faked” to underline the audience’s awareness of what was going on – both on screen and inside their own heads. We needed violence and violent imagery to drive the social (and political) revolution taking place in the mid 1960s – violence and sensation, more or less openly embraced, were pulling down the old temples. We needed our “tastes” to be corrupted – Jacopetti’s films were part of an elective psychopathy that would change the world (so we hoped, naively).

Incidentally, all this was missing from the way audiences (in the Curzon cinema I think) saw another 1960s shockumentary – The Savage Eye (directed by Joseph Strick) – when I saw it I, like the rest of the audience, shuddered but felt no complicity at all. A fine film.

MG: Can you recall any other critical or ‘professional’ reactions to Jacopetti’s films when they were released?

JGB: If I remember, the critical / respectable reaction to the Jacopetti films was uniformly hostile and dismissive. As always, this confirmed their originality and importance.

MG: Jacopetti has distanced himself from the films that later copied Mondo Cane, labeling them “counterfeit”. What were/are your impressions of the filmic imitations of his work?

JGB: I can’t remember any specific imitations, though I must have seen one or two. They were too obvious, ignoring the delicate balance between “documentary” footage on the one hand, and on the other the need to remind the audience of its role in watching the films and that, without its intrigued response, the films wouldn’t function at all. The balance between the “real” and the ironic simulation of the real had to be walked like a tightrope.


MG: How did mondo films influence your own work/ideas/thought processes (in particular The Atrocity Exhibition)?

JGB: For me, the Mondo Cane films were an important key to what was going on in the media landscape of the 1960s, especially after the JFK assassination. Nothing was true, and nothing was untrue (The Atrocity Exhibition tried to find a new sense in what had become a kind of morally virtual world) – “which lies are true?” I think that Jacopetti opened a door into what some call postmodernism and I call boredom. Screen the JFK assassination enough times and the audience will laugh.

MG: What in your view was important about Jacopetti’s films? Do you think the films have any relevance to the present day, or to the future?  

JGB: I suspect they’re very much of their time, but that isn’t a fault, necessarily. However, there are many resonances today as in the Bush/Blair war in Iraq – with complete confusion of the simulated, the real and the unreal, and the acceptance of this by the electorate. Reality is constantly redefining itself, and the electorate / audience seems to like this – a Prime Minister, religiously sincere, lies to himself and we accept his self-delusions. There’s a strong sense today that we prefer a partly fictionalised reality onto which we can map our own dreams and obsessions. The Mondo Cane films were among the first attempts to provide the collusive fictions that constitute reality today. Wartime propaganda, and the Believe It or Not (Ripley) comic strip of bizarre facts in the 1930s were assumed to be largely true, but no one today thinks the same of the official information flowing out of Iraq – or out of 10 Downing Street and the Pentagon – and significantly this doesn’t unsettle us.


[1] A Gualtiero Jacopetti retrospective, curated by Mark Goodall, occurred as part of the 2003 Bradford International Film Festival.

Goodbye Uncle Tom is being screened at London’s BFI Southbank on 19th April. For details visit www.bfi.org.uk

Mark Goodall is a lecturer in media communications at the University of Bradford. He is the author of Sweet and Savage: the World Through the Shockumentary Film Lens (Headpress).