Mondo movie maker Gualtiero Jacopetti has died at the age of 91. No matter what your moral stance may be on his work in the films he co-directed with Franco Prosperi, including Mondo Cane, Africa Addio and Goodbye Uncle Tom, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t truly groundbreaking. The lineage of the mondo movie can be traced in a multitude of subsequent “documentaries” and arguably in contemporary culture’s obsession with shocking and sensational “reality” in both news and entertainment. But I would argue that the features Jacopetti and Prosperi directed had a certain integrity that cannot be applied to their many imitators.
I was first introduced to the work of Jacopetti and Prosperi via a dodgy 5th generation bootleg VHS tape of Africa Addio back in the day when all kinds of movies were changing hands amongst English horror fans who were depravity deprived by the state censors. Amongst the fake gore of the Argentos and the D’Amatos would inevitably creep a wide variety of mondo movies from the “dare you to watch it” Faces of Death types to the silly likes of The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield to the actually rather good The Killing of America. To be frank, I really wasn’t that into watching these films so avoided most of them in favor of your more traditional splatter or sleaze movies, yet remained curious about their appeal. Africa Addio was one I actually sat through in its entirety (at least I was assured by the fellow VHS collector that it was unexpurgated) and while I won’t go as far as to say I enjoyed it, I was immediately fascinated by the circumstances under which such a film could have been produced in the first place, particularly as it, unlike the others of its ilk that I had seen, exhibited some impressive, not to mention seriously ballsy, filmmaking. How the hell did they make this movie back in the mid-60s when, I assumed, camera crews roaming around war torn countries was not de rigueur?
I started looking for articles on these guys Jacopetti and Prosperi and found out that their first film Mondo Cane was something of a worldwide sensation back in the early 60s, causing outrage among many critics but attracting a massive, often appalled but curious nonetheless, mainstream audience, even garnering an Oscar nomination for its theme tune and coining the term ‘mondo’. My interest in the filmmakers only grew stronger – who were these elusive fellas who could balance revulsion and success in equal measure?
Frustratingly, in mondo pre-internet, I could find very little written about these guys. There were articles and reviews of the films but generally J & P were dismissed as sub-porno sleazebag hacks along with all other practitioners of these “real” shockumentaries. Even the essential book on the subject “Killing for Culture” which came out a few years later gave very little insight into the filmmaking process, concentrating more on critical analysis but further sparking intrigue in me by discussing a certain murder case which arose from the shooting of Africa Addio… actually it was more a passing of judgment while stating the details of the case in a vague, subjective manner. Still no word from the filmmakers themselves. Did they ever give interviews? Were they even still alive?
Fast forward a few years and I’m working with Bill Lustig at Blue Underground. He was always up for interesting material to give the Special Edition treatment to. Seeing as we had dealt with the rights holders on numerous Italian exploitation and horror classics before, I suggested we pick up some of the “official” mondo movies of Jacopetti and Prosperi. Bill was reluctant at first thinking, quite rightly, that the sensational value of the films had been diminished by years of more salacious knock offs and therefore would not attract the word of mouth that had made them such successes back in the day. Then he remembered Goodbye Uncle Tom. I told him I was unfamiliar with the film, to which he just started laughing and shaking his head as he exited the room muttering, “oh boy” repeatedly. The other thing that sealed the deal was that we would produce a documentary about Jacopetti and Prosperi (who by this time I knew were still alive and well, thanks to our featurette production coordinators in Italy) that would finally give them their say about their careers and therefore contextualize the movies for a modern audience. Initially it was going to be short featurettes on each film but as the project solidified and the collection started to become a massive undertaking we decided it should be a standalone, feature length documentary.
“The Godfathers of Mondo” proved to be a true highlight of all the featurettes and documentaries I’ve done, mainly because both Jacopetti and Prosperi gave two of the most uncompromised, in-depth, heartfelt career-spanning interviews that I’ve had the pleasure to witness. Their recollections of the work they did 30 – 40 years earlier was crystal clear and they had no interest in candy coating it. As I suspected, as filmmakers they were absolutely sincere in their approach to their work and as individuals they did not try to gloss over their shortcomings. You could see why their production partnership worked so well as their personalities complemented each other perfectly: even in his mid 80s Jacopetti was still the passionate, charismatic, provocateur while Prosperi was more softly spoken but with an impressive dedication to anthropology and a vast knowledge and deep love for the continent of Africa. I particularly enjoyed hearing them talk about Africa Addio which they both consider their masterpiece, the insane hardships they went through to get the footage in the can, the details (still not completely clear) of the ongoing case against Jacopetti, their vast knowledge of the politics back then – how their position was very unpopular and their dismay that time proved them right — and their utter disgust at their film being re-dubbed, re-cut and re-titled to fit certain market needs.
While I was in post on “Godfathers”, Bill and the rest of the BU team were working tirelessly to make The Mondo Cane Collection 8 disc set the be-all and end-all of DVD box sets. The mountains climbed to restore these movies would put any major studio catalogue restoration to shame. After all this toil it was a great pleasure to receive a handwritten letter from Jacopetti stating how absolutely delighted he was with both the presentation of their films and with the “Godfathers” documentary, for me the highest compliment from an absolute master of the form.
A couple of years ago we at Severin tried to do a follow up by finally reuniting Jacopetti and Prosperi and getting their on-camera reminiscences together. This would have been the ultimate conclusion to their story. But alas when we arrived in Rome Jacopetti had to cancel due to ill health. We still spent an afternoon with Prosperi and got a bunch more great stuff but then the deal for Mondo Candido (the final Jacopetti/Prosperi collaboration which didn’t make it into the BU set) fell through so we didn’t pursue the project any further. Shame it won’t happen now but for those curious about two of cinema history’s most challenging filmmakers you should track down either the sold out limited edition Mondo Cane Collection on ebay or the still available individual discs from www.Blue-Underground.com.