In the early moments of The Hyena Men, a fascinating documentary short produced by CCTV Africa, we see performers interacting with a series of dangerous wild animals, including baboons, hyenas and poisonous snakes. Their daring feats aren’t being performed on the glittering stages of Las Vegas, but on the crowded streets of Nigeria. It’s part of a proud tradition passed on for many generations, and a source of great controversy among animal rights activists around the world.
In their off season, these men farm the land and deal in scrap metal to survive. But when it comes time to perform, they travel across the most populated country in Africa to the delight of thousands of hypnotized onlookers. This travelling circus thrives on the potentially perilous relationship between man and animal. Each performance is mixes wondrous spectacle with edge-of-your-seat suspense; after all, the audience is keenly aware that a deadly attack could occur at any moment.
The animal show is cleverly used as an alluring ploy to promote the real family business: herbs and medicines. The more dramatic the animal show, the bigger the audience. With bigger audiences comes more robust sales for their medicines.
This travelling troop has gained a mystical reputation over the years. Many Nigerians believe these men possess special powers which allow them to interact so gracefully with the most vicious members of the animal kingdom. In fact, their skills are the result of a carefully crafted tradition several generations in the making. It’s a tribal heritage that they’re born into, and they begin their training as young as ten years of age. Still, their way of life is not without its fair share of close calls as evidenced by the countless scars that blanket the forearm of one baboon trainer featured in the film.
Meanwhile, detractors find little thrill or entertainment in the work of the Hyena Men. For them, the act of snatching a wild animal from its habitat and recruiting it for a roadside circus show is unnecessarily cruel and harmful to the natural order.
The Hyena Men takes us deep inside this subculture, and introduces us to the performers who devote their lives to continuing this unusual tradition.
Directed by: Russell Bergh