Gualtiero Jacopetti: Italian film-maker whose provocative Mondo documentaries broke new ground for realism in the cinema

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When the satirical US rock group The Tubes wanted to shock audiences in the mid-Seventies, they had their lead singer, Fee Waybill, wear a leather mask and thong, and little else, as he shone a torchlight into his face and sang their ode to S&M entitled "Mondo Bondage". They were following in the footsteps of the exploitation director Russ Meyer, who called his 1966 pseudo-documentary about strippers Mondo Topless, and the cult film-maker John Waters, who named his 1969 black comedy Mondo Trasho. However, mondo – the Italian noun for "world" – was first introduced into the English language by another director, Gualtiero Jacopetti, whose "shockumentaries" entitled Mondo Cane ("A Dog's Life", 1962), La Donna Nel Mondo ("Women of the World", 1963) and Mondo Pazzo ("Mad World", also known as Mondo Cane 2, 1963) proved unlikely box-office successes at a time when cinema and television shied away from graphic images.

Collaborating with Franco Prosperi and Paolo Cavara, Jacopetti originated a new exploitation genre, the Mondo film, a forerunner of today's trash television documentaries, though his bizarre projects didn't talk down to the audience and possessed other redeeming values. The jump-cuts and unexpected juxtapositions between, say, footage of the French Nouveau Réaliste painter Yves Klein daubing naked women in blue paint and body-painting by so-called "primitive" tribes, the slaughters of animals during a ritual ceremony and the climax to a bullfight, or the similarities between days of the dead and voodoo ceremonies half a world away, vividly brought the parallels and paradoxes of human nature to the cinema screen.

Born in Barga, Tuscany, in 1919, Jacopetti was a firebrand who joined the Italian Resistance and helped Allied troops as they moved into Italy in 1943. After the Second World War, he turned to journalism, contributing to the liberal weekly news magazines Cronache and L'Espresso in the 1950s. Always visually minded, he began making newsreels and supervised two documentaries about nightlife in Europe that planted the seed of an idea in his mind. "Let's make an anti-documentary," he told Prosperi, "a film that would play on the big screen whose subject was reality."

By its very nature, cinema had always been a voyeuristic medium but Jacopetti seriously upped the ante as he and his team shot and assembled gruesome, lurid, plain weird footage garnered from the four corners of the Earth to create Mondo Cane – literally "Dog's World" in Italian. "It was an ironic, mocking, even cynical title," Jacopetti admitted in David Gregory's 2003 documentary The Godfathers of Mondo.

Following its release in Italy, Mondo Cane was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1962, a year after Che Gioia Vivere, the René Clément film starring Alain Delon and Gino Cervi and set in 1920s Rome, with a script co-written by Jacopetti, premiered on the Croisette. Mondo Cane quickly picked up plaudits and distributors around the world. The shockumentary played in US drive-ins and movie houses where a clunky trailer proclaiming "Mondo Cane has more in it to talk about than any picture ever seen before" nevertheless attracted teenagers and older cinema-goers alike. Its theme song, "More", composed by Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero, with an English lyric by the British producer and songwriter Norman Newell, was nominated for an Oscar and became an MOR standard, recorded and performed by Vic Dana, Frank Sinatra and The Supremes.

With its heightened reality and guerrilla film-making style that surpassed cinéma vérité, Mondo Cane shook up audiences and the establishment. "Cinema is the perfect medium to tell the facts of life," said Jacopetti, though he didn't quite follow his basic principles – "Slip in, ask, never pay, never re-enact" – to the letter. Indeed, he conceded that the self-immolation of a Vietnamese monk shown in Mondo Pazzo, inspired by an Associated Press photo that had been syndicated around the world, had been faked.

Jacopetti's devil-may-care attitude also landed him and his crew in hot water several times during the filming of Africa Addio, an attempt to look at post-colonial Africa. They were arrested in Tanzania, and again in the Congo, but avoided execution thanks to the director's natural charm, as well as their nationality – "They're not whites [meaning British], they're Italians," famously shouted an officer when freeing them and kicking them out of Dar Es Salaam.

Africa Addio ran into further trouble when Jacopetti was accused of staging the execution of a prisoner, but the director was able to prove that he and his team had arrived just in time to film the shooting and had not been party to it. The rambling 140-minute original edit of Africa Addio was shortened and renamed Africa Blood and Guts in the US, but was still panned by critics, though the director maintained it "was not a justification of colonialism, but a condemnation for leaving the continent in a miserable condition."

Undeterred, in 1971 Jacopetti and Prosperi went to Haiti to film Addio Zio Tom (Goodbye Uncle Tom) – a time-travel mockumentary about slavery on an Alabama plantation in the 1830s. Inspired by Mandingo, the 1957 novel by Kyle Onstott that was turned into a film starring James Mason and Susan George, the Italian project proved even more controversial. By 1975, Jacopetti and Prosperi were back on a surer footing with Mondo Candido, a subversive, provocative adaptation of Voltaire's Candide. They subsequently dissolved their partnership and, apart from working on a documentary about the racing driver Juan Manuel Fangio in 1981, Jacopetti returned to journalism.

Jacopetti was having a relationship with the British actress Belinda Lee, but survived the car crash that killed her in California in 1961. He requested his ashes be buried next to hers in Rome's Cimitero Acattolico.

Pierre Perrone

Gualtiero Jacopetti, film director, producer and journalist: born Barga, Tuscany 4 September 1919; one daughter; died Rome 17 August 2011.