Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

Michaela Schäuble

Further settings

Login for editors

Research Michaela Schäuble

“The Art of Controlled Accident”: Corporeal Cinematography in Ethnographic Films on Trance and Spirit Possession (1940s-1960s)

In my comparative research project I take a close look at the sensual dimensions of religious ritual practice and embodied spiritual experience in ethnographic documentary film. Reflecting on the possibilities and limits of visualizing such phenomena, I draw on some better and some lesser known filmic examples of the 1940s, 50s and 60s: Maya Deren’s footage on Haitian Vodoun, Jean Rouch’s films on possession rituals in West Africa, as well as the cinematografia demartiniana – films by Luigi di Gianni, Cecilia Mangini, Gianfranco Mingozzi, Diego Carpitella et. al. – on magic practices and ritual exorcism through dance, music and saint veneration in Southern Italy.

I focus on late 1940s to late 1960s non-fiction cinema because it is during this time that filmmakers from diverse national and intellectual backgrounds started to radically challenge the notion that the realistic potential of film was grounded in the materiality of photographic technology. Attempting to go beyond the filmic medium’s ability to record and reveal physical reality they endeavoured to transcend reality by transcending the ideal of truth. By closely examining and comparing the practices of these early ethnographic filmmakers and their manipulations of images of reality external to the camera into something beyond the mere reflection of reality, I want to explore different documentary techniques that employ artificial imagery to grant access to the realms of memory and imagination as well as inexplicable ecstatic bodily states. Examining the underlying ideological concepts and poetological testimony of the filmmakers under consideration, my research situates the films in their respective (post-)colonial contexts and critically assesses their past and present political scope.

Deren, Rouch, di Gianni and his compatriots all – albeit in very different ways – experimented with fictional and poetic elements in early ethnographic documentary film and developed new approaches towards physical mobility/performance before and behind the camera, thus exploring what Deren referred to as cinema’s specific “eye for magic.” It is therefore not surprising that the ethnographic interests they all share include religious ritual, forms of magic, dance and music, dreams, as well as states of trance and spirit possession. Blurring the frontier between the real and the fictional, they all came to believe that the reality that emerges through the medium of (documentary) film is a new one. However, in the context of their aspirations to challenge conventional notions of realism, authenticity and scientific truth in the documentary genre, they – in filming practice as well as in conceptual writing – each generated their own film aesthetics and developed differing concepts of faithfully representing visible and invisible worlds beyond the photorealist credo.

The issues raised by these filmmakers are not only relevant from a film historical perspective but still have a great influence on current debates on ethnographic filmmaking and sensory ethnography in general. It is still one of the major challenges of the discipline to find new ways in which invisible or immaterial but definitely embodied and socially highly relevant realms – such as the imagination, memories, reveries and dreams – can best be accessed, understood, acted out and/or visualised. The diverging techniques of films on states of trance and spirit possession of the 1940s to 1960s provide insights into outwardly perceptible yet immaterial spheres that have not adequately been explored within anthropology and further suggest new dimensions for creative work in ethnography.

Up