Sensory Ethnography and Nocturnal Worlds at RAI Film Festival

Two “sensory ethnographies” drew us into the darkness at this year’s RAI Film Festival. Festival Reporter Ozy Coombes-Cowell spoke to the directors of NIISHII丨Night Worlds and Guardians of the Night to trace the techniques that underpin these sensuous engagements with nocturnal life.

we wanted to think about the night from a sensorial perspective – and not primarily through our eyes – we wanted to sense darkness, breeze, smell, and more specifically the sounds that are so present when our eyes can’t see very well.
Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier and Eleonora Diamanti
Directors, Guardians of the Night


a very important responsibility and challenge of visual anthropology, other than creating a sensory experience beyond what can be encapsulated in a text, is to engage wider audiences.
Saranya Nayak
Director, NIISHII丨Night Worlds

After the founding of The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab in 2006, interest in “sensory ethnography” has boomed. Films like Leviathan (Verena Paravel, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2013) have had a particularly high profile. But the practices of sensory ethnography are still evolving, and the field is shifting. Definitions are up for grabs. In short, we could say that sensory ethnography concerns itself with the embodied, multi-sensory experience of a given setting and those that inhabit it. On one level, films made in this mode can provide a pleasingly vivid impression of the sensations that a community habitually feel. But the form can also – at its best – illuminate the productive nature of the sensoria, and the social values and meanings associated with them.

Much is to be learned from close examination of films that claim the label of “sensory ethnography”. This year’s RAI Film Festival showcases two new entries into the sensory ethnography canon: NIISHII│Night Worlds (Saranya Nayak / UK / 22 mins) and Guardians of the Night (Alexandrine Boudreault-Fournier, Eleonora Diamanti / Cuba, Canada / 17 mins). Each film takes us on an evocative tour of the night-time hours; NIISHII through the town of Dubrajpur (West Bengal, India), Guardians through Guantánamo, Cuba. Both utilise a range of affective methods to communicate the ‘feel’ of the night (from trance-inducing drums, to moist rice eaten with fingers), whilst also investigating what the feelings mean and do, as well as the prominence and significance of the different senses in different cultural contexts.

So, how do these sensory ethnographies work?

Both films take inspiration from Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986), a renowned work of visual anthropology that explores India’s most holy city, Banares, in which the funeral industry is the main occupation. Gardner eschews voiceover and subtitles, in favour of an intricate, sensual montage of the everyday acts of craftsmanship that the deeply spiritual funeral ceremonies entail. Whilst the film seems to document roughly 24 hours, it was in fact shot over a few weeks, then edited to resemble a single day, from one sunrise to the next. Both Guardians and NIISHII were assembled in a similar fashion; shot over numerous nights, then later cut in such a way that suggests a journey that progresses over a single night, ending at dawn.

still from NIISHII丨Night Worlds

Furthermore – although NIISHII does include some scenes with subtitled dialogue – a great deal of both films involve wordless observational shots of townsfolk engaging in physical tasks. As such, we are invited to fixate on these activities, to contemplate the significance of an action or sensation – be it professional, recreational, personal, social, or spiritual. Take, for instance, a sequence in Guardians in which a ballerina stretches by tying her ankle to a railing above her head. The film invites us to ask: what does this represent? The way this body can be moved, shaped, and bound? And pain and discomfort endured? Well, this striking sequence alerts us to the presence of “body techniques” (as Marcel Mauss called the repertoire of embodied skills and knowledge) which we might not expect to encounter here. It draws attention to the diversity of contemporary Cuban dance culture – bodies don’t just move to salsa or reggaetón music in Cuba, the filmmakers show us. We see the ballerina use her smartphone as she exercises. Again, we ponder the sensuous world this girl inhabits. Earlier we saw words being penned into a notebook; the behaviour of this Cuban ballerina exemplifies a global shift where, increasingly, we communicate not by putting pen to paper, but rather through sliding fingers across the glassy texture of a glowing phone screen.

In lieu of dialogue, the audio of each film features a wealth of keenly recorded diegetic sounds. These soundtracks serve to create nuanced impressions of place, and encourage us to appreciate the far reaching ways that sound may be used to contextualise and enliven images (microphones, of course, are generally not subject to the same directional limits as cameras).

In both cases, the vibrant – or sometimes very still – off-screen spaces that surround the images are communicated through prevalent ambient noises. The faint buzz of electric lights and surrounding insects, the hubbub of busy spaces, and the rumbles, honks and screeches of passing traffic all contribute massively to the immersive atmospheres that the films cultivate. As the directors of Guardians emphasise, the film ‘needs to be listened at… The audience really needs to pay attention to the soundtrack first to fully appreciate the experience of the film’.

still from Guardians of the Night

The opening images of both NIISHII and Guardians are accompanied by sudden, loud noises that prime the ears for the detailed soundscapes that follow. In NIISHII, a time lapse of nightfall is set the sound of a ‘Shankha’ being blown, a type of conch shell which, as Nayak tells me, ‘during the evening ritual has associations with victory, auspiciousness, warding off evil, beginnings and endings.’ Guardians, on the other hand, opens with a close up of the rotating gears of a bicycle, accompanied by the sound of a squealing mechanical brake, a noise which the filmmakers classify as ‘dark and metallic, even cold, a little bit like the ambience / atmosphere of the film itself.’ In addition, they note how this opening introduces a pattern of ‘the continuous and cyclic aspect of nocturnal rhythms. Rhythms that repeat endlessly, in a 24 hour cycle, similar but never exactly the same.’

These openings begin to indicate some formal differences that emerge between the two films. Guardians often toys with diegetic sounds, subtly blending and reorganising noises from different locations, and a sparse keyboard score frequently surfaces to complement the rhythmic and tonal progression of the piece. The filmmakers credit Guantánamo based composer Zevil Strix for ‘the poetic aspect of the soundtrack’, remarking once again on ‘cyclic rhythms’, and explaining that ‘environmental sounds blend with electronic compositions creating an estranging effect on the audience’. (Notably, two other Guantánamo based artists contributed to the film; choreographer Yoel Gonzalez Rodriguez served as producer, and graphic designer Joel Aguilar Fuentes produced the poster. The directors wish to emphasise that ‘the collaboration with local artists was essential for our project’.)

The lyricism of Guardians’ soundtrack – which was composed before the footage was edited – is reflected in the imagery. Largely, the film is a rich montage of tight close-ups, and shots from different scenes are often inter-cut based on thematic, graphic or sensory connections rather than on physical or temporal proximity. Take, for example, a sequence in which one woman having her nails filed and carefully painted by another is interspersed with shots of a mother and daughter curled up together in a ‘small and cramped, but also very tidy and clean’ home, ‘sharing that tiny space in a very loving and intimate way’.

The directors describe the close-up aesthetic as ‘very intimate and focused’, whilst highlighting that ‘there is a lot that is left outside – out of the frame, that we don’t know is there – and that speaks to the anthropological project in general.’ Recurrent lens flares and shifts in and out of focus afford the film a delicate visual splendour, whilst also creating an impression of the glare of bright electric lights at night, and a feeling of seeing through bleary, fatigued eyes. Both of these techniques impair vision, encouraging greater reliance on the ‘alertness of other senses, especially hearing’.

Although Nayak acknowledges a ‘definite inclination towards creating a mood, ambience or affect’, she characterises NIISHII as ‘more observational than poetic’. Having initially considered setting her film in one of two mega-cities where she’d lived – Delhi or Kolkata – Nayak opted to locate the fieldwork in the small town Dubrajpur because it ‘offered a chance to explore a landscape in transition, a semi-urban space in between a village and a city’. She explains that this ‘presented an opportunity to trace the evolution and co-existence of lightscapes and soundscapes at night while traces of the past still lingered in occasional practice and in popular memory’. Throughout the film, close ups of warmly glowing lanterns and candles are juxtaposed with shots of cool, fluorescent, electric light sources. Nayak reports that ‘the lighting of different kinds of lamps representing dying lightscapes in an increasingly electrically powered world were easily the most compelling images for me’.

NIISHII incorporates various passages of dialogue that offer interesting suggestions of the ways that light and sight figure into the locals’ lives. Reports range from the difficulty of affording electricity, to a rumoured ‘light ghost’ which concerned people enough that they used rags to seal the cracks in their doors at night, to a couple discussing the judgement that women face if leaving the house alone, to a woozy father explaining that, ‘in drinking dens, darkness is best’. These and other verbal vignettes paint an intriguing picture of the town’s attitudes to exposure. Nayak observes that ‘the fieldwork points to the presence of a common desire to control the light and visibility around oneself. However, the power dynamics around this control have shifted dramatically with the explosion of state sponsored electrically powered sources lighting up more and more spaces as days go by’. And on the topic of ghosts, she had this to say: ‘Everyone I met in the town had a ghost story to tell, and many were eyewitnesses or had experienced some kind of ghostly presence in person. Higher visibility and brighter nights as a result of urbanisation has drastically reduced such experiences, which in my opinion is a fundamental change to how people see what they are able to see at night.’

Guardians of the Night and NIISHII丨Night Worlds each employ a variety of techniques to create potent multi-modal perceptions of the towns which they explore. By striving to engage the whole sensoria – via detailed sound design as much as through visual material – the films offer absorbing and memorable tours of the night-time hours in their respective towns. Through carefully considered cinematography and editing, and in the case of NIISHII, verbal testimonies, the filmmakers reveal interesting aspects of the relationships that various demographics have to the senses in different cultural contexts. Just as the films shift perspectives away from the dominance of the visual in present culture by examining the darker side of our 24 hour life cycle, so too do they illuminate the fact that ever growing electrification is resulting in the increasing encroachment of the visual on night-time life in urban environments. Both films are intricate, accomplished contributions to the field of sensory ethnography, and valuable case studies of practices that may be employed when working at this exciting frontier of ethnographic film.

16th RAI Film Festival Prize Winners

Who triumphed at the 16th RAI Film Festival? See below to see which films our judges awarded prizes to.


Royal Anthropological Institute Film Prize

Awarded biennially since 1980, this prize is for `the most outstanding film on social, cultural and biological anthropology or archaeology’. The value of the prize is £500.

Winner: Of Love and Law (Dir. Hikaru Toda)
Commendation: Abu (Dir. Arshad Khan)

The Basil Wright Film Prize

Awarded biennially since 1986 this prize is for a film in the ethnographic tradition that takes advantage of the evocative faculty of film as a means of furthering a concern for humanity and for communicating that concern to others. The value of the prize is £500.

Winner: Thank You For the Rain (dir. Julia Dahr)
Commendation: Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock  (dirs. Josh Fox, James Spione, Myron Dewey)

Dartmouth Films Audience Prize

Voted by the audience at the RAI Film Festival, and sponsored by Dartmouth Films. The value of the prize is £250.

Winner: Even When I Fall (dirs. Kate McLarnon, Sky Neal)


Archaeology and Material Culture Film Prize

This award has been offered by the Film Festival Committee since 1990 and is for the best film about the social use and cultural significance of material objects, be it at the present time or any previous period in human history.  The value of the prize is £250

Winner: The Book of the Sea (dir. Aleksei Vakhrushev)


Intangible Culture Film Prize

Named with reference to the UNESCO designation ‘Intangible Culture’, this prize is for the best ethnographic film that deals with music, dance, and performance. The value of the prize is £250.

Winner: Ballad on the Shore  (dir. Chi-hang Ma)
Commendation: A Delicate Weave (Anjali Monteiro, KP Jayasankar)


Royal Anthropological Institute & Marsh Short Film Prize

Introduced in 2019, this prize is for the most outstanding short film on anthropology or archaeology. This prize is sponsored by the Marsh Christian Trust. The value of the prize is £500.

Winner: Even Asteroids Are Not Alone (dir. Jón Bjarki Magnússon)
Commendations: Father’s Prescription (dir. Enke Huang) and Fire Mouth (Luciano Pérez Fernández)


Wiley Blackwell Student Film Prize

Awarded for the first time in 1990, and since 2005 sponsored by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, this prize is given to the most outstanding film in the ethnographic tradition made by a student enrolled in a recognized educational institution. The value of the prize is £250.

Winner: The Absence of Apricots (dir. Daniel Asadi Faezi)
Commendations: It Was Tomorrow (Alexandra D’onofrio) and A Very Dai Girl (MengHua Zhang)


The following Awards were announced prior to the Festival:

President’s Award

Assigned by the Film Festival Committee to a film of truly exceptional merit that addresses issues of great contemporary importance and concern in anthropology or archaeology. This film may take the form of either fiction or fact-based documentary, and need not necessarily belong to any conventional ethnographic genre.

Winner: Edge of the Knife (dirs. Gwaai Edenshaw, Helen Haig-Brown)


The Richard Werbner Award for Visual Anthropology

Funded since 2011 by Richard Werbner, this award is given to a film that is made by an anthropologist – preferably as part of a doctoral or post-doctoral research project – based upon extensive fieldwork. The value of the prize is £250.

Winner: Heartbound (dirs. Janus Metz, Sine Plambech)
Commendations: Horror in the Andes (dir. Martha-Cecilia Dietrich), This is My Face  (dir. Angélica Cabezas Pino), and Tindaya Variations (dir. Isaac Marrero-Guillamon)


Ethnomusicology Film Award

This award is the most outstanding film about music/sound in the world. The award is sponsored by the British Forum for Ethnomusicology.  The value of the prize is £250.

Winner: Up Down and Sideways (dirs. Anushka Meenakshi, Iswar Srikumar)


Lifetime Achievement Award

Bestowed by the RAI Film Committee to honour outstanding contributions to ethnographic documentary film-making and/or academic visual anthropology.

Winner: Kim Longinotto








In Person at the RAI Film Festival

We are delighted that dozens of filmmakers and world-leading thinkers will attend our biannual celebration of ethnographic film in Bristol 27-30 March. Here is who you can expect to meet at the Festival.

(N.B. this list is subject to change)

wednesday 27 march

Filmmakers participating in screening Q&As:

Conference speakers:

  • Sneha Mundari
  • Ricardo Leizaola (Goldsmiths, University of London)
  • Martha-Cecilia Dietrich (University of Bern)
  • Renato Athias (PPGA / UFPE)
  • Rodrigo Lacerda (CRIA / NOVA FCSH / ISCTE-IUL)
  • Eric Bent
  • Annie Watson (Sheffield Hallam University)
  • Katharine Cox (Sheffield Hallam University)
  • Roseline Lambert (Concordia University)
  • Rachel McCrum

thursday 28 march

Filmmakers participating in screening Q&As:

Conference speakers:

  • Clarisse Destailleur (University of Leipzig)
  • María Fernanda Carrillo Sánchez (UACM)
  • Snezana Stankovic (Humboldt University of Berlin)
  • Pavel Borecký (University of Bern)
  • Pegi Vail (NYU)
  • Toma Peiu (University of Colorado Boulder)
  • David Robinson (Lancaster University)
  • Cindi Alvitre (CSU Long Beach)
  • Desiree Martinez (Cogstone Archaeology)
  • Teri Brewer (Archaeoikon)
  • Sue Giles (Bristol City Museum and Galleries)
  • Wendy Teeter (Fowler Museum at UCLA)
  • Aparna Sharma (UCLA)
  • Arine Kirstein Høgel (Aarhus University)
  • Mihai Andrei Leaha (University of Sao Paulo)
  • Simon Robinson (Ravensbourne University London)
  • Mark Westmoreland (Leiden University)
  • Janine Prins (Leiden University)
  • Onyeka Igwe (University of the Arts London),
  • Ines Ponte (ICS-ULisboa)
  • Sophie Schrago (University of Manchester)
  • Robert Eagle (University of the West of England)
  • Hugo Montero (Université Lumière Lyon 2)
  • Angélica Cabezas Pino (University of Manchester)
  • Mattia Fumanti (University of St. Andrews)
  • Ming He (Yunnan University)
  • Liang Zhang (Yunnan University)
  • Yueping Wang (Yunnan University)
  • Zhonghao Xie (North Seattle College)
  • Gary Seaman (USC)
  • Zhuang Kongshao (Yunnan University)

friday 29 march

Filmmakers participating in screening Q&As:

Conference speakers:

  • Nancy Lutkehaus (USC)
  • Alice Apley (DER)
  • Jennifer Cool (USC)
  • Özde Çeliktemel-Thomen (METU)
  • Till Jakob Frederik Trojer (SOAS)
  • Domitilla Olivieri (Utrecht University)
  • Igor Karim (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main)
  • Naï Zakharia (University College London)
  • Adeel Khan (Cambridge University)
  • Hammad Khan
  • Timothy P. A. Cooper (University College London)
  • Vindhya Buthpitiya (University College London)
  • Matteo Gallo (University of Verona)
  • Zhongquan Hu (Nanning Normal University)
  • Meghanne M Barker (University of Chicago)
  • Natalie Nesvaderani (Cornell University)
  • Valentina Bonifacio (Ca’ Foscari University)
  • Alison Macdonald (UCL)
  • Sally Dennehy
  • Camilla Morelli (University of Bristol)
  • Flavia Kremer (University of Manchester)
  • Cathy Greenhalgh (Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London)
  • Catalin Brylla (University of West London)
  • Pedro Branco (Universidade de Brasília)
  • Mattijs van de Port (University of Amsterdam)
  • Janine Prins (Leiden University)
  • Anja Dreschke (University of Bern)
  • Michaela Schäuble (University of Bern)
  • Eda Elif Tibet, Maisa Alhafe (University of Bern)
  • Barley Norton (Goldsmiths, University of London)
  • Ektoras Arkomanis (London Metropolitan University)
  • Ricardo Leizaola (Goldsmiths College, University of London)
  • Judith Aston (University of the West of England)
  • Paolo Favero (University of Antwerp)

saturday 30 march

Filmmakers participating in screening Q&As:

Conference speakers:

  • Mike Poltorak (University of Kent)
  • Raminder Kaur (University of Sussex)
  • Mariagiulia Grassilli (University of Sussex)
  • Karen Boswall (University of Sussex)
  • Catherine Donaldson (University of Sussex)
  • Lauren Greenwood (University of Sussex)
  • Joe Ellefsen
  • Charles Brownlow
  • Poppy Bennett
  • Vitoria de Souza
  • Harry Candlish

Plus Producers Simon Bell and Tuppence Stone (BBC) and Neil Crombie (Swan Films) presenting on Rituals on TV.




7 Great Posters at the RAI Film Festival

The 16th RAI Film Festival Programme is packed with stunning and innovative films. Many of these also have stunning, innovative posters. Festival Manager David Edgar picks his favourites.

 Kalès 

Laurent Van Lancker’s Kalès challenges the voyeuristic gaze upon the Calais “jungle”, often frustrating our attempts to survey and authoritatively know this landscape as we are immersed in it. This bold poster similarly plays with ideas of obscurity, hiding more of an image than it shows.


The Raven and the seagull
(LYKKELÆNDER)

A poster that delights and surprises as much as artist Lasse Lau’s first feature does.

tara’s footprint
(la huella de tara)

A poster as gentle and restrained as Barreiro’s journey through the daily lives of this Himalayan community.

Horror in the andes

A design that alludes to the kitsch value of low-budget horror that doesn’t detract from asserting the genre’s power to deal with colonial trauma.

abu

Woven out of animation, home movies, and clips snatched from Bollywood movies, Abu has the feeling of scrapbook and/or a journal; this charming illustration captures this heartfelt sentiment of this lovingly crafted autobiographical doc.

The mount of ants
(il monte formiche)

A dreamy poster in which spectators seem to swim in an alien world with giant ants; supremely appropriate for Riccardo Palladino’s dream-like encounter with a strange feast day upon an Italian mountain.

edge of the knife

A fittingly gothic poster for our Opening Night film Edge of the Knife which takes us into the dark heart of revenge

Around Latin America at the RAI Film Festival

From the Andean highlands to the Amazon basin and down to Chile, there is a particular rich selection of films from Latin America this year’s RAI Film Festival. Festival Reporter Kamila Kordys discovers that filmmakers in the region are pioneering collaborative approaches that put participants’ voices at the heart of their work, and recommends four to watch.


THINKING LIKE A MOUNTAIN

What’s it about?
Thinking Like a Mountain takes us on a journey through the forest and the ice of Colombia’s highest peak, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, home to the indigenous Arhuacos. This community draws a singular spirituality from this spectacular environment, in which they have purposely isolated themselves. Balance and order is central to their culture. Yet, as we see in this mesmerising portrait of a place and people, traditional ways of life are threatened by prolonged civil conflict, mining operations, and climate change.

Who made it?
German-born filmmaker Alexander Hick, who gained unparalleled and unprecedented access to this community to make this film. Thinking Like a Mountain builds on Hick’s previous visual essays that also consider how places and their peoples – in Atl Tlachinolli (2015) he cast his eye on Mexico City, and San Agustín: Marea baja en el mar del plástico (2012) on a farming community in Andalucía.

What’s special about it?
Thinking Like a Mountain is a visually dazzling film with sophisticated things to say about a singular environment and community. Hick illuminates Arhuaco cosmology and their beautiful landscapes, but also the shifting political contexts on the borders of their lands. Whilst this community does not seem to have changed for centuries, we learn the survival of its traditional way of life has been hard won.

Thinking Like a Mountain screens on Thu 28 March at 11:00 at Watershed. Buy your tickets here.


THIS IS MY FACE

What’s it about?
In Chile, people living with HIV are stigmatised, and they often conceal their condition and remain silent about what they are going through. In This is My Face, several men open up about their experiences. It follows a creative process whereby these men produce photographic portraits that represent their (often painful) memories and feelings, a process which helps them challenge years of silence, shame, and misrepresentation.

Who made it?
Whilst Angélica Cabezas Pino is credited as director, This is My Face is the result of path-breaking collaboration between the filmmaker/researcher and the men we meet in the film. With a background in both visual art and anthropology, Cabezas Pino works at the intersection between the disciplines, using visual communication and expression as a means for illuminating her research areas. This is My Face emerged out of her practice-based PhD in Anthropology, Media and Performance at the University of Manchester.

What’s special about it?
This is My Face demonstrates the power and possibility of collaborative storytelling. HIV-related stigma is one of the major barriers to fighting HIV in Latin America and it often prevents people from accessing testing and treatment. Cabezas Pino’s approach reveals an internal and hidden dialogue, revealing a hitherto obscured lifeworld. We see the profound effects of the project written on the faces of the men in her film as they reveal themselves, with pride and determination.

This is My Face screens on Thu 28 march at 11:15 at Watershed, as part of Student Programme 4. Buy your tickets here.


HORROR IN THE ANDES

What’s it about?
Horror in the Andes is a film about three friends making a horror movie in Ayacucho in the Peruvian Andes.

Who made it?
Anthropologist Martha-Cecilia Dietrich, who utilises participatory and collaborative filmmaking methods as part of her work. Currently teaching at University of Bern, her previous research has examined ways of remembering the internal conflict in Peru and generated the documentary Between Memories (2015) (distributed by the RAI)

What’s special about it?
Balancing insight with warm humour, Horror in the Andes shows how indigenous filmmakers can appropriate foreign genres to tell their own stories. The filmmakers we meet use horror as a means to interrogate contemporary social issues, and confront the legacies of colonial violence. Furthermore, Horror in the Andes shows how translating foreign modes into local terms can articulate notions of Andean identity with defiant confidence.

Horror in the Andes screens in a double bill with Zahida on Thu 28 March at 9:15 at Watershed. Buy your ticket here.


AMAZONIMATIONS

What’s it about?
Amazonimations is a compilation of three animated films written, voiced and illustrated by the Matses people of the Amazon rainforest, on the Peru-Brazil border. They tell of their expert use of poisonous frogs, young adults’ experiences of moving to the city, and children’s observations of the animals that they share the forest with.

Who made it?
Anthropologist Camilla Morelli and animator Sophie Marsh collaborated with different generations of Matses people to create Amazonimations. Based at University of Bristol, Morelli has worked with Matses people since 2010, specifically with children and young people. Her research uses visual methods to examine social change. Sophie is a professional animator and film producer; a part of this project, she has been teaching stop-motion animation to Matses children in the rainforest.

What’s special about it?
These films are small gems bursting with insight, rendered with charming visuals. Most importantly, they let the true voice sof the Matses people sing out to the wider world. Amazonimations demonstrates how collaborative visual methods can help us understand radical processes of social change that are affecting people in Amazonia and beyond, to create a space where young Amazonians can discuss their everyday lives. The project promotes inclusion, and participants are involved as active agents in the production of knowledge.

Amazonimations screens on Saturday 30 March as part of Shorts Programme 2. Public tickets are sold out for this screening, but you can get in by getting a Festival Pass.


In addition to these Latin gems, don’t miss: After the Silence (dir. Natalie Cubides Brady) about the impact forced disappearances in Colombia, Fire Mouth (dir. Luciano Pérez Fernández), a striking portrait of a football match in scorching Brazil, Pasajuego (Daniel Oliveras de Ita), a study of the ballgame Pelota Mixteca as played amongst the Oaxacan diaspora, and our Queer Brazil! programme.


You can see all these riches from Latin America, as well as all other screenings, events and conference sessions, with our great value Festival Passes. 

Three to See at RAI Film Festival if You’re in the Mood For Love <3

These aren’t quite romcoms, but thoughtful and sensitive explorations of the diversity of love and kinship in different cultures across the world, and the forces that frustrate its pursuit. Festival Reporter Sophie Haxworth picks three to see.

of love and law

Whats love got to do with it?

“When I think of family, it’s you.”

Kazu and Fumi are partners at their law firm, but also in life. (They are only “married” in inverted commas, as same-sex marriage is not yet permitted in Japan). Their status as an openly gay couple attracts a range of attention that affects their work and personal life. On one hand, as a minority themselves, they draw out the silenced minorities hiding just beneath the surface of quiet compliance to tradition in Japanese society. But on the other, they feel alienated from society. Their love is not recognised as legitimate. They daydream of expanding their family, but their wistful tone indicates this will remain a dream in today’s Japan.

The film is divided into chapters built around a series of legal cases taken on by Kazu and Fumi. These include a feminist artist fighting charges of obscenity (for using vaginal imagery), and a schoolteacher fighting her dismissal for refusing to stand during the national anthem. In another case, we learn that children born outside of traditional family structures in Japan simply do not exist in the eyes of the law. This case in particular reflects back on Kazu and Fumi’s own desire for their love and their family to be recognised.

Whilst legal cases about civil liberties structure the film, it is film is really a love story. With incredibly intimate access to the daily life of Kazu and Fumi, we feel their dedication to each other, and how cultural norms and archaic laws impact upon the emotional lives and dreams of a nation’s citizens.

Of Love and Law screens on Saturday 30th March at 08:50 at Watershed. Buy your tickets for this screening here.
Or why not buy a Saturday Day Pass and continue your journey?

Heartbound

What’s love got to do with it?

“Love is a strange thing. It hits you when you least expect it.”

Heartbound examines the marriages that have brought over 900 Thai women halfway across the world to a windswept town in Denmark. Over ten years, it follows four couples, and profiles Sommai – the ex sex worker who pioneered this network of Thai-Danish marriages (which allow women not only to build new lives, but to support their families back home).

In this messy and morally ambiguous world, visual anthropologists Metz and Plambech (who are married themselves) expose a human yearning for love that crosses an economic, cultural and geographical divide. Amongst shots of the two countries’ contrasting landscapes, the film asks what love means for partners with drastically different backgrounds, presented with a frank yet never judgemental style. The film places the women’s multifaceted experience at its forefront, compassionately painting their humour, their hopes, and their dignity in a world that has offered them very little.

This film will break your heart and encourage you examine its pieces before carefully, true to its title, binding them together again into something at once more fragile and more knowing.

Heartbound is the recipient of the Richard Werbner Award for Visual Ethnography 2019. Director Sine Plambech will attend the screening for a discussion chaired by anthropologist Gabriel Dattreyan, who judged the Award this year.

Heartbound screens at 15:40 on Thursday 28 March at Watershed.
Buy your tickets for this screening here.
Or why not buy a Thursday Day Pass and spend a day exploring the world’s best ethnographic film?

Welcome Valentine 2017

What’s love got to do with it?

“Everyone should experience love. The world will be dry and lifeless without it.”

In the conservative landscape of contemporary India, one Hindu priest insists that love must win out. Hirabhai Juguji, a priest with a remarkably temperate and transparent outlook on life, runs the only Hanuman Temple that performs marriages. He is known for marrying couples rejected by other parts of society, be they same-sex, transgender, or eloping due to family disagreements.

The film paints an understated portrait of the necessity of love, staged alongside the ordinary and seemingly mundane tasks of Juguji’s day-to-day life. We hear him speak of couples completing each other as we watch him laying tiles outside the temple; these words and actions complement each other, demonstrating how marriage between partners in love can be as straightforward as these honest tasks. He lays the groundwork of the religious site just as his marriages aim to lay the groundwork for couples’ happy lives. Welcome Valentine 2017 voices Juguji’s conviction that love has the power to strip back the complexities of tradition, politics, family and duty.

Welcome Valentine 2017 screens on Thursday 28 March at 15:30. It is part of Student Programme 4, which showcases the outstanding work being made by today’s emerging visual anthropologists.
Buy your tickets to this screening here.

Three to See at RAI Film Festival – Women’s Stories

On International Women’s Day, we take a moment to celebrate the strong female presence at this year’s upcoming RAI Film Festival (27 – 30 March). The programme overflows with women’s stories, illuminating an incredible diversity of experience across the globe. And, we are proud to say, over half of the films in this year’s RAI Film Festival have a woman director. Festival Reporter Ella Broad recommends three to watch. 

Zahida

What’s it about?

Zahida is a documentary following the life of Zahida Kazmi, Pakistan’s first female taxi driver. We join her on her daily duties and learn what it means for her to work in this role. She speaks of the dangers she faces as a women, the inequality in Pakistan and of her responsibility as a twice widowed mother of six to her children and to their futures. This elegant and insightful short film articulates Zahida’s story in a patient and dignified way.

Who made it?

Karachi-born and London-based filmmaker and producer. Her rich portfolio includes documentary, animation, and art installations. Gul has an eye for stories about identity, particularly female identity, and the place of individuals in a political context.

What’s special about it?

This is an intimate portrait of one woman which has big things to say about the position of women in contemporary Pakistani society. We feel Zahida’s sorrow as she reflects on her lot. But the film is also infused with hope, and is a testament to Zahida’s strength, drive and resilience, and that of women like her.


Zahida screens on 28 March at 09:15 at Watershed, Bristol. Buy tickets here.


Mossane

What’s it about?

Mossane focuses on the life of teenage girl who is greatly admired and loved by all in her village in Senegal. The film follows her daily interactions – speaking with her mother about her fast approaching marriage to a rich man, helping her sick brother who has left university due to a politically charged strike, and exploring a burgeoning romance with an old friend, Fara. The drama pivots on the clash between her responsibilities to her family and her own youthful desires.

Who made it?

Pioneering filmmaker and ethnologist Safi Faye, whose work we celebrate at this year’s Festival with our Special Focus. Whilst she first became known for appearing in Jean Rouch’s Petit à Petit (1970), she soon went on to work as a director herself. Her first feature length film, Kaddu Beykat (1975, aka La Lettre Paisanne / Letter from the Village) was the first feature by a sub-Saharan African woman to be commercially distributed. Alongside filmmaking, she gained a doctorate in ethnology in 1979, with a thesis on Serer religions. Faye’s films draw on her research, focusing on rural and farming communities, and often exploring oral history traditions, the lives of women, spirituality, everyday village life and access to land. She works with both documentary and fictional modes and often uses devices that explore the intersection between the two.

What’s special about it?

This is a film from an ambitious and powerful female storyteller, that combines ethnographic insight with sophisticated artistry. It is rarely screened, it deserves to be better known.

Mossane screens on Friday 29 March at 19:30 at Arnolfini. The screening will be followed by a discussion of Faye’s work and her legacy. Buy tickets here.


A Very Dai Girl

What’s it about?

A Very Dai Girl is a short documentary which sketches the daily life of Xiao Yue, a 22 year old woman from Yunnan province in the south of China.
We see Xiao Yue cook, care for her grandmother, sew, and farm – but also visit an amusement arcade with friends, and talk with her boyfriend on her smartphone.  As a young woman of the Dai ethnic group, Xiao Yue is caught between the traditions of her people, and the modernising China surrounding her. She reflects on what is expected of her as a woman in the Dai culture and how she longs for the greater gender equality that she perceives in China’s dominant Han culture .

Who made it?

MengHua Zhang recently graduated from the prestigious and innovative MA Visual Anthropology programme at Goldsmiths. She is one of the exciting new voices in ethnographic film that we showcase in our Student Programme. With A Very Dai Girl, MengHua Zhang shows she can discuss culture, gender and relationships in modern China with a subtle and mature voice.

What’s special about it?

This is a quiet and patient film that demonstrates sophisticated sensitivity. The sense of intimacy we feel is startling, and it a pleasure to spend time with the striking woman at the heart of this film.

A Very Dai Girl screens on Thursday 28 March at 15:30 at Watershed (as part of Student Programme 4). Buy your tickets here.



You can access to these films, as well as all other screenings, events and conference sessions at the RAI Film Festival with a Festival Pass. Buy yours today!

Three to See at RAI Film Festival if You’re Interested in… Oral Storytelling and Mythology

Oral storytelling traditions – whether manifesting through speech or song, through myth, folk tales, ballads, chants, prose or verse – can be a rich resource for filmmakers. Several films at this year’s RAI Film Festival demonstrate the powerful result when oral traditions and cinema interact. Festival Reporter Kathryn Case recommends three to watch.


Edge of the Knife

What’s it about?

The Haida reside on an archipelago off the coast of western Canada and Alaska. Edge of the Knife is based on Haida oral storytelling and mythology, and told in the Haida language. Set in the 19th century, in a seasonal fishing camp, it revolves around the tumultuous relationship between two noblemen, Adiits’ii and his best friend Kwa, as by grief and a thirst for revenge pits them against each other.

Who made it?

The film is co-directed by First Nations filmmakers Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. Edenshaw used his personal experiences being raised on Haida Gwaii to weave together the story, in collaboration with Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Haig-Brown. This is Edenshaw’s first film (before now he has received acclaim as artist and jewellery make), whilst Haig-Brown has a number of filmmaking credits under her belt.

What’s special about it?

Edge of the Knife is the first feature film in the endangered Haida language – there are only a handful of native speakers left. Having survived decades of hardship and cultural genocide, Haida today are reclaiming their language with hard work and dedication – and this film is part of thriving cultural and language revitalisation programme. The directors consulted with fluent speakers who carefully translated the script into three Haida dialects, and trained the fully-Haida cast to memorize, pronounce, and express their lines authentically.

In the UN Year of Indigenous languages, we are delighted that Edge of the Knife is our Opening Night Film. It is also the recipient of the 2019 Presidents Medal.

Opening Night screening of Edge of the Knife will take place Wednesday 27 March at 18:00 at Watershed, Bristol. Buy tickets here.



Resonating BurrA – THE STORY OF BURRAKATHA

What’s it about?

Director Arjun Chavah explores Burrakatha, a storytelling art form in the Telangana and Andhra regions of India that emerged in the context of the Indian independence movement.

What’s special about it?
Emerging in the 1940s, amidst the struggle against feudal oppression and the Indian freedom movement, Burrakatha was a medium for dissent. It continued to be used to speak about other social issues after independence, but eventually diminished.

Chavah uses Burrakatha as a narrator to fill in pieces of Telangana’s history, and to celebrate the power of art as a means of dissent. Whilst Burrakatha may have fallen out of favour, it carries on a vibrant tradition that still resonates in contemporary India. This film celebrates the lively and comedic spirit of Burrakatha.

Resonating Burra screens in a double bill with Sakhisona on Friday 29th March at 13:15 at Watershed. Buy tickets here.



Sakhisona

What’s it about?

Sakhisona records the stories that are sung around a mound in near Mogulmari in West Bengal. The mound, known locally as Sakhisona, has served as an object of mythology and storytelling for centuries. Stories about it are interwoven with myth and still sung by local musicians.

Who made it?

Prantik Basu is an alumnus of Film Directing at the Film and Television Institute of India and has gone on to direct several short films which have been screened at various international film festivals. He has already been awarded a Tiger Award for Short Films at IFFR 2017 for Sakhisona. His interest in creating Sakhisona spawned from a love of storytelling, as he worked as an illustrator in a Bengali children’s magazine before moving on to filmmaking.

What’s special about it?

According to Basu, the importance of storytelling and mythology is vital: “It is an access to the anecdotal history, and in turn, the ethos of a community. For me, the tale of Sakhisona, though primitive, seemed extremely contemporary and progressive in nature.” This highly evocative film re-enacts the folklore of the place in fragments woven around the archaeology and objects unearthed. In this film, we see Basu’s stylistic flair emerge with skilful use of black and white cinematography.

Sakhisona screens in a double bill with Resonating Burra on Friday 29th March at 13:15 at Watershed. Buy tickets here.


You can access to these films, as well as all other screenings, events and conference sessions at the RAI Film Festival with a Festival Pass. Buy yours today!

Three to See at RAI Film Festival if You’re Interested in… Environmental Activism

Environmental activism, often led by indigenous communities, is a strong theme at this year’s RAI Film Festival. Festival Reporter Ozy Coombes-Cowell recommends three to watch. 

AWAKE, A VIEW FROM STANDING ROCK

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What’s it about?

The film documents the massive peaceful resistance led by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe to the Dakota Access Pipeline through their land and underneath the Missouri River, a water source for over 18 million people. The ‘water protectors’ are faced with police brutality, mass arrests, unwarranted seizures of possessions and extreme criminal charges.

Who made it?

The film is a collaboration between Oscar nominated environmental filmmakers: Josh Fox and James Spione; and indigenous filmmakers: Director Myron Dewey and Executive Producer Doug Good Feather. Fox, Spione and Dewey each direct one of the film’s three parts.

What’s special about it?

The film is both an evocative visual poem – with accompanying passages of lyrical narration by native activist Floris White Bull that describe an urgent spiritual awakening – and an instructional piece on the principles and practicalities that such movements can be built upon.

Awake, A Dream From Standing Rock screens 28 March at 13:15 at Watershed. Buy tickets here.

THANK YOU FOR THE RAIN

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What’s it about?

The film follows Kisilu Musya, a Kenyan farmer, as he tries to provide for his family amid the havoc wreaked on his home and livelihood by worsening droughts and floods. Kisilu recognises that climate change is responsible for the increasingly extreme weather, so sets about inspiring his community to ‘leave a legacy by planting trees’. His impressive commitment to this voluntary task earns him the opportunity to share his story at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015.

Who made it?

Up and coming Norwegian filmmaker Julia Dahr and Kisilu Musya share the credit for this film, as much of the footage is filmed by Kisilu himself. Using a small camcorder, Kisilu records and reflects on his everyday life and his efforts to have an impact in the fight for the climate.

What’s special about it?

Kisilu’s devotion to expanding his community’s attempts to combat climate change, despite the fact that it puts him under even more financial strain, is incredibly admirable. So, too, is his refusal to leave the village like many of his peers in search of work, instead aiming to take up taxi driving on top of his farm work so he can continue to live with his family. The grainy home footage that Kisilu shoots is intimate and endearing, capturing warm laughs and sombre reflections, whilst the contrast with Dahr’s brilliantly shot Kenyan landscapes mirrors the film’s exploration of the vastly varying scales at play in the international community. Kisilu’s musings on what makes a good father, and reports of the influence that his own troubled upbringing has had on his kind nature and firm moral ethos, root notions of duty to the younger generation in deeply personal subject matter.  

Thank You For the Rain screens 30 March at 11:10 at Watershed. Buy tickets here.

THINKING LIKE A MOUNTAIN

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What’s it about?

The film’s name is a term coined by highly influential 20th century environmentalist Aldo Leopold, referring to a holistic view of where one stands in relation to the interconnected elements of the ecosystem. The Arhuacos people are guardians of the Colombia’s highest mountain, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, and through self imposed isolationism they strive to preserve this environment and the profound, ecocentric spirituality they draw from it. Director Alexander Hick is given unprecedented access to their most remote communities, journeying through the mountain range with a young spiritual leader and learning of the colonisation, industrialisation, climate change and armed conflicts that threaten The Arhuacos’ sacred land and way of life.

Who made it?  

Alexander Hick (San Agustin: Low Tide in The Plastic Sea, Atl Tiachinolli) founded Flipping The Coin Films, a production company that produces ‘independent documentary films that engage the question of cinematic authorship’, creating ‘works of art that escape clichéd categorizations and predictable market trends.’

What’s special about it?

Meditative montages of mountains, storms, caves and lagoons are accompanied by eerie woodwinds and smatterings of melodic percussion that blend with sounds of wind, water and deep creaking to evoke the thrum and jumbled harmony of the landscape. The film traces the Arhuacos’ history of resilience, from their encounter with the first colonising whites, to the homecoming of an Arhuaco guerrillero following the laying-down of arms by the FARC. Solemn stories of forced religious conversions, of a people drawn into conflict by the unexplained assassinations of their leaders, and a land contaminated by mass graves are intercut with breathtaking images of the mountain range and passages describing the Arhuacos’ passionate dedication to preserving it. The pride that the Arhuacos take in their unique cosmogony and integral relationship to the natural environment is palpable, and a stark contrast to the reporters and tourists that briefly peer at their culture through smartphones and cameras. A powerful rumination on ‘that which soon will no longer exist, but whose gravity penetrates all.’ 

Thinking Like a Mountain screens on 28 March at 11:00 at Watershed. Buy your tickets here.


You can see all three of these films, as well as all other screenings, events and conference sessions at the RAI Film Festival with a Festival Pass. Buy yours today!

After Jean Rouch

by Caterina Sartori

In 2017 the RAI Film Festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jean Rouch’s birth with a special event at Arnolfini gallery in Bristol; the screening of one of Rouch’s most renowned films, Moi, un noir, was followed by a round-table discussion with two eminent “Rouchologists”, Jean-Paul Colleyn and Paul Stoller. Additionally, Paul Henley, the 2017 Festival Director and the driving force behind the event, delivered an exhaustive introductory lecture on Rouch’s work and life.

The foundational and ongoing influence of Rouch’s work on visual anthropology and ethnographic film is unmistakable. It remains unsurpassed to this day, it has been extensively written about and the sold-out 2017 RAI-FF centenary celebration is testament to an ongoing interest in the man and his oeuvre.

However, there’s arguably one aspect of Rouch’s legacy that has remained under celebrated over the years. Whilst his concept of “shared anthropology”, founded on the close and ongoing relation with a network of collaborators, is well known, it is rarer to find a serious engagement with the work that Rouch’s collaborators created as artists and cultural producers in their own right.

In Adventures of the Real, Paul Henley devotes an entire chapter to discussing the concept and praxis of Rouch’s shared anthropology, not shying away from a critical appraisal of its limitations and blind spots. Here we learn of Damouré Zika, Lam Ibrahim Dia, Tallou Mouzourane, Moussa Hamidou, Moustapha Alassane, Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye, who worked closely with Rouch on the production of his most famous films both in front and behind the camera. It is clear that Rouch’s films would not exist without them, and that the professional relation and friendship that tied them to Rouch marked their lives in important ways.

Why then has it not been important for the discipline that so consistently sees in Rouch its founding father, to interrogate itself about the trajectories of his collaborators after his departure? This is especially surprising if we consider how incredibly central figures such as Moustapha Alassane, Oumarou Ganda and Safi Faye have been in the development of African cinema; it might become less surprising once we consider the questions, criticisms and ambivalence with which African filmmakers have approached Rouch’s work and his involvement in filmmaking on the continent.

These critical engagements, which have come for example from Ousmane Sembène, Oumarou Ganda, Manthia Diawara, often manage to both deliver strong criticism and highlight the limits of Rouch’s approach, whilst at the same time recognising the influence, novelty and importance of his contribution. Behind the memorable one-liners, such as Sembène’s “You look at us like insects” and Ganda’s “Every time I make a film, I kill Jean Rouch”, lie much more articulated positions that confirm at the very least that Rouch’s influence cannot easily be bypassed or ignored – but that it cannot escape confrontation with its most direct heirs either.

Contributions to literature such as Steven Ungar’s article Whose voice? Who’s Film?: Jean Rouch, Oumarou Ganda and Moi, un noir” in Building Bridges: The Cinema of Jean Rouch  engage with this complex legacy in relation to Rouch’s collaborators. However, a debate that takes as its starting point a shared knowledge of the films that emerge from that milieu is much rarer – and any debate where the films are not seen risks remaining confined to the margins.

It is with this in mind that we decided to programme two films directed by Safi Faye within the 16th RAI Film Festival 2019. Safi Faye acted for Jean Rouch in Petit à Petit, and later went on to study ethnology and cinematography in Paris. Two of her films were screened in Cannes and she is considered one of the founding figures of African cinema, and in particular of Senegalese cinema. For a number of reasons her films are difficult to find and see, and we hope that this rare opportunity to engage directly with her work, screened on a cinema screen and framed by conversations and discussions, will stimulate new debates within the discipline and expand our understanding of what ethnographic and anthropologically informed film is, has been and can be, after and beyond Jean Rouch.

\end of part I

(Caterina Sartori
RAI Film Officer
18/12/2018)