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Avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren is mostly known for short films like Meshes in the Afternoon. A predominant theme of her work is dance. Both literally, and in the 'dance' choreography where the camera manipulates space. Following a win at Cannes, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, she travelled to Tahiti to make a movie about dance. But the dynamics of ritual among Voudoun devotees would throw much light on her academic writings on the artist's responsibility in ethnography.
The finished film uses her footage from 1947 to 1951. But it was only released after her death, with explanatory narration from her book of the same name. Observations partake of the dispassionate ethnographer but with an artist's ability to create atmosphere using metaphor. "The rhythm and the sound of the drum brings out the movement of the dancing. It is the drumming which fuses together the 50 or more individuals into a single body, making them move as one. As if all had become linked on the thread of a single pulse." Deren is one of the few Westerners to be admitted to innermost Voudoun rituals. By the end of her stay, she had been accepted as a Mambo priestess. Yet throughout, her scientific candour remains as uncoloured as the studies of JG Fraser.
In Voudoun terminology, it is said that the loa (spirit) 'mounts' a person. The symbol is that of the horse and rider. Resulting actions and events are the expression of the will of the rider. Voudoun is syncretic, attempting to reconcile contrary beliefs, often melding practices of various schools of thought. It united disparate tribes of Haiti. It absorbs images from Roman Catholicism.
As the supreme God does not interfere with the world, it is to the various loa that devotees pay attention. The film documents several with associated rituals. Legba is a loa who is the link between the visible mortal world and the invisible immortal realms, the means and avenue between them. He is associated with a crossroads. A junction between worlds through which communication is established. The cross in Voudoun is also a symbol of life and death, of generation and resurrection.
One of the more complex ceremonies documented in the film is the celebration of Agwé's wedding. Agwé is the sovereign spirit of the sea, betrothed to the Goddess of Love. He also symbolises the ideal husband
being as the sea is, a ready strength and deep peace.
Our Goddess of Love, Erzulie, is mother of man's myth of life. In her, Voudoun salutes woman as love and muse. In a sense, she is the very principle by which man conceives and creates divinity. A beautiful mood accompanies her arrival, an atmosphere of refinement, "as if a fresh cooling breeze has sprung up." The atmosphere becomes less intense.
But what about 'possession' one of the more famous aspects of Voudoun? We see a sudden change come over participants as the loa 'mounts' them. But is it 'real'? Could it be fakery? Hypnotism perhaps? Possessed persons get considerable honour, so the temptation is there. But anthropologists (such as MJ Herskovitz) suggest it is normal in certain cultures. Not put on or induced. A Voudoun priest (a hungon) may also do tests of his own though. For instance, he might get the 'possessed' to drink chilli concentrate to see if they react.
I witnessed a Voudoun ceremony on another island - Bali. A young man seeking possession took his turn, dancing excited by drums. He became exceedingly the easiest word is - 'possessed' and ran out of the compound into oncoming traffic. He was eventually stopped, but I did not personally doubt his genuineness. He did eventually recover, slightly puzzled.
The film shows rituals of life and death at the cemetery. Catholic litanies (action de grace) precede the Voudoun ceremony. As the future springs from the present, life and death are viewed as one.
Divine Horsemen doesn't try to avoid 'difficult' aspects. So what of rituals that are more aggressive? Instead of sensationalising, it explains, "If the Rada (tribe of) loa represent the protective, guardian powers, the Petra loa are the patrons of aggressive action. The Petra cult was born out of a cosmic rage. It is the rage against the evil fate which the African suffered because of his enslavement. The energy from that rage enabled him to regain his freedom by winning the revolution against the Napoleonic forces." Such factual accounting extends to sacred animal sacrifice (which some viewers, of course, may find disconcerting).
Filming sensitive material presents its own problems. Cameras are intrusive. Deren develops techniques called 'shoot to cut' (which reduces the need for editing) and 'plan to eye,' (which uses a visual shorthand). On the back of her Bolex camera, she taped the commands, Speed Stop Focus Finder Motor. The prompts were there to safeguard shots that could never be redone.
A final section of the film shows Tahitian Carnival, Spring Festival. This has some of the most interesting dance sequences, many by talented performers rather than people possessed. Although presided over by a loa, it is not primarily religious. "Carnival celebrates a triumph over death. Of Spring life over the Winter, which was death for the earth. A time for putting the past behind. Of excitement and hope. And promise of a fresh start and a clean beginning." Deren related Voudoun back to her own work and philosophy of art. Using the idea of a collective of people, as found in ritual, she explains how the true artist becomes a channel of creativity, serving those people.
Deren has fathomed the deepest recesses of her subject and commits them to film and folio. A faithfulness rarely achieved in either. Her methodology and essays continue to inspire serious artists, filmmakers and researchers. Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti, pieced together with primitive film equipment, is a lasting legacy of inestimable value.
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