Accepted paper:

"The Creative Use of Reality": Aesthetic and Political Dimensions of Films on Trance and Spirit Possession (1940s-1960s)


Michaela Schäuble (University of Berne )

Paper short abstract:

This presentation investigates different approaches to coping with the challenges that states of trance and spirit possession pose to cinematic representation. Drawing on filmic examples of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, it analyses differing concepts of representing visible and invisible worlds beyond the photorealist credo.

Paper long abstract:

The main challenge of filming states of trance and spirit possession is to unite two different aspects of cultural reality, namely "the invisible knowledge of the gods, and the visible evidence of the possessed body," as the film theorist Catherine Russell has rightly pointed out. States of trance and spirit possession have inspired the modernist imagination perhaps more than anything else, as they typically exceed the limits of visual representation. In my presentation I investigate different approaches to coping with the challenges that such phenomena pose to cinematic representation, focusing on filmic examples that were developed by pioneering documentarits: a.) Maya Deren's footage on Haitian voudoun ritual, shot between 1947 and 1953 b.) Jean Rouch's films on possession and sorcery in West Africa, mainly dating from the 1950s and c.) the films of a group of Italian filmmakers (i.e. Mingozzi, di Gianni, Mangini, Carpitella, et. al.) who set out to document ecstatic religious forms in southern Italy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Each of these filmmakers developed new approaches to physical mobility and performance before and behind the camera, thus exploring what Deren referred to as cinema's specific "eye for magic". In my paper I am primarily interested in analysing the processes through which possession rituals themselves have inspired and initiated innovations in filmmaking by means of combining - or blurring the boundaries between - ethnographic and experimental modes of practice.

panel V07
Representing the non-representable: visual representations of extraordinary beings in ethnographic films