Salīh. A Cham Buffalo Sacrifice: The how to *not* make an ethnographic movie.

I guess that may come with the job description… As an ethnographer, I have to confess an absolute adoration for ethnographic movies. I would choose a Jean Rouch film over any Oscared documentary, anytime. I love that those films have – just like Cinema Vérité – this ‘’fly on the wall’’ approach. I love that they take the yellow brick road without being too sure of where it leads, and that the final destination aimed for is ‘’let’s-just-observe-and-deliver-the-thing-completely-raw-to-the-viewers’’.

Well, ok, there may not be – in the end – such a wizardly objective destination. Taking the camera and choosing your angle is already opting for a perspective over another one. Both as an anthropologist and a film-maker, you are indeed making subjective decisions on what you will deliver: the visual material is just ‘’cooking’’ as any other material fresh out of the field… Nonetheless, those films are to me an ideal in terms of documentaries: a voice doesn’t tell me what to think, an interview doesn’t guide me from point A to point C skipping point B because ‘’that’s not the point’’, the music doesn’t tell me that now is the time for a good cry. Although I am fully aware the movie has been prepared for me to capture things exactly the way the film-maker wanted it, I still have this illusion that little – compared to other non-fiction cinematic forms – has been done for me to digest the information.

Being ethnogravich & movie-buvich (…)

So – ideally – what I have in mind when I decide to go capture a (Cham) moment of life, is a release of a (modest and humble) good old ethnographic movie. Well, that’s without counting on the little devil in my head, the one that has always been around: the movie-buff spirit. The little one comes in – uninvited that is – and before you know it, temptation of something completely out of the ethnographic box sets in. The little devil uses magic lines such as ‘’movies have no limits’’, ‘’what a waste of time spent in all those dark theatres’’, or ‘’so you have watched all those hours of motion pictures and pictures in motion, for what… the sweet illusion of a copy-paste reality?!’’ And the devil wins me over… After all, if the poetic, propagantic, edit-ic Man with a movie camera (Vertov 1929) marked the birth of ‘’Kino Pravda’’ (=‘’Film Truth’’), I guess anyone is free to build any kind of cinematic truth, as long as the very relative truth behind it is completely assumed…

Apocalypse Now: because now you have no light, and you are still no Coppola.

The little devil comes in, gets the china settled in my head, sits in the most comfortable armchair, and gets control over the remote: that’s going to take a while… The little devil doesn’t even mention Vertov today, but other biblical movies I could spend a nice time with, get some inspiration from… Soon enough images come up when I hear the words: ‘’possession ceremony and buffalo sacrifice showing next week at those times in your favorite village’’! Shots that have very little to do with my ethnographic movies references and ideals… May Jean forgive me in this life or the next!

Although I have been to Cham buffalo sacrifices in the past, suddenly those images of reality are erased: I now think about the most cinematic – yet absolutely real, and therefore highly controversial – buffalo sacrifice in Coppola’s 1979 Apocalypse Now. The darkness. The candles lights. The moon shine. He got it all just right. I think of this double reality Colonel Kurtz constantly evolves in: his madness is in fact the one out of our world, his (in)sanity in the end reveals our own. Thinking about those double levels of reality, I couldn’t help but visualise the Cham Cais possessions ceremonies: Cais live constantly in this multiple reality, as (wo)men in the street, mediums and as spirits. Obviously those realities are never separated, they are just one. There is no madness to the Cais, no parallel, no unreality, but the ones assigned by the external observer. And Kurtz comes back haunting: his face half revealed half hidden right by the very end of the movie, his persona’s features progressively enlightened by dim light, exposed only step by step, piece by piece. What a cinematography moment, my friends, what a cinematography moment! What a trance! From there, it is easy to go on a wild trip to even wilder dreams: I can do that! I too have seen Apocalypse Now like 1,759 billion times, so I too own the precise knowledge of those shots. And I too have the depth and the darkness of a night (and what a night…). I too have the moon, the candle, the absolute confusion of realities. Of course, I too can be Coppola anytime… Except… Well, the night is dark indeed, the candles are blown by the wind, and the moon doesn’t shine as much as the neons rented by the Cais. And then… well Coppola is Coppola, I guess I am not. Still satisfied with the pact, the devil decides it’s a good time to settle in, rents a room in my brain – long-term lease – and offers more deals…

Koyaanisqatsi: because in the end, it is all about balance. 

Little devil has chosen to come out of nap time during one of my online film school homework, to the opposite extreme of Apocalypse Now, with 1982’ Koyaanisqatsi. Unlike Apocalypse Now, I discovered Koyaanisqatsi only recently. And while Apocalypse Now transforms me into a religious fanatic, I am not an extremist when it comes to the qualities of Koyaanisqatsi. I like this poetic and musical documentary because it is – was? – an innovative voice, using only pictures and notes to convey a message that has yet to be deciphered by the viewer himself / herself. While I am not blindly buying in the original line – which I think may be a little outdated and slightly heavy – I like that the movie leaves it all to the viewer’s very own interpretation. While being highly descriptive and absolutely not explanatory, Koyaanisqatsi also sits at the exact opposite ends to the classical ethnographic movies: it relies on the beauty of the images and music, on their rhythm, to create emotion, feelings, pure and simple. And this is where the little devil gets me: I too want to have a Koyaanisqatsi moment! I too want to transform the Cais and the buffalo into a cinematic experience! (I am indeed aware of how it sounds…). What intrigued me about Koyaanisqatsi was this bet, that the team made in claiming that ‘’[The film is] meant to offer an experience rather than an idea, an information, or a story about a knowable or a fictional subject. […] to create a experience of the subject. It is up for the viewer to take for herself what it is that means’’. They didn’t want to explain things, they just wanted viewers to live them somehow. And in fact, that’s what I wanted for the Cais and the buffalo.

There is already quite some literature available on those possession ceremonies: from the early protectorate pioneers (Aymonier 1998), to contemporary anthropologists (Trankell 2002, Stock 2009), and in between the absolute ethnographer’s thesis (Baccot 1968). And we could all go on describing more, explaining more… translating more. And yet, what seemed to make more sense was not yet again another ‘’how to do guide’’ to Cais – even in video – but a movie to get into the Cais, to get into the buffalo. That’s why I wanted to do this little thing: using Koyaanisqatsi overwhelming soundtrack as well as some of its figures de style such as slow motion to create another ‘’ethnographic experience’’. Finally, just as in Koyaanisqatsi, Salīh doesn’t offer any translation to what is viewed, no subtitles but the ones the viewer wants to read. And in the end it all goes back to the idea of balance: Koyaanisqatsi was about life out of balance, from the Hopi definition. I chose the Cham word Salīh because it means something in changing, something which balance is being modified. Something brought back to balance… Which is exactly what Cais are about: Champa spirits possessions to restore balance to one’s health and balance to the surrounding world.

Well, in the end, I should apologize – the devil being a devil, doesn’t – to the viewers who – like me – hoped for a neat ethnographic movie, real time sound included. This is a good old tradition I still plan to carry on with later (modest and humble) movies. But in the meantime I just have to get rid of the devil who puts those ideas in my tea. Because in the end I am no Coppola or Reggio-Fricke-Glass (well, you didn’t see that one coming did you?). My darks are noisy, and neon lights don’t do much to half lit faces. My camera is shaky (not me obviously, the camera is though, very), and Cais don’t need timelapse to move faster than I do in my best sprints (and those are pretty lame I confess…). Yet, the devil was still quite quiet, and kind of kept it low. There could have been other movies, as the devil and I have many projects: we often have those endless discussions about 1958’ Ivan Groznyy (and the reminiscence of Champa grand kings watching over the migrating crowd), 1954’ Gojira (and the moving pace of the Cai ‘’royal horse spirit’’), 1995’ Casino and the mastery of Scorcese’s upper-dolly-shot over slow-motion-advancing-Robert-De-Niro (and the possibility of following the Cais from above the skies), and of course the breath taking sound… of 1977, 1980, 1983 and 2005 Star Wars’ Darth Vador (and the absolutely obvious agonising dark buffalo last breath……..). See what I am talking about? So indeed, both the little devil and I, from the same and sole reality, have done well to spare you – a lot – this time around!

© Emiko Stock - A buffalo head at a Cai ceremony - Phum Psar Trach, Kompong Chhnang, 2006.

© Emiko Stock – A buffalo head at a Cai ceremony – Phum Psar Trach, Kompong Chhnang, 2006.

* Watch Salīh, a Cham Buffalo Sacrifice: 14mns. (Or 9mns if you are sensitive, vegetarian, a reincarnated buffalo, or if you have your 5 years old sitting on your lap right now. In those cases stop at the 1st shot of daylight buffalo).

Phnom Penh, March 12, Emiko Stock.

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