Saturday, March 04, 2006

Oddball Films—Trance Cinema: The Power of Possession

Found myself back at the black fake fur door for more Friday night fun much sooner than I expected! I allowed my friend Gus to lead the way so that he could experience the place firsthand for himself. There were three times as many people this time! Word must have traveled.

While walking through the stacks back to the "screening room", I noticed the "Reasons" sign high up behind me on the back wall. For over 60 years the 17 Reasons Why! sign graced the top of the Thrift Town building at 17th and Mission; a city landmark. A few years ago it was torn down (many feel, illegally). I had no idea the sign had been preserved and was resting in the Oddball Films Archives. Apparently Jane Martin from Plant SF has the "Why", Oddball Films the "Reasons" on the aforementioned back wall as well as the "17" (leaning up somewhere between the stacks). Maybe I can find that "17" next time. There's something talismanic about this old sign; a talisman the City once wore to protect itself from developers.

Steve Parr gave a sweet intro on the objectives of the Oddball Films nonprofit. Images are licensed out from the archives for documentaries (such as the one on the Weather Underground), etc. He lectures around the country on archival film. His respectful affection for film apparent, Steve claims that if treated properly film will stick around a lot longer than dvds. There's no question films age and deteriorate, of course they do, and they need to be spliced, they get scratchy; but, that only means that many people have repeatedly watched and enjoyed them. Steve is speaking of the character of film, much like one would compliment an elder's laughlines or the patina on silver or gold. Film, by its very nature, can be tempermental and so Steve cautions patience, with film stock itself and with the changing of the reels.

Tonight's "event"—Trance Cinema: The Power of Possession—featured Ma'Bugi: Trance of the Toraja (1973, color) shot in Indonesia; Holy Ghost People (1967, B&W), San Franciscan Peter Adair's verite documentary about Pentecostal snake handlers in rural West Virgina, and a rare, musical short—Buck Dancer (1965)—by ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. Unfortunately, due to a late start and previous commitments, I was not able to stay for the last reel. But the first two raised my eyebrows!

Per Steve's press notes: "Ma'Bugi: Trance of the Toraja depicts an unusual trance ritual that functions to restore the balance of well-being to an afflicted village community. This film clearly portrays the song, dance and pulsating tension that precede dramatic instances of spirit possession in the Toraja highlands of Sulawesi (Celebes) Island, Indonesia. Ma'Bugi: Trance of the Toraja augments the growing body of documentation of ritually sanctioned altered states of consciousness. This remarkable film communicates both the psychological abandon of the trance state and the often neglected motivation underlying such activities as the supernaturally curing of the chronically ill and the ascent of a ladder of knives. The ceremony is narrated by the Tominaa, priest of the ancestral Toraja religion."

In a day and age when even the Lacandon Maya have dvd players and satellite dishes, it's difficult to configure a world where media's intervention has not yet induced a more passive trance state. In the old days among old ways the rituals of the Toraja required active participation by each individual and by the community in sync. Those touched by the spirit would cut themselves with knives and use their blood to heal the sick and the wounded. They would climb barefoot up ladders constructed from bamboo poles and sharp knives.

In a world reconfigured by AIDS the vitality of blood has been necessarily reined within health protocol. I've long felt this fascinating. As a student of the Maya culture of Central America, I was taught about the chu'lel, the magical and vital quality of human blood. The chu'lel itself was very dangerous and had to be contained within certain rituals. It was invisible. It could not be seen, heard, tasted. In many ways it was as dangerous and as invisible as radioactivity. As modern people it has been difficult for us to understand the power so-called "primitives" granted blood, or at least it was difficult until the AIDS pandemic broke, at which time out of fear we recognized the parameters of our essential vitality.

"Rightly hailed by Margaret Mead as one of the best ethnographic documentary films ever made," Steve's notes continue, "and a staple of every documentary film studies course, Holy Ghost People by the late San Francisco filmmaker Peter Adair (Stopping History, Word is Out) examines the Scrabble Creek, West Virginia Pentecostal congregation whose fundamentalist philosophy encourages a literal interpretation of the Bible. The film reveals the religious fervor, the faith healing, the trances, the glossolalia (speaking in tongues), the anointing, the ingestion of poison (Strychnine) and the use of rattlesnakes in the church's religious services." Gary Morris has a great write-up on this film, included in his Little Stabs of Happiness (and Horror) section for Bright Lights Film Journal:

To be honest, after watching both films, I wasn't sure which one scared me most: the blood-focused self-afflicted rituals of the Toraja or the crazily-conservative beliefs of the Scrabble Creek parishioners!! Both seemed so literal and misguided.

Morris points out that the lure of these dangerous rituals can be sometimes lethal and concedes that it "would be easy to dismiss these people and their primal ways as cranks and fanatics" but he qualifies that Adair's respectful, nonsensational approach precludes such a facile dismissal.

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