The 9th International Festival of Ethnographic Films in Nuoro, Sardinia: Music & Rituals
In and Out of Sardinia.
From the moment I stepped onto Sardinian soil, to the moment the plane lifted off 8 days later, I was treated to one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. I had come to the island for an ethnographic film festival, and although I was expecting to make some extra-curricular side-trips and discoveries, I was not prepared for the enduring impression that week would make. I spent the weekend before the festival with new friends I'd met through the Internet while searching for information on the launeddas, a Sardinian musical instrument where a single player uses circular breathing to play three pipes simultaneously. My new friends whisked me away and in less than 48 hours, I had met several of the island's best players, ordered a set of launeddas from the island's most renowned maker, been the guest of honor at several gatherings and had decided it would be necessary to move to Sardinia in the not-too-distant future! At the rendezvous point of the Cagliari airport, my new-found friends helped me locate Peppino the chauffeur, who stood anonymously in the crowd, holding the card with our names firmly folded in half, writing side in. In record time we were off to Nuoro, a scenic two hours' drive from Cagliari.
My hotel was an 8-minute walk from the festival site, The Istituto Superiore Regionale Etnografico (hereafter referred to as the Institute), perched atop a hill overlooking the neighboring mountain range. The Institute was founded in 1972 to document the Sardinian culture and has been hosting this biennial international film festival since 1982. The first festival featured a very Sardinian theme, "The Shepherd and His Image" (one of the best-known products of the island being its delicious peccorino cheese, made from sheep's milk). Since then themes have ranged from "The World Upside-Down, or Carnival and Controlled Transgression" (1984), to "Magic and Medicine in Traditional Societies" (1996). The 1998 festival theme was "Music and Rituals." The entrance criteria for the Festival graciously do not impose a limit on the production date of films, as the intent is to acknowledge films within the selected theme and specifically for their excellence and contribution to the geme. The prizes in the film category range from approximately U.S. $9,650 to about U.S. $2,400 and in the video category from about U.S. $7,250 to approximately U.S. $1,800.
Institute director Paolo Piquereddu and assistants organized a superb festival. We were given passes to a moviegoer's dreamworld, with a broad range of films, fascinating people and luscious food. They also treated us to a day-long excursion to the beautiful seaside village of Castelsardo, where we heard a special performance of vocal music traditionally performed during Holy Week. The ten male singers were local residents of Castelsardo who had full-time jobs doing other things but had the honorable position of singing for their church on important religious occasions. They accompanied us to a nearby seafood restaurant and sang many more times between courses. Our minds were fresh with the images and sounds in Renato Morrelli's Su Concordu, a film that focuses on Holy Week singing in another Sardinian village. The island was a concrete presence throughout the festival, from the countryside to the culture; this was truly an event that could only happen in Sardinia.
After each screening, there was a question and answer period between the directors and the viewers. These often became mutual appreciation sessions, but from time to time a lively discussion was sparked. The films fell into a variety of categories, from early archival pieces to high-budget television and feature productions. Most of them were in (or subtitled in) English, French or Italian, and simultaneous translation was provided via radio operated receivers. As nearly 50 films were screened at the festival, over half of which were part of the competition, I have limited mention in this review to several films that made strong impressions on me, my fellow viewers or the jury.
The masterful Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kammerling launched the festival. The film, which was awarded 3rd prize in the competition, revolves around the meaning of dancing and drumming among the Yup'ik Eskimo people in Alaska. As well as original footage, the film uses archival stills, film and historical writing to portray a culture that has fought, and continues to fight, to remember itself the rough the traditions passed on from the times of the ancestors. The filmmakers worked with the Yup'ik in a process they call "collaborative community filmmaking," in which the film subjects are actively involved in all stages of the production. This fine film was a hard act to follow; in fact, I found my expectations raised to a level that was rarely reached again throughout the festival.
Amir, directed by John Bailey, is a poignant portrait of an Afghan musician's life as a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan. The cinematography was so well done that it became invisible, thus allowing the content center stage. This intelligent film had many elements I appreciate in a film: high emotional content, respect for the viewer's ability to come to her or his own conclusions, an element of mystery (that is in part revealed by the film's end), and the underlining of issues that spark more questions for later consideration.
Carmen Opipari and Sylvie Timbert explore young girls' perspectives on their membership in an Afro-Brazilian cult in Barbara et ses amis au pays du Candomblé. The video follows several children who belong to the Candomblé cult—some of them having been initiated at an extremely young age. The rich information gleaned as a result of the inspired choice to ask children to be expert informants was also appreciated by the jury, who awarded the video 3rd prize.
One film that might have passed me by unnoticed had it not been for a most brilliantly placed quote was The Dancer and the Dance, directed by Felicia Hughes-Freeland. The film has two distinct parts: the first witnessing moments in the daily life of a young Javanese woman studying the art of court dancing; and the second, observing the dance class as a whole. The viewer's comfortable role as detached observer is quietly altered when a venerable dance master urges, "Watch from gentleness—that is the organ to use when watching our dancing."
And for those who accept the master's invitation, the act of viewing is transformed into a much more sensually engaged and aware experience.
La Fête de Tamar et Lashari, by Hugo Zemp, received first prize in the video category, and documents a little-known festival in honor of 12th century queen Tamar and her son Lasha, who have attained sainthood among some eastern Georgian peoples. It i s a fascinating and somewhat mysterious cultural moment. Ethnomusicologist Zemp was requested to make this film by his Georgian colleagues, and the aim of the film is clearly intended to serve their specific demands. I missed close-ups and other filmic techniques that normally aid in relating to subjects in a film, and I greatly appreciated the few moments when Zemp, eye glued to the viewfinder, reaches out to accept wine from those he's filming.
Molokans Spiritual Singing, by Leonid Sergeeovich Filirninov, is a short video shot during the First World Congress of Spiritual Christians-Molokans, held in Russia in 1992. Though rife with odd filmmaking decisions (at times, many lines of English subtitles in a too-large font obscure the image), there are some truly memorable moments, especially when long tables of men and women are brought to their feet by their own singing, waving their arms in a manner remarkably like that of American shape-note singers.
In Sivas Wachse die Dichter (Sivas—Home of Poets), filmmakers Said Menafi and Werner Bauer originally intended to portray the art of Turkish Alevite musicians and poets, but the film was forced to directly address religious persecution after the massacre of 37 members of their community (some of whom were main subjects of the film) by fundamentalist terrorists. The jury awarded it first prize for its effective storytelling through poetry and music.
Sons of Shiva, by Robert Gardner and Àkos Östör, vibrates with exquisite images and sounds and certainly transported me to some aesthetic paradise, if but for 20 minutes. Gardner has a reputation for from the Dance pushing the boundaries of ethnographic film to such an extent that his relationship to anthropology has become controversial. The film was shot during a 4-day festival in honor of Shiva. Although some viewers critiqued the film for editing decision they felt rendered the Bengali participants too exotic, the jury awarded the film 2nd prize for its evocative content.
Wale Chantal, Femme Ekonda, by Helene Pagezy documents the rituals surrounding the completion of a Ekonda woman's obligatory seclusion after the birth of her first child. The video received 2nd prize for its "multi-leveled exploration of a complex event." Archival programs: The first of the three programs was a screening of Sardinian documentaries from the 1950s—most of which were projected too fast, which had the unfortunate effect of rendering the traditional dances and other actions comical. Yet the films still remain invaluable documents of a culture, which like any other, continues to fold in change as part of its tradition.
The program of Dutch archival films from Indonesia in the ' 10s and '20s was more aesthetically satisfying than the previous program. I especially enjoyed Dances of Wirengs in the Cratten of Surakarta, in which two young Indonesian girls dance—not always in synchrony, which makes it that much better. The film has a degree of warmth that in my experience is rare in documentary films from that era.
The third archival presentation was screened after the awards ceremony as the grand finale. Sanos 'e Memoria was a brilliant concept by Gianfranco Cabiddu and a breathtaking sensual experience. The film was a compilation of documentary images of Sardinia from the 1920s to the 1950s, with the intent to edit for thematic content rather than chronological verity. Musical director Paolo Fresu united an unlikely grouping of musicians from traditional Sardinian, classical and jazz backgrounds, who performed the dazzling soundtrack live to a full house in a local theater.
The screening portion of the festival closed with Unknown Bard (Achin Pakhi), by Tanvir Mokammel. This biographical portrait focused on Lalon Fakir, a bard from 19th century Bangladesh whose philosophies on issues such as religion and women's place in society were far ahead of their time, and whose songs and poems are still performed and treasured in Bengal. Many films screened at the festival had far larger budgets and glossier production values than this modest video, but few matched its simplicity of presentation and faithfulness to the subject.
Minutes before takeoff, a flight attendant approached me with a concerned expression. "Ms. Berman?" she inquired. With mounting anxiety, I nodded. "Here," she said, handing me a stack of audio tapes bound together with a rubber band. "One of your friends wanted you to have this." My Cagliari hosts had just missed sending us off at the gate but had managed to send this gift on. This moment was exemplary of my whole experience; I felt I had been taken care of on every step of my brief journey, and had met people in and out of the festival I would be honored to consider my friends.
The next International Festival of Ethnographic Film will be held in October, 2000. The theme has not yet been decided, but the Istituto Superiore Regionale Etnografico can be contacted for more information.
SHARON BERMAN is an ethnomusicologist and is currently in the doctoral program at the University of Southern California in Visual Anthropology.