Feature Story

Misterios -spiritual possession in the dominican republic

PROMESA
Caballo de Misterio
Viernes Dolor
Servidore de Misterios
PAPA LEGBA
RAINY CALVARIO
SAN MIGUEL
Carrying the Saint
Singing to the LWA
PUNTO PETRO
Possession

I was raised by grandparents who didn't have a television (in the early 1960's in Italy, not everybody had a television) and grew up listening to stories and recollections of their youth in the wild swamps of Maremma (the southernmost part of Tuscany) where malaria was rampant and polenda (maize meal) was the staple. As a matter of fact, one of the things that has always fascinated me is oral tradition.

In my opinion, oral tradition is a privilege. You are either lucky enough to know the people who know, and they tell you while they are still alive, or you're not and you'll never know. One of my greatest desires, since I was a child, was to preserve and pass on oral tradition.

Life has brought me, for its own reasons, to work for television, and as the years went by I must say that I grew less and less proud of my career. I started very young to work for a major American network based in London, England covering major world events like the fall of the Berlin wall, the endless urban conflict in Northern Ireland, the war in Bosnia, and the first war in the Persian Gulf. Along the way I became more and more cynical and disillusioned about what I was doing. As I progressed in my career, the world of Network Television appeared to me to be increasingly meaningless, empty, and contrived.

I'll try to explain what I mean. For example, there I was, "covering" unique and historically important events, employing the most sophisticated technology, sparing no expense, risking my own life to "feed" the raw, often powerful, footage back to the New York headquarters. When I'd get to see the finished product, to put it in the words of my dearest colleague (a senior cameraman), it "would be fit for an audience of very well-educated 12 years olds...."

In other words, television as we know it (indeed, increasingly in the last few years), has the financial means to be present whenever and wherever history is in the making and yet is not able or willing (for a number of reasons I won't examine here) to fulfill its enormous cultural and educational potential, but only spurts out whatever a small-minded corporate (and obviously somewhat politically biased) management considers "fit for broadcast." However, working for television over the past 25 years has given me considerable technical and editorial knowledge, has enabled me to pay my bills, own a small apartment, and most importantly, finance my own short films. And I am very grateful for that.

Most of my films are documentaries about oral tradition. I would characterize the way I try to shoot and edit in one word: unobtrusively. I don't like to use lights, a big crew, intimidating equipment, not even a "commentary" track explaining what we see but rather let the very people on the screen tell what is going on in their own words.

I don't get financial help from anybody. Not because I don't want it, but because I often operate as if in a "mystical rapture." I immediately start filming and following the subject matter instinctively and impulsively without allocating much time to pre-production and budgeting and even less time to schmoozing and connecting with the "money people." Also, unfortunately, being a self-taught kind of guy, yet an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist at heart, I am not well connected to the academic world either.

Often, in order to explore and film my subjects more intensely, deeply and unobtrusively, I commit to them at a deep level--plunging myself fearlessly into the most intimate recesses of the subject matter, living for extended periods of time with the protagonists of my film, sharing the same food, smelling the same smells, sometimes befriending them, albeit always trying to maintain my personal objectivity and common sense that usually guide me to when and where to press the camera trigger and how to frame a shot.

I could say I am a primitive filmmaker. I care more about the story than the "pretty picture." I use my quarter of a century of technical and editorial experience in all my films, both in the field and in the edit room. But I try not to be dominated by it, sometimes enjoying the greater latitude that financial independence gives me to escape the "rules" and embark on totally unorthodox visual and structural experiments.

"Misterios" has been the most difficult film of my entire career. First of all I started researching and filming with neither an audience nor a commercial end in mind. I started documenting ceremonies and spiritual possessions mainly to learn, to enter a world of faith and worship that I felt was calling me. Making the film, at first, was merely an instrument, an excuse to gain access, to get to know the people and their spiritual beliefs. Then it became an effort to try and condense on magnetic tapes the intense emotions that this religion was evoking in me and them.

The greatest difficulty however, was to translate, to make accessible to an audience, via the film medium (very often reliant on technical artifice and content dramatization) something so mysterious, so completely based on intangible energies, on ancient traditions, on strong spiritual beliefs and yet, as I witnessed it, so real.

I don't think I have achieved that. I think now that perhaps it just cannot be done or even, I dare say, should not be done. When it comes to faith, each and every person has got to find and walk his or her own path according to a calling. It is certainly impossible to assemble a "pre-packaged" product on this topic, polished and ready for audience consumption.

On the other hand, making this film has been an opportunity for me to travel into my own spirituality by exploring the often "down-to-earth" yet totally unexplainable world of Dominican Vudu. I have read of other filmmakers, such as Maya Deren, who were also attracted to the spirituality and power of Vudu religion even before thinking of the importance and relevance of the film they were actually shooting. The same happened to me. Hence, not once in the over 60 hours of footage and nearly two years of production, did it occur to me that I was making this documentary without a commercial end in mind.

For me, all along, making this film firstly meant doing an act of devotion to the deity that inexplicably, powerfully, irresistibly attracted me, Santa Marta la Dominadora. As well, it was a way for me to become an apprentice in this Afro-Caribbean "branch" of the Catholic faith that I felt was calling me louder and louder every day.

The hardest and most unexpected moment, my true "reality check," came when I set about putting English subtitles to the documentary. Then and there I realized, aside from the difficulty of interpreting and translating the true sense of certain expressions, the truly gargantuan task of giving meaning to all that was happening and being said on the screen while keeping in mind an Anglo-Saxon audience.

I decided the English language was not up to the task. Even with the help of illustrious academic translators who offered their expertise, I felt we could only barely approximate the meaning of many concepts in order to give an English-speaking audience a very relative and unclear portal "to get in." There are many words in Spanish (and in Italian) to translate the not-so-easy-to-define concept that in English is univocally called "love." Perhaps that can serve as an example of how hard the subtitling task was, without getting into too many details.

As all things must come to an end, I have now a "finished" product, the documentary Misterios, 55 minutes long, that is only partially fulfilling my expectations. I also edited an additional 84-minute film/program that includes all the musical footage that was only partially included (for editorial-timing and formatting reasons) in Misterios. I call this film/program The Culture of Palo and, although most of the footage is grainy, gritty and unedited, I consider it priceless for it preserves that tradition--so ephemeral, so quickly disappearing and mutating--that I initially set out to document.

The documentary Misterios, while far from a thorough and clinical dissection of Vudu religion, has already fulfilled its purpose. I now have a huge database and network of people in the world of Dominican Vudu, some of whom I call friends. More importantly, I have personally entered that very world and have become part of it through the teachings of others and mainly through faith and devotion deep down in my own soul. I have now an open road in front of me to better my knowledge of the inexplicable. I have become a student in the University of the Supernatural. I have finally found hope to be able to reach the day of my death with an increased sense of what life, compassion and faith are to me, accepting my human limitations and the mysterious ways destiny and God work.

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2 responses

  • Michael Adams

    Michael Adams gave props (4 Dec 2008):

    What a powerful story and project that you embarked on. The photos here are wonderful and really lend themselves to the feeling youa re trying to create!

  • je suis moi

    je suis moi   gave props (28 Jan 2009):

    well done A++++

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