Program presented by REEF
Essay by Anthropologist and Filmmaker Rawane Nassif
About Rawane Nassif
Born in Beirut in 1983, Rawane Nassif is a Lebanese-Canadian filmmaker and anthropologist. She works in research and films often addressing subjects such as space, identities, displacement and memory. She worked on several documentaries in Lebanon, wrote a book on the politics of memory in the reconstruction of downtown Beirut, worked with immigrants and indigenous people in Canada, conducted visual research on nomadic traditions in Kyrgyzstan, taught anthropological courses in Tajikistan, wrote children’s books based on collected oral histories in Honduras and worked as a senior researcher on art films commissioned by the National Museum of Qatar and produced by the Doha Film Institute. Her latest short ‘Turtles are Always Home’ screened at the Berlinale and TIFF and won many awards.
In the third edition of Reef, Rural Encounters on Environment & Film, the program proposes a list of films that question the roles of myths and beliefs in our current times, and presents different lenses to view that conversation.
In an ever-changing world, countless communities are seeking to reappropriate, rediscover, preserve, and sometimes reinvent all the rich heritage that has been demolished in the last century due to the rapid urbanization and globalization that we have all been subjected to. New generations are increasingly searching for their roots, looking for distinctive cultural features, and holding onto identity signifiers that gives them and their region a uniqueness, be it as a market sellable value, or as a meaning to attach to. From certain food types, to clothing styles, to medicinal herbs, to old architectural technologies, to weather predictions and planting expertise and so on from important knowledge production that past generations relied on to explain and navigate the world they lived in.
In our current mosaic of cultural exchanges, colors, flavors and diversity are being celebrated. Old myths, stories, and beliefs are being unearthed to shed a new ancestral light on current issues. Ancient grandmother wisdom is being sought out now that we granddaughters are hitting a wall and didn’t reach the happiness and prosperity that modernity promised us. Ancient grandfather know-hows of living simpler are being celebrated now that resources are shrinking and cities are suffocating. A new return to the land and to the old ways is happening, and along with it a requestioning of all that we have learned in the exodus to the cities and all that we took for granted from the rural life. Planting for example became a financial loss, not because of the poverty of the crops, but due to the market economy impoverishing farmers and favouring city folks. The old dualities of “backward traditions and villages” and “forward urban spaces” have finally been challenged and seen as an economical system.
On the other hand, myths and beliefs, be it in a rural or an urban setting, are the pillars of modern-day traditions, and the justification of their social implementations. And in their turn, traditions propagate the same myths and beliefs and maintain them intact throughout centuries. Withstanding wars, migrations, and cultural invasions, some traditions and beliefs endured the test of time and accompanied us all along, and some myths and tales became the inspiration and back bones of many artworks and movies, and acted as a vehicle of education and knowledge for many generations. But what to keep and help carry forward, and what is obsolete and needs to be forgotten, has always been the question. The battle between tradition and modernity, science and religion, is as old as writing itself.
In TITIXE (Tania Hernández Velasco, Mexico) we are taken by the colours, rhythms and cyclicality of nature, we celebrate the old traditions and grieve their loss. One last planting season, the repetitions of movements creating a symphony, just like the sun, the rain and the clouds. The grandfather took care of the land, and the land in return remembered him and mourned his death. Without any real agricultural experience and without the knowledge of the grandfather that died with him, his daughter and granddaughter will try one last planting to convince the grandmother to keep the family land. The planting season gave everyone the time to mourn, to re-enter in the seasons of life from planting, harvesting and burning. Just like the life of a man, the black bean has a lifespan. There is wisdom in waiting for one more crop, for the time to say goodbye, the time for the soul to leave, the time for one to accept the loss. The loss of a grandfather, and the loss of a knowhow.
But even though many myths and beliefs came as an explanation to a phenomenon of their time and probably were avant-gardist in finding viable solutions at the time and made sense in their environment, passing them intact from a generation to the other, without taking into account the changes in context and realities, renders them hostile, undeciphered, and oppressive. The danger lies when the myth becomes the sole explanation of a reality, instead of being viewed as one of the many possible interpretations of it. Especially in the absence of literacy and education, when one does not have the necessary tools to seek knowledge for themselves, but relies on the interpretations of someone else deemed wiser by society. Religious authorities also play a crucial role in preserving social beliefs and are the perfect vector for maintaining myths and behaviors since they cannot be questioned easily, have an innate hierarchy, and require a trust and belief in the words of the clergy who’s granted power and wisdom from God.
On another hand, traditions and myths are also used by their believers and by some beneficiaries in an effort to maintain the status-quo, preserve the hierarchy, dictate the rigidity of the beliefs, and impose certain behaviors on society in general, and on women in particular, especially in a patriarchal society were women and kids are considered lesser than a man, viewed to be in a constant need of protection, unable to take decisions, unaware of their own needs, and existing in a system with the sole purpose to perform certain duties for the male head of the family, such as childbearing, serving, and obeying. Myths and beliefs in these cases are the reasons used to limit the freedom of women in choosing their destinies, and justifies the cutting and hiding of their bodies.
MOTHER OF THE UNBORN - Um Ghayeb (Nadine Salib, Egypt) for example recounts the struggles of a woman in Egypt who is trying to bear a child. Having no option but to live on the fringe of her community because of her infertility, Hanan lingers between a dream that is slowly slipping away and her struggle to find a place where she belongs. While everything that surrounds her bustles with fertility and mortality, she wonders how to give meaning to the time that she has in between. The film accompanies us through a system of folktale superstitions and phony doctors who provide fake hope to Hanan and prolong her suffering, keep fueling her desire to have a child, and convince her that she is less of a woman because she can’t be a mother. We also see how society views childless women, how the dream and pressure of motherhood are prevalent as a primordial role, and we get to experience the sweet relationship between Hanan and her husband, witnessing how patriarchy affects both genders.
We see again with YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY (Amjad Abu Alala, Sudan) how patriarchy as a system affects all genders, and how religious mythologies can alter the life of women and men alike. The prediction of the Khalifa that the newborn boy Muzamil will die at 20 years of age dismembers the whole family, each in a different way, because “the khalifa never says a wrong thing”. Muzamil succumbs to his destiny of living in fear and death, silencing his desires, bearing the weight of maledictions on his tender back, carrying the burden of a religious myth and an absent father and an overprotective mother, until he turns 19 and finally faces himself.
But away from the dichotomy between a return to traditions and a running away from it, a third subtle line is emerging. A balance between the two. An invitation to dissect and choose from traditions what needs to be celebrated, and what no longer serves us, and to find the complexity behind each system. That is a constant ever-changing conversation, of how to walk that fine line between tradition and modernity. How to find the history and truth and old wisdoms hidden in myths, without being shackled by them. How to unearth them, scrutinize them, and look at them with a newer lens, not only to preserve them but to find new useful meanings, in an ever-shifting modern world.
AL SIT (Suzannah Mirghani, Sudan) for example portrays that conversation really well. It acknowledges the complexity of power that a matriarch can have once her husband dies and shows how patriarchy can favor women in some specific circumstances. The film portrays the three choices our society is having: the traditional matriarch who believes people inherit their characteristics from their family, that destiny is written, and that girls cannot choose whom to marry. The westernized immigrant who returns home to get a woman from his village, but values only progress and money and urban fairy-tales. And the third way, the girl who is rooted in her land, understands the importance of the Sudanese cotton and traditional farming, but chooses to break with traditions when it comes to her personal life.
In another example, GHADI (Amin Dora, Lebanon) plays with the creation of myths and beliefs to his advantage in a very creative twist. Leba, the main character and music instructor, uses the power of representation and the magic of myths to challenge society into accepting his son that was rejected as “abnormal”. The movie shows all the cliches and stereotypes of a Lebanese neighborhood, with all its typical and predictable characters from the bickering couple, to the thief, to the wife-beating husband, to the pressure placed on youngsters to marry and have a boy… Traditions tend to homogenize behaviors and compartmentalize people into specific acceptable roles, but the problem with normalcy is that it fits us into inaccurate fixed frames and disregards minorities and ethnic, biological and sexual diversity, a detail that Ghadi highlights brilliantly. The change will only come from the misfits in a hypocritical “normal” society.
SIBEL (Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, Turkey) on the other hand reminds us of a feminist little-red-riding-hood adaptation where the woman is the hunter, and society is the wolf. 25-year-old Sibel lives with her father and sister in a secluded village in the mountains of Turkey’s Black Sea region. Sibel is a mute, but she communicates by using the ancestral whistled and is ostracized by the women of the community for being different, for hunting, and for acting like a man. Her muteness is considered a malediction to others, even though she communicates effortlessly and was constantly making efforts to be accepted. She spends the majority of her time in the forest trying to hunt a wolf that was believed to roam around a big rock where women go to marry. But just like in a deconstructed fairy tale, nothing is what it seems, the man, the wolf, the girl and the father all have their own challenges and do not fit traditional narratives.
Myths are filled with magic, predictions, cosmic powers, and trickeries, but so is cinema, the biggest inventor and illustrator of new and old myths. From superhero movies, to dystopian narratives, to enchanted other worlds, to the Rahbani brothers crafting and anchoring the legend of a Lebanese tradition in our collective imagination… the history of cinema is packed with make-believe stories. The medium of the moving image from Plato’s cave to the big screen, lends itself perfectly to illusion creation and is able to push certain local myths to their extremes, reinvent them in a new look, document them and propagate them to the modern world. Cinema thrives at that thin line, the margin between imagination and reality, artifice and light.
SCALES (Shahad Ameen, KSA) is a perfect representation of such cinematic powers, where little girls become heroes, gender norms are toppled, and myths are exaggerated to the extent of the ridiculous to make us reflect on some similar but less outrageous habits that are still present in our current societies. In a faraway land, in another time, in a strange civilization, lived Hayat. But truly, how far was that land and how old was that time, one wonders. Set in a dystopian landscape, Scales is the story of Hayat, a young strong-willed girl, who lives in a poor sad fishing village governed by a dark tradition in which every family must give one daughter to the sea creatures who inhabit the waters nearby. In turn the sea creatures are hunted by the men of the village. Everybody suffered in that village, until Hayat and her father came and changed it all. Things do not have to be the way they are and societies can find better ways to live, if we allow ourselves and women specifically to create new myths.
Myths can also easily fall into the hands of policy makers who can manipulate and magnify them for profit. Magic sells and bypasses law and logic, hence why charlatanism has a long-standing association with superstitions and religious beliefs and why shamanistic and spiritual tourism is on the rise. And again, due to the search for meaning and justice in urban settings and in a quest to maintain a link between the old and the new, many countries found themselves caught in between, having to negotiate a coexistence between two dysfunctional power systems at play, the ancient traditional kingdoms and the modern republics of civil servants.
In I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni, Zambia) , eight-year-old Shula arrives alone to a rural Zambian village where locals found her suspicious and requested a witch trial. She was pronounced guilty and sentenced to live in a state-run witch camp, a mix between an amusement park and a forced labor prison that the government was using to exploit, oppress, banalize and monetize the witch traditions. There she was tethered to a long white ribbon and told that if she cuts it, she will transform into a goat. And thus, from fear of becoming a goat, she became a government-controlled witch and was forced to perform pseudo-witch work to tourists, and judge intuitively on ad hoc trials in the lack of any real justice system. Not only the witch tradition has been misused and capitalized on to oppress and scare others, but the women and witches themselves became its first victims and are held prisoner puppets of a regime that sells its own history and puts its traditions on display for tourists.
In conclusion, be it to celebrate old traditions, archive and record lost myths, look for meanings in ancient wisdoms, invite us to return to the land and to longstanding techniques, break with regressive ideologies, challenge religious hierarchical beliefs, expose spiritual charlatanism, advocate for the liberation of women’s bodies, denounce patriarchy as a whole, promote the creation of new creeds, condemn the abusive touristic industry, and highlight the complex relationship between myths and society; cinema has long been on the forefront of the conversation around myths and beliefs. Films such as these put our thoughts in motion and offer alternatives and new lenses to requisition what we might have taken for granted, because like Hayat said in Scales, “who knows, maybe there was another option”.