3 How to Free the Ghosts

(Or a Relentless Contemplation of Ethics in Cinema)

Rosemary Vinod

I can still distinctly remember the smell of crisp, earthy air after the thunder of the monsoon– my mother and I would walk along the same dirt road, chased by streams and the lush greenery of fertile land. In the distance, a rooster crows, a neighbor’s radio plays the old songs of classic Bollywood films. All else, except crickets and the occasional whir of a passing auto rickshaw, is silent. As my mother and I make our way to an early morning mass in our original home in Kerala, India, we pass an enormous tree with a decorated trunk. In the hollows of the trunk, yellowed papers are tightly bound by bright red strings, resembling a cork stopper. Since I was only around 6 at the time, I ran to the tree in a fleeting attempt to pull the “stopper”. My mother swiftly put a stop to it. “Don’t,” she said,  “they’ve trapped spirits in the trunk. Don’t let them out.” It’s difficult to recall anything else other than silent moments like this from the trip.

Since that experience, I’ve often wondered about the origin of the folktales in Kerala. After digging deeper and imploring my grandmother to tell her stories, I found that the “ghosts” trapped in the trees were meant to be villagers who were senselessly killed by the British during their colonialist rule in India.

boy looking up
Faya Dayi image from http://ubiquarian.net/2021/06/review-faya-dayi-2021/

I’ve contemplated this reaction to create stories as a way to cope with the traumas of oppressive violence inflicted upon people (often on black/brown peoples)– not just in India, but across the world. But previously in thinking of these things when I was younger, I thought no one else shared these experiences, as I had never seen something like this feeling of being haunted by the “peripheral” in any form of media or documentary, and if there was a story about India, I’d only ever seen stories done by Western studios and creators, like National Geographic. There’s nothing wrong with these documentaries, but I knew I was missing something more. In addition, with the newfound idea of “coping” I was sorely missing the representation of people who looked like myself, where they could just “be”– “to be” without the strings of an inescapable oppressive force cutting into you. Personally for me, this extrapolated ideology didn’t even hum in my psyche until another encounter, this time, an encounter with a film collective known as Film Futura, hosted by No Evil Eye Cinema, the summer before college. Film Futura was unique in that they focused on decolonizing cinema through cultivating a community of creatives from around the world, and they offered space for discussions and panels. They introduced to me ethical filmmaking and the importance of authentic and uncompromising storytelling. The first film in this new and decolonized film canon was Faya Dayi.


The Documentary Accountability Working Group created a set of principles intended to guide how to curate and tell authentic stories without disenfranchising or exploiting the participants within the film– and not just the “direct” subjects but these principles also call for care of the land (and everything that entails, like the people, the culture, spirituality, the animals, the geography, the history, etc). These guiding principles are essential for quality filmmaking to consider, to tell honest accounts and authentic stories. There is one such principle I would like to discuss, as it exemplifies the practice of deploying care in filmmaking, to best tell these authentic stories.

“Integrate anti-oppression practices into your work…. Be clear about what being anti-oppressive means in this instance. Consider whether or not you are the best person to tell this story/make this film. Additionally, consider whether or not this story should be told in the first place, and how your telling of the story supports or undermines the agency of the person or people whose story you are documenting.”
–from the Documentary Accountability Working Group’s Core Values for Ethical and Accountable Nonfiction Filmmaking

This is a big principle. It carries a lot of weight with just a small statement. It calls on documentary storymakers to examine our own positionality, to question whether we are the best person to tell this story, while also asking us to consider what we define as anti-oppressive practices. How do we make progress in de-colonizing documentary and in creating greater accountability?  How will we fight against oppressive/ exclusionary/ biased and sometimes unethical traditions within documentary, in order to reframe and reclaim more just and humane narratives? The call to examine what it means to be an “anti-oppressive” filmmaker, and ultimately someone who will lift the voices of vulnerable people, is where we can pivot and evolve. It seems simple, but it is so very crucial in reimagining a new non-fiction cinema-scape.


 

The dreamy, ethereal storytelling of Jessica Beshir’s native Ethiopia in Faya Dayi is the closest feeling of “home” I have encountered in a film. Though the film takes place in Ethiopia and it just brushes against oppressive government forces in the land, as well as mentions the prism of the khat trade and all that any trade-complex reigns onto local people. First viewing Faya Dayi felt more like a ghost accompanying you on a walk in your land. This is not only because of the Ethiopian spiritual traditions and history so tenderly woven into the film, but because it focuses on the people, young and old, and their encounters with quiet, daily moments. There is this profound stillness which coexists with experience true to a day in a familiar life.

Then, there is Three Songs for Benazir, the short 22-minute documentary film by Afghani-American filmmakers Elizabeth and Gulistan Mirzaei. Interestingly, when watching this film in conversation with Faya Dayi, I began to notice parallels in how the filmmakers tell their stories. Three Songs for Benazir is an emotional profile on a young Afghan couple, Shaista and Benazir, with the collateral of the Taliban’s rise to power and US involvement in the region. Three Songs differs from other films in that the filmmakers truly connect with and center the humanity of Shaista and Benazir, in their every encounter with life– in their fascinations and dreams, and in their unspoken fears. Compared with Faya Dayi, this film carries a more narrative structure, but it still reveals the days of the subject’s lives through poetic devices. The feeling imbued was similar in that the stories felt like an extension of the filmmakers’ love and concern not just for Shaista and Benazir, but also for Afghanistan.

Shaista looking up at snow in sky
Photo from “Three Songs for Benazir”

After watching Faya Dayi in the summer, I saw a retelling  of Ethiopia incredibly similar to the way I fondly remember that experience with my mother on our way to mass. In Three Songs for Benazir, the same idea of a familiarity with this “home” was apparent. That fondness, and the perceptiveness and ability to render those details, can only be conveyed authentically by someone connected through direct experiences. They are ideally located — or positioned — to tell these stories and to prioritize and “support the agency of the people” in their films, with this concept being at the forefront of consciousness… and I want any filmmaker who reads this to feel empowered to tell your stories, as yes, there is an audience who is eager to hear what you have to say and craving to see semblance of themselves in your work, and yes all of our experiences, though seemingly different, are universal in our healing from/making sense of disillusionment from heavy histories (fortunately and unfortunately).

Both films’ creators share similar griefs of underrepresentation and the hunger of reimagining full, human stories of their own countries and people. In an interview conducted by Rachel Martin for National Public Radio, Gulistan Mirzaei says:

“There is something so beautiful in the relationship between Shaista and Benazir, something I had never seen on a film from my country before. A story about my country, usually about war, violence. I want to tell a love story and show something people have never seen from my country before.”
–Gulistan Mirzaei

This reflection also helps formulate some of the intentionality in this film’s making. With the filmmakers being so close to the “subject-matter” (empathizing with a young couple striving to support themselves, and with a longing for home and for peace), we know why one would also want to rage against overplayed stereotypes of their hearts’ home. The Mirzaeis, instead, were able to subvert these notions and give us a story of strength, resilience, hope, humanity, and the tragedy of the war’s effects… but they did so in a holistic way, where the focus remained on the spirits and intimate stories of the young couple– watch and engage souls, instead of a clinical wash of what is occurring in Afghanistan and to these young people. With this, it is clear they truly prioritized and nurtured trust with their participants to be able to render and share their story in such a tender and natural way (true example of anti-oppressive practices in film!). “We wanted you to feel like you were in the middle of it and not an outsider looking in ” is the way Elizabeth Mirzaei describes it.

Mirzaei is giving voice to the film’s anti-oppressive work here, resisting the entrenched tradition in documentary to position oneself–and a film’s viewers–as “outsider.” The Mirzaeis and Bashir resist those dominant extractive storytelling practices and avoid positioning themselves as “tourists.”  This idea of “documentary tourism” acknowledges filmmaking’s colonialist history and exploitative practices of introducing participants through the lens of the West, more aptly described as “the Western Gaze.” The Western Gaze is defined through more privileged audiences (from nations with a history of colonizing) “gazing/ looking at people who are not from the west and projecting their preconceptions, biases and ‘what have you’s’ onto them.” (from No! Wahala Magazine’s “What is Ethical Storytelling? The Western Gaze”). A panelist from Film Futura, Yasmina Price, further describes the impact of this form of “gazing”:

“A group conversation following [a screening],  in which the viewers discuss the problem of forgetting histories and the lack of authority over representation. They also speak about how even today, the individual and collective self-perceptions of formerly colonized peoples continue to be conditioned by the violations and dehumanization of colonization. Mugabo, a local photographer and artist, intervenes here, saying, “Our history isn’t only the colonization. We’ve been here for 30,000 years.” He makes a critical historiographic point, that an additional problem of the temporal frameworks instantiated by colonization is the rupture from the time that preceded it — a misguided presumption that colonized people only came into being in their encounter with Europeans.”
–Yasmina Price

How do we integrate anti-oppressive practices in order to combat this?  In Faya Dayi, for example. It is abundantly clear that Bashir is very involved in and tethered to her own Ethiopian culture. The innate “wind” of nostalgia in this cinema can only be conveyed by a born-native, which Bashir is. In an interview with Criterion, Bashir comments that she does not present Faya Dayi through the lens of an “observer” but rather through “exchanges”, and “having a relationship with the people.” In acknowledging her positionality, how she locates herself and is located in relation to the culture and story being told, Bashir embraces the agency of the people in the village to tell their own stories. Her deeply cultivated relationships with the traditions, spirituality, and people are evident in the film’s supposed simplicity and candidness.  For example, in the scenes of the men harvesting the khat, they tell their own tales and give their own advice and sing their own songs– unprompted by Bashir’s presence. This approach is quite powerful, as it accepts the film’s reality without the need for permission or approval from a Western audience. I love how honest, pure, sentimental, this film is– gently embraced within the context of Sunni Muslim traditions and wisdom. I love how in her Criterion interview, Bashir emphasizes the importance of spirituality within Faya Dayi, and more broadly, in Ethiopia. Additionally, we can see the attentiveness to reflecting the rituals of the participants and “withholding judgment, especially in spirituality…”  As the interview makes clear, there is not a hint of exoticism in Faya Dayi, and more so, there is no push for “compromise” to make Ethiopian rituals “digestible” for a Western audience. In considering the questions Bashir asks herself, we can develop a better understanding of how to enact the value of anti-oppressive practices in documentary work. Bashir asks: “what is at stake here?” “Who are these people to you?” “how are these relationships developed and what do they mean?” There is no imitation of life here, but a sincere reflection and translation of experience and relationships. With the different “moments in life” like the birds watching, or walking through the land, we see Bashir sharing Faya Dayi in the way the people and culture and animals and land and prayers intended. She lets these elements speak in the film, and trusts the participants to tell their own stories with their own experiences and mythologies.

After meditating upon the stories that Faya Dayi and Three Songs for Benazir invite viewers to experience, one can only behold in awe, the admiration and respect for the filmmakers.  Considering the filmmaking process through the reframing of accountability values, including acknowledging your positionality and integrating anti-oppression practices, encourages a deeper understanding of what it means to be an ethical filmmaker. These values suffuse and permeate the very being of an artist who not only wishes to create beautiful and meaningful work, but also prays to embolden authentic storytelling for ages to come. Witnessing these two films dance together in this light, we can inform our own practice and continue to honor the individual who exists within the peripheral– that means we must feel empowered to share the fractals of our own experiences while uplifting the spirits in our tellings… while freeing the spirits from the trunks of our own baggage.

 

Boy floating in water eyes closed
“Faya Dayi” image from https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-reviews/faya-dayi-film-4168933/

References:

Saito, S. (2022, January 26). Elizabeth Mirzaei, Gulistan Mirzaei and Omar Mullick on the Resonance of “Three Songs for Benazir.” The Moveable Fest. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://moveablefest.com/elizabeth-mirzaei-gulistan-mirzaei-omar-mullick-three-songs-for-benazir/

Assemble Digital Ltd. (n.d.). Faya Dayi | Official Website |. Faya Dayi. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://fayadayifilm.com/

criterioncollection. (2022, January 12). In conversation: Jessica Beshir and Orwa Nyrabia. YouTube. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h9vXfv56ucI

No! Wahala Magazine. (2021, September 12). What is ethical storytelling? The western gaze. No! Wahala Magazine. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.nowahalamag.com/post/what-is-ethical-storytelling-the-western-gaze

Price, Y. (2021, May 30). Western Films About Africa Are Neocolonial Even When They Try Not to Be. Hyperallergic. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://hyperallergic.com/648474/stop-filming-us-congo-documentary-colonialism/

Martin, R. (2022, March 16). ‘Three Songs for Benazir,’ a short documentary, is nominated for an Oscar. NPR. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2022/03/16/1086832798/three-songs-for-benazir-a-short-documentary-is-nominated-for-an-oscar

Mirzaei, E., & Mirzaei, G. (2021, August 18). The Afghanistan We Know and Fight For: Filmmakers Share Shards of Memories. International Documentary Association. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.documentary.org/blog/afghanistan-we-know-and-fight-filmmakers-share-shards-memories

Core Values for Ethical and Accountable Nonfiction Filmmaking. The  Documentary Accountability Working Group. (n.d.). Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.docaccountability.org/values


Recommendations for further reading and viewing:

No Evil Eye Cinema. (n.d.). Film Futura. No Evil Eye Cinema. Retrieved September 22, 2022, from https://www.noevileyecinema.com/filmfutura/

FAYA DAYI – Trailer

Three Songs for Benazir | Official Trailer | Netflix