Last week was the programme launch for next month’s Bradford International Film Festival (April 11-21). A programme which looks as eclectic and comprehensive as ever. What an opportune time then, to tell you more about this month’s Minicine at the Mills screening of Dance to the Spirits, directed by Ricardo Íscar, on Thursday 28th March. Former Minicine co-director Mike McKenny saw the film at BIFF two years ago:
Watching this film was such a spellbinding experience that it has been lingering in my mind since seeing it almost two years ago now. This is the beauty of such original filmmaking; it reminds you how powerful the medium of film can be. It is entirely appropriate that this particular film has had such a difficult to explain effect, akin to some form of witchcraft. Surely, as someone interested in Minicine you know the powerful, transformative effect cinema can have, embedding itself in your consciousness, staying with you years to come. Where this eerie – sublime even – effect is relevant to this film is that its very subject matter focuses on what is necessary when the easy to explain, ‘western’ medicine fails. This medicine acknowledges sides of life that conventional western science would have us believe doesn’t or cannot exist.
The result is a film that doesn’t exoticise this ‘other’ form of life. What is referred to as ‘western’ medicine in the film is not rejected, nor is it some ‘advanced’ form that ‘primitive’ people know about (how this scenario could be painted by certain narratives or less deft filmmaking). No, just like the magic of cinema comes from the smoke and mirrors of its mechanical apparatus – or its increasingly digital apparatus – these physical, pragmatic and scientific considerations have a limit when trying to understand its magical effects. The doctor at the centre of Dance to the Spirits is perfectly aware of western medicine, and frequently uses it as a first option for ‘day-world sickness’. But where it fails, where it is apparent that something more profound is going on, other tonics, medicines and practices are necessary. Such problems would be vaguely and unconvincingly explained away in ‘civilised’ society as various psychological problems, but I for one am still yet to be convinced that these issues are being cracked by contemporary practices of psychological therapy. Or even worse, are often simply evaded by prescribing an array of anti-depressants. The culture depicted in Dance to the Spirits convincingly believe that such things come from demons, spirits and other such mischievous paranormal entities. This film shows how they approach these illnesses.
Below is a summary of what I thought of the film just after seeing it, in a piece I wrote for Film&Festivals Magazine’s festivals blog at the time.
I was quite sceptical going into Dance to the Spirits due to it being Spanish produced and directed; I was worried that the film would seem condescending, invasive and exploitative, showing this community as exotic but simple in a really patronising manner. I couldn’t have been much further from the truth, as it really did feel honest and genuine; I never felt like anyone on screen was manipulated, exploited, unaware or unduly exoticised. I say unduly, as there were exotic, insightful and enlightening examples of the culture within the tribe, but only in a way to capture their identity from an inside perspective, rather than say ‘oh look at these funny people, aren’t they charming but simple’ as I had sceptically anticipated. A brief example is that a scene early in the film saw some of the villagers come back from fishing with the biggest frogs I have ever seen. I can’t recall their name, and maybe I haven’t seen enough David Attenborough documentaries, but I have never seen frogs this big; they were as big as toddlers. This very early example made explicit early on that I was seeing into a culture that was very different to one I had seen before.
The main contributing factor to its apparent honesty was the doctor, Mba Owona Pierre, with whom the film stays with most of the time. He is far removed from the often stereotyped notion of a spiritual ‘witch doctor’ or ‘sorcerer’ – terms that he openly jokes about having been referred to as. He wrote his journals in French, he had a great sense of humour and he wasn’t in any way ignorant of, or in denial of physical (western/scientific) medicine. He conceded that this medicine has its place; he often rigorously checked his patients pre-treatment, to see if they were affected by a ‘day-world sickness’ and could therefore be treated by the hospitals. If not, if they were suffering from an ‘Evu’ induced ‘night-world sickness’ then they must be cured with traditional forms of medicine. His weighted and measured approach makes the case for traditional medicine much better than a blanket damning of western scientific approaches. We all know that there are a wealth of issues that science can nowhere near adequately solve or explain.
A source that the film often unapologetically – and persuasively – singled out as a factor in the dominance of these internal demons, is city life, and the individualistic affluence and accompanying ‘dog eat dog’ nature that comes with it. The film, without explicitly saying, shows the reverse of this in the village setting, particularly in a charming scene where the villagers go fishing. Working together, singing as they work, they ingeniously build a temporary damn, empty the water out of a section, and then simply pick up the fish, crabs and whatever else is left.
To finalise the film’s balanced approach, it isn’t entirely nostalgic and in praise of this declining way of life, as the doctor explains that so many people in the village leave without paying. They will stay for their treatment and when they are better, they just leave; therefore it is partly the society’s own fault that this system is in decline.
– Mike McKenny, Minicine member
Tickets for Dance to the Spirits are currently available from our online box office.