O.B. : There is a political context behind Greetings to the Ancestors.
B.R. : Yes – taken contextually, even the title Greetings to the Ancestors can be read politically, and certainly a bit ironically : within the system at play, white people do not have ancestors to greet…
Said differently: the second half of the film features dream-dialogues from several Xhosa healers, or Sangoma, who live in the Transkei region of South Africa. For many Xhosa, ancestor worship is connected to the land and plays a vital and spiritual role in their everyday. As a people colonized by a British population that came from elsewhere and necessarily has no ancestral connection to the land called South Africa, the Xhosa believe that their colonizers (and by default most white people) do not have ancestors. For the Sangoma, dreaming is the site where ancestral communication takes place – dreams are seen as evidence that ancestors exist – and for a white person to train as a Sangoma produces a very post-colonial kind of cognitive dissonance. Such a thing is not possible – and yet, it occurs. I was able to visit those healers because they were all working and living on the homestead of the first white (and queer) Sangoma to come into being. The fellow who appears in the film is the third or fourth, I think. Even though this context is fairly opaque, the title serves as an invocation of the complicated spiritual and historical politic at play in what was called the African Homeland under Apartheid…
The film opens with a sequence filmed during the all-night religious services of the Jericho Church of Zion in Swaziland, a small country with a 50% HIV infection rate. Given this statistic, it’s likely that over half of the people who appear onscreen are HIV positive, and that the kind of salvation promised through their syncretic Christian religion has an especially sharp edge. This particular sect was founded by a Swazi prophet whose first visions came via the conditions of apartheid - when he was thrown into jail outside of Johannesburg for traveling as a black man without a proper ID card. While in jail, he was visited by what he later understood to be angels, angles who told him that he needed to return to Swaziland to help his people by bringing the word of Jesus to them.
In every way, the political context of Greetings is a function of a colonialism which begat apartheid which begat a system of borders that are still being enacted. While I don’t declare this as such within the film and don’t expect these broader histories to be immediately evident, I assume the context as subtext for the construction of the film and for the way it operates.
O.B. : As we see it, it’s more about the borders between consciousness and unconsciousness.
B.R. : That’s exactly what I initially imagined the film to be – although how one begins making a film and what the film actually becomes are often quite different things. The “wildlife footage” was the first material I shot – it was filmed very close to the border between South Africa and Mozambique, a border that functions for humans but is otherwise a purely artificial delineation. Borders are constructions and this particular space wasn’t clearly delineated within the park, letting animals cross back and forth between nation-states without having to pledge allegiance to any. The material border led to the immaterial one, in which dreams could offer another way to cross over
O.B. : You have a background in critical theory. Do you need some sort of time to overcome the world of ideas to get into some sort of a more sensible world?
B.R. : Definitely. I feel fortunate that I was exposed to theory well before I started making films (theory before praxis was a requirement in my undergraduate education); critical theory provided a non-narrative set of approaches on my way towards cinema, another way of understanding image-construction and the limits of representation. All of this was present before I started making images and then later, happily, I was able to rely on theory a bit less.
In that moment post-modern theory was mostly diagnostic and it offered little in the way of solutions. Everything seemed to eliminate everything else. When I went to graduate school, I found myself amongst peers who were just beginning to study theory and were paralyzed because of it. For a lot of them, especially the ones who were just arriving at filmmaking in concert, the essential problems of image-making were irreconcilable with the practice of cinema. I’d been made aware years prior that image-making was a fraught endeavor, something that one probably shouldn’t be doing at all – and it seemed like the problem of how to make images was the one that had to be addressed head-on, through making. And that’s what I did – I made a lot of work. In my earlier films, I was actively trying to avoid representation, to sort out my relationship to theory, to allow more space for the interior – for the real-time actuality of experience of the world and the subjects that constitute it.
O.B. : It’s more about the otherness of what you film rather than a distance between you and the subject.
B.R. : Yeah – maybe – but I still have trouble wrapping my head around that particular word – otherness. I’m mostly drawn to later theorizations around ethnography that allowed for the idea of the other to be broken down, to allow for the possibility that everybody-who-is-not-me is the other – that it’s not a function of a national or racial construct, but rather a fact of being. This simultaneously global / local redefinition of the term made it lose its charge, asked for a rethinking of difference productively.
Said differently: I went to Suriname as as a development worker when I was 22, just after I had graduated from university. I had studied theory, anthropology, and documentary studies, and I suddenly found myself in a place which was radically different than anywhere I had ever been; I was in the midst of people who didn’t speak the language that I spoke, people who superficially appeared to be very different from me – they were the dark-skinned animist descendants of West-African runaway slaves living in the tropics of South America. The Ethnographic, as a very well-declared construct idea, was immediately present and I found it almost impossible to know how to make images of the place I was occupying. I had no impulse to film – I felt that there was no way to represent anything about what I was doing. It took me a very long time to circle around to a different notion of the ethnographic, one that allowed both for the simultaneous representation and misrepresentation of the present. That happened in 2006 with Black and White Trypps Number Three, a film I shot at a concert staged by a noise band called Lightning Bolt. I knew the musicians and had seen them play multiple times; I’d been to the performance space a bunch as well. Unlike my time in Suriname, I felt like I somehow owned a part of the concert; I identified with the subculture and this identification is what allowed me to film it, to see that space as the trance space, to construct an embodied psychedelic space through cinema.
O.B. : In Greetings to the Ancestors the border problems, colonialism and post-colonialism seem to provoke a slow destruction of cultural rites.
B.R. : I’m not so sure about that - the places that I travel to and the people that I’m working with are all decidedly syncretic in their present condition, and this idea of “slow destruction” proposes that such things can come to an end, that colonialism is the most powerful force. I don’t believe this. The Jericho congregation featured in Greetings to the Ancestors has no origin, no original – they are the descendants of Zulus who left South Africa to start a kingdom in Swaziland, where they were missionized and introduced to Christianity; their prophet had a vision that married Christianity with Zulu spiritualism, producing a new movement with clear ties in other belief systems. The idea begins with the prophet but, just as it is with the Xhosa Sangoma healers, a notion of tradition is necessarily involved in and affected by the present. In the second dream narration, this is why the younger man (Spider) talks about Spiderman and Superman – the Present is is always effecting the construction and re-construction of culture.
Syncretism is a vital cultural force; it is one of the determining features of my work in Suriname over the last two decades. The Surinamese people that I’ve worked with there are Saramaccan Maroons – the descendants of runawayslaves who identify with Suriname as much as they do with West Africa. Their culture has always existed relationally – first in relation to the colonial power that enslaved them and now in relation to the post-colonial capitalist one that seeks to control them. To say as much is not to propose that Saramaccans do not have agency – they do! This is certainly the same elsewhere - for the citizens of Malta, for the Tannese Cargo cult in Vanuatu.
If I am to speak of a Subject, then my Subject is Time – the time of a Present in which all of these seemingly disparate lives are being lived concurrently. All of these cultural markers – noise music, animist rites, acid trips, cargo cults – they’re all happening in the same temporal continuum. This Time transforms into something else when it becomes cinema – it becomes time-in-space (a true no-place!) for a little while, and then reverts back to Time again.
O.B. : You often have your subjects reading texts. In Atlantis these texts are reflections on happiness.
B.R. : In Atlantis, I refer directly to Thomas More’s Utopia, Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, and a pulp novel called Man From Alantis – each text provides a different approach to a similar set of ideas. The myth of Atlantis is of course at the heart of “Atlantis” – it is the ideal, the utopic – and the film approaches this myth as a fact that has happiness at its core. Or maybe it’s a question as to whether happiness is indeed at the core of the ideal – because I’m not sure that this is the case. To paraphrase Borges: “Happiness doesn’t need us to complete it”. I don’t believe that artists in particular make work in order to be happy; they make work to resolve problems or to propose more problems or to find a way through them – an art practice is not about finding a flat utopian solution called happiness that lasts for the rest of your life. There’s a moment in Atlantis when the subtitles of the final Ghana singer read ‘we Utopians are happy / this will last forever’ – a line from Moore’s Utopia; as these words disappear, the singer lowers his head in a mix of sorrow and boredom. To be happy forever is to be resigned to Happiness. This kind of forever is not generative, it does not develop, it can not become something else. A variation on this happens at the end of Let Us Persevere In What We Have Resolved Before We Forget in which Isaac Wan’s words, mistranslated via Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, read: What do we do now, now that we are happy? Where do we go once we’ve achieved this supposed ideal? This question is the one of the central problems of globalization, of the neoliberalist agenda – the reduction of one kind of labor has given us a particular kind of time in which we are meant to pursue happiness. But we’re still not happy – the horrors of existence persist. In A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness Ben Rivers and I ask a variation on this question, which is essentially ‘what is the way forward?’ This is not meant as an existentialist inquiry into the meaning of things because I don’t think that there is much meaning – instead, it’s a question of prioritizing the Now over the What-Is-To-Be.
O.B. : Are you saying that happiness should be more of an everyday pursuit than an end-goal?
B.R. : Yeah, I think so. When my father asks me if I’m happy it’s clear that he has a different generational understanding of what that phrase means. For me, to be happy is to be blind, it’s to be singular. I don’t know how to pursue my own happiness in a world that’s so radically unfair, where power is skewed against so many people, where suffering is radical and omnipresent. The pursuit of happiness feels like a thin response to a much more complicated existence. The crux, of course, is that there’s so much goddamned pleasure to be had in living!
Transcription by Yuji McCall