A few notes on ethnography, cinema and 3 films by Simone Rapisarda and co- creators.
Co-Curator, Centre for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE)
Simone Rapisarda makes films with people who are confronting radical changes in their ways of life and the places they call home. External forces from climate change, to land speculation and movements of global capital, to corrupt governments and “humanitarian” international development agencies, orchestrate these changes. I come to Rapisarda’s work not as a filmmaker but as an anthropologist/ethnographer and teacher who shares interests in peoples’ entanglements with places, times, power, and each other, and who brings questions about how ethnographers and artists may co-create stories with other sentient beings. I offer here brief reflections on my viewings of three films that will be screened in the retrospective on Rapisarda’s work to be presented by The Cinematheque and Simon Fraser University, with support from the Center for Imaginative Ethnography (CIE) on January 24 & 25, 2019, and entitled “Spirit of Place.”
At a screening and director’s talk hosted by the CIE in Vancouver in 2018, Rapisarda described what he means by the “spirit of place”:
“Sometimes when you go into a space, there’s this energy, and you don’t know where it’s coming from. My ancestors called it the “spiritus loci.” In English, the “spirit of place.” If you want, its soul. It remembers all that happened there …All the people being born and being killed, all the people making love, even the animals and whatever else lived there or passed through there, belong to the spirit inhabiting that place. In my films, I try to get a glimpse of what the spiritus loci may hold. All that can never belong to us… So ultimately I can’t really claim credit for what I film beyond my initial intuitions. I’m just here to witness it…if I’m lucky.”
Rapisarda describes his first feature film, El árbol de las fresas (The Strawberry Tree, Cuba, 2011) as inspired by anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch’s work in “shared ethnography,” what we might now call “collaboration” or “co-creation.” The film opens with a segment shot in 2009, a year after the rest of the film was recorded. Four people who we will later see in the film describe how Hurricane Ike has wiped their village, Juan Antonio, off the map. The village continues to live in memory, but no longer exists as a geopolitically named place. Their stories of loss and dislocation are punctuated by one of the four when he satirizes dominant themes in classical ethnographic films by describing the “igloos and tipis” of Juan Antonio as having “vanished.” This man’s banter evokes more laughter when he enacts a stereotypical Italian accent so that he can be better understood by Rapisarda, the Italian filmmaker.
We do not encounter Rapisarda directly in the film. Rather, he shows more moments of joking and “leveling” as Juan Antonio collaborators tell him what to film and how to interpret their lives, cajole him about doing dishes, and dispense other instructions for living, and filmmaking. Rapisarda’s experiment in “seeing ourselves as others see us” with humour offers some unique challenges to contemporary ethnographers who are striving to move beyond introspection and confession into a more critical reflexivity.
Watching El árbol de las fresas (The Strawberry Tree) I feel myself easily “hanging out” with the filmmaker as people in Juan Antonio go about their lives cooking, eating, hanging laundry, preparing squid, minding children, mending nets, playing volleyball. and organizing a children’s festival with games and sweets. Perhaps too easily lulled by the filmmaker’s skill at rendering a sense of the rhythm of lives lived with sun and wind and water and fish, I feel myself “there,” yet at a respectful distance: an observer, yes; but not a voyeur.
Rapisarda’s second feature, La creazione di significato (The Creation of Meaning, Italy, 2014) opens with the visual majesty of the Apuan Alps in Tuscany. This is a film co-created by two men: Simone Rapisarda and Pacifico Pieruccioni. Unlike his position as an “outsider/ ethnographer” in Cuba, here Rapisarda has returned to his homeland. We follow Rapisarda following Pieruccioni through his daily routines that include work, listening to talk shows where political conflicts in Italy and beyond are the subjects of controversy and furious argument, visits from neighbours, and enjoying a gathering of friends and relatives with food, wine and songs.
Rapisarda says that his intentions with La creazione di significato, unlike in his previous film were not to explore and push the boundaries of conventional ethnographic film’s commitments to realist observation, but rather to return to his earlier interests in fiction. He draws inspiration again from Jean Rouch when he plays with the possibilities of working in the generative zone between ethnography and fiction where many contemporary anthropologists also locate themselves.
History appears early in the film with the arrival of a group of students accompanied by two teachers talking about the second world war, when German soldiers and Italian partisans fought along what was called the “Gothic Line.” The future arrives in the form of a German man interested in bidding on Pieruccioni’s land at a state auction to use it as a vacation place for his young family. He is willing to keep Pieruccioni on as a custodian during the winter months, and Pieruccioni, the German man and his impatient 2-year-old son discuss this around a kitchen table. Spectators may laugh and cry —as I did—finding this negotiation over land becoming real estate eerily strange and familiar to a contemporary settler in British Columbian.
Rapisarda works with a small budget, minimal gear, and a strong commitment to a process- driven, co-creative methodology. As both filmmaking and ethnography increasingly involve big budgets, large crews, multidisciplinary teams, expensive equipment, and considerable institutional and other political constraints, Rapisarda insists that his rejection of that approach is necessary for him to work closely with people, to rely on them, and thus to “walk the talk” about sincere collaboration and material reciprocity. When asked why he “works alone,” Rapisarda rejects the description. He does not “work alone,” he insists, but rather his one-man-crew approach allows him to work more intimately with the people on the other side of the camera, to engage with them as co-creators instead of just subjects.
Rapisarda’s third and most recent feature film, Zanj Hegel La (Hegel’s Angel, Haiti 2018), was made with his former students at Ciné Institute in Haiti between 2014 and 2017. The film opens with boats filled with people and supplies landing in Haiti. A young white woman is carried to shore on the shoulders of a young black man, and she proceeds to wander around a local street market, shopping. As the scenes unfold we are not spared witnessing the sexual exploitation foundational to colonial regimes across time and around the world, the demeaning of Haitian women and men by local middlemen, and the poverty that is rampant throughout the island. I am uncomfortable, watching. I want to be a conscientious witness, and I feel myself a complicit westerner.
In this film, Rapisarda moves further into ethnofiction, working with non-actors, and still without a script. The protagonist is a young boy named Widley. We follow Widley as he moves between playing football, swimming, working with his father on odd jobs, and visiting with a local editor who is putting together a “film within a film” while lamenting the director’s disappearance. Throughout, Widley observes what is going on in his Haitian homeland as the island and its people struggle under what has been called “the charitable- industrial complex”— international “humanitarian” development agencies—in league with the American-controlled “military-industrial complex.”
As in the other films, Rapisarda’s commitment to collaboration, or “shared ethnography” infuses his work. All participants including crew, actors, and consultants are credited as co- writers of the film. “It takes a lot of work to make the kind of films I make,” Rapisarda observes when asked about reciprocity in his relationships with co-creators. “And it’s just normal that when you work with people you respect, the mutual respect becomes a friendship. So you are asking me about reciprocity, but I’m not sure I think in those terms. I think about friendship and I don’t see anything special in wanting to be a good friend.”
Rapisarda’s films join other work emerging from places and people living on the edges of empires, conventions and canons, pushing more conceptual and political border transgressions. His work is thought provoking, simultaneously inspiring us to imagine new possibilities that may be realized by transgressing conventional boundaries between fiction and ethnography, and among artists, ethnographers, and co-creators; and, challenging us to confront the inevitable risks and dilemmas that ensue.