“An Ant in a Cathedral”

05/23/2010

Still from 'Heaven in a Garden'

Two Films by Stéphane Breton

Spending a few months every year in a remote valley in the highlands of Papua, French ethnologist Stéphane Breton produced two films about living among the Wodani tribe. After several years of study, he lives in a house that he built, speaks their language, and is very much involved in their lives. Observing them, he begins to understand more about himself, both through the common ground he shares with them and the rifts that seem impossible to overcome. He is considerably more enigmatic to them than they are to him, a stranger coming from a distant place simply to live near them and watch what they do, for totally inexplicable reasons. The filmmaker’s ways are strange to the Wodani, a horticultural society who don’t have a strong sense of private property, and who don’t understand why he doesn’t share out all of his possessions with them. At first they are aloof, not wanting to reveal themselves with him, but as he ingratiates himself more, the facts of everyday life, relationships, and spirituality become more apparent, more fleshed out.

As an ethnologist, Breton never has to justify his interest in the Wodani. And it is something that he feels he could never convey to them. Nonetheless he seemingly uses the films, as much as he does his subjects and informants, to discover his own personal truths. When he says, “I did not come seeking strange people but rather, to become a stranger to myself,” he not only sums up a lot of what these two films are about, but also distills the idea of travel in general – it is one reason why people will willingly immerse themselves in a culture whose ways are new and mysterious to them, thereby becoming unrecognizable to the person they were back home. From the inside, Breton finds that the Wodani’s culture is even more profoundly detailed – and in that regard, even more mysterious – than it could have seemed on the surface. To get to that point he had to make himself very small indeed, very simple, and dispense with his assumptions. Voluntarily becoming an ant in order to view a cathedral is an urge with which any Westerner fascinated with far off places can identify.

Still from 'Them and Me'

Them and Me (2001)

In Them and Me, filmed after Breton had already spent many years with the Wodani, he explains that the goal towards which he is working – curse of the objectivity-minded scholar – is to no longer be noticed at all, to be so entrenched in the life of the village that he can observe and understand what goes on and not affect how people behave. “I thought,” he recalls, “that it would depend only on me” – as though understanding and feeling at home were all that stood between him and acceptance. Of course the paradox in what he seeks is quite obvious; he may involve himself in Wodani society, trade with them, help them, and build rapports with people, but no longer being a stranger has an impact of its own. The more he understands, the more invested in them he is, and they in him.

This film and its follow-up, Heaven in a Garden, are not the sort of ethnographies that spend a lot of time explaining what the people are doing and why. Rather, the filmmaker, as the title Them and Me suggests, talks about his relationship to them, and what they have taught him about himself. He tells us what, as he sees it, have meaning to the Wodani, what they value and what they aspire to. We see some of their daily activities, their physical culture and way of life, and after a while we feel as though we know them quite well. Breton is the sole camera operator and sound recordist, and he lets us into his personal understanding and connection with their society, showing everything more or less directly through is own eyes.

And while we see what Breton sees, in the form of slices of life and sublime moments rich in detail, the film actually explores more about how his subjects see him. What this means seems to differ a lot depending on the person and the situation. The filmmaker is a wild card, acting variously as observer, caregiver, instigator, and talking ATM. At first one is horrified by how, up on arriving at his cabin, he hands out sums of money to each of his neighbors (how can he hope to have genuine relationships while engaging in such practices?) – that is, until it becomes apparent how little paper money actually matters, and so it appears like more of a gesture of cultural exchange, bringing a part of his world to them. He draws a connection between them warming up to him and his ceasing trying to discern the place he holds in their society, as his growing feelings of security are reflected in their reciprocal behavior. When he feels comfortable with his place, so to do they.

One of Breton’s greatest personal triumphs comes when he lends his knife to Taimbuga, a neighbor of his who was previously so reticent and reserved, to assist the man in the construction of his house. This seems like an indication of wider acceptance, but that always varies from person to person. One man, Esau, he has followed from a very young age, and seems the most eager to absorb aspects of Western culture that the foreigner brings. The young man also acts as an invaluable intermediary to other members of the tribe. Breton, while he has adopted many of the Wodani practices of making the most of very little, has moments where he is drawn back into his wide-eyed origins with he tribe, before the revelation of newfound details (the ones expressed in long takes with concentrated examination of activities found in his films) made the world seem all the more large and unknowable.

Still from 'Them and Me'

Them and Me (2001)

Indonesia’s brutal and – some would say – genocidal rule of Papua, attracting a great deal of international outcry, resulted in that government closing the island to foreign press and workers. Breton, knowing that he would soon be barred from returning to the village in which he had made his home, shot more footage of the Wodani that would become Heaven in a Garden. Its feel is quite different than that of Them and Me, as it has music (an alternately coldly and sentimentally European-sounding score, which is quite haunting), and there is the sense that its dimensions are not as large and varied, as in it he avoids looking at the individuals in his life with the degree of intimacy of the previous film. There is something more of the palpable ethnographic sheen to it, as if done to appease some expectations of how anthropological data should be represented, putting village life on a screen while familiar faces from the previous film become obscured in the interest of a wider view. However despite the generality there is still the same self-examination going on, the search for answers in his subjects’ gaze.

The second film, which he made right before leaving the village for the last time, finds Breton in a particularly reflective mood. A few of the scenes seem to focus largely on atmosphere – the smoke from pipes, the waft from yams cooked in banana leaves and ash, the bracing crackle of a falling tree – as if he were trying to recapture those initial visits to the village, when he didn’t understand anything about the Wodani, and the strong sensory impressions were all that he had. Now things are more complicated; he speaks the language and takes part in the social order, and can thus no longer appreciate the place through a pure and uncluttered sensibility. His desire to learn their language was the impulse to plumb a vast ocean of words and gestures, to go completely out of his depth. And yet he mastered it and, as it would appear by the films, so many of the nuances and tones of social interaction. What more could an ethnologist ask for? Breton wants the anonymity that still eludes him but the gifts he has already acquired are so rich that it seems unnecessary, obsolete to still want that. Overall it points to how his outlook has changed – he came at first seeking simplicity, a way to strip off everything from the West that burdened him. But even in the materially spare, economical, and diurnal world of the Wodani, he could not achieve that simplicity, because complexity follows when you look hard enough, materializing like the details of tree branches through a pall of mist in the cold forest.

Still from 'Heaven in a Garden'

Heaven in a Garden (2004)

He spares his friends the information that he will not come back again, since the reasoning and forces behind it are beyond their comprehension. An old man named Obapwi, Breton’s adoptive “father” insists, year after year, that he will not live to see Breton’s next visit. There is a mutual sense that the filmmaker is a part of a different world from his subjects, one that renders him unable to fully cross the divide, and which will eventually reclaim him. There is one point in Heaven in a Garden when, he notes, the people’s behavior totally confounds him is during a large feast, when they serve up months’ worth of saved food all at one time, knowing that a period of scarcity will then follow. The contrast of rationing followed by cathartic destruction goes against some Western sensibility that Breton has been unable to shake off or at least put into storage for his time spent in West Papua. It is as though part of him still exists in Europe, a part of himself that he doesn’t especially like but is somehow congenitally vital, like an estranged and archaic organ, or a relative. The aspect of himself that is awakened in the field resists the person back home, is essentially against comfort and technology, and knows that there is more out there. While he can identify a great deal with his subjects and even prefers his place among them to his life back home, the transformations that he experiences doing fieldwork could never take place in their entirety, and he is thus consigned to a double life, existing in two worlds that will not be reconciled.

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