Hi, I'm Bianca, and welcome to my first blog for my USC Anthropology 575 Ethnographic Film & Media Seminar class. I'm going to allow this post to serve two-fold -- while the focus of my writing today is on the film we watched in class last Monday, I also want to warn my readers that my viewpoint doesn't come from a grad-level student working on their own ethnograhic film, for which this class was intended, but instead from that of a fresh-faced undergraduate who prefers working with still photography.
First things first: In conclusion, “Mother Dao, The Turtlelike” (Vincent Monnikendam, 1995) was definitely not the easiest film to watch for someone who is only 1.5 years into her study of anthropological documentaries. After ruminating for several days over my copious notes and the select scenes that are still playing in my mind, I finally found myself able to wrap my mind around Monnikendam's work.
I am also going to admit up front that I did have to search online for more information about the content of the film. The movie starts with nothing but title cards before the viewer is shown footage of happy islanders set to a poem about a spiritual figure. There is no instructional voice-over, natural sound, or interviews. I have now discovered that the land we are studying for the next 58 minutes (about 28 minutes too long) is the Indonesian island of Nias, that the film is a collection of archival footage taken by the Dutch after the turn of the 20th century for propagandistic purposes, and that the spiritual figure from which the film derives its title is Mother Dao, a goddess who created the Earth from the dirt on her body and conceived of man through immaculate conception. In a disguised effort to reconstruct their original intent, the video clips are initially chronological but slowly begin to drag on as we continue to flip between scenes of jubilant Dutch colonizers and their adorable freckled children and the newfound poverty and despair of the Indonesian people. In a strictly observational mode, we watch the islanders live seemingly traditional lives, wearing traditional clothing, playing traditional music and performing traditional dances. Then everything takes a turn for the worse. We're briefly introduced to the colonizers before we begin to see the the lives of the natives completely deteriorate. Forests are burned for charcoal, oil derricks are installed, and the natives begin to wear Western attire as they shuttle off to factory jobs. For the remainder of the film, the images waver between instructional and grotesque. The lighter moments come as we laugh as the Dutch try to teach the Western language, music and religion, briefly forgetting that their traditional way of life is being destroyed. One harrowing image is that of a young boy, no older than a toddler, taking a puff from a rolled cigarette after suckling from his mother's breast.
Along with his decision to forgo traditional narration, the misfortune of working with silent films gave Monnikendam the heavy task of creating a soundtrack that provided a sense of cohesive storytelling. With no context, these clips seem like nothing more than a collection of moments over several decades as the world of the Nias progresses in to the 20th century. The soundtrack is a profound mix of “natural sound” fabricated to somewhat match the videos, if only for the first 20 minutes, before it spirals into odd noises that would be better suited to play against a horror film (especially the scene in which natives are wrestling and killing crocodiles). The viewer is given no understanding of the traditional songs and poems that are sung in an Indonesian language, but I must admit that I found them to be the most enjoyable parts of the film. The foreign words allowed some of the scenes, such as the one in what I think was a cotton factory and another of women and children bathing, to feel more observational that other scenes, and along with the rest of the soundtrack, I felt as though these sounds almost justified the filmmaker's predilection for juxtaposing the beautiful life of the Indonesians and the real horror of colonialization.