The sound of cricket chirps dominates the tranquil portrayal of water and plants, the sun casting its light on the indigenous village of Kemakúmake, Colombia. The community’s missions: to protect the seeds of nature given to them by the village’s spiritual parents, to honor the spirits through song, and to purify evil within society.
On Thursday, the Lenfest Center for the Arts held a film screening of “Ushui,” a documentary about women shamans from the indigenous Wiwa culture. The film was shown as part of Columbia’s Year of Water project, which aims to explore “Earth's most precious resource in all of its social, political, cultural, economic, and environmental complexities.”
The film was followed by a Q&A with director Rafael Mojica Gil, film researcher José Gregorio Mojica Gil, curator and Chair of Cultural Research at The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Amalia Córdova, and music department Chair Ana Maria Ochoa. Ochoa also served as translator as some panelists spoke in Spanish. Ron Gregg, senior lecturer in the film and media studies discipline at the School of the Arts, moderated the Q&A session.
The film was produced by the Bunkuaneyuman Communications Collective, a film collective of the Wiwa people, who reside in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia.
Rafael Mojica Gil grew up practicing Wiwa customs but was forced to leave his indigenous home due to conflict in the region between the Colombian government and guerrilla groups. In Santa Marta, he worked as a cameraman for the indigenous film collective Zhigoneshi, where he produced documentaries for Colombia’s national network.
José Mojica Gil was also raised practicing Wiwa customs. He is now a teacher at the ethno-education institute Salemaku Sertuga in northern Colombia, where he researches indigenous language and culture.
The film centers on “Sagas,” women shamans in Kemakúmake who sing and make ritual offerings to the spirits to keep order in society. The Sagas perform their rituals in the Ushui, the spiritual house that only women can enter. The Sagas believe that their society will be destroyed if their thoughts are negative, so they ensure that everything in their village is balanced and in accordance with the spirits.
The first half of the film focuses on documenting the Sagas and their role in purifying society. In the second half, which takes place three years later, Shekuita, the thunder spirit, destroys the village, killing 11 residents. In one scene, a mother who lost her husband during the storm tries to keep her child focused on having only positive thoughts to prevent future disasters. Although some characters find life difficult, many characters stay positive and decide to return to the destroyed village to honor those who died.
The film, which took six years to complete, was created to preserve Wiwa culture for years to come. In the film, the Wiwa note that they must record and preserve everything for their own memory, and the film acts as an archive that future generations can consult. Rafael Mojica Gil noted that much of the material is shared on hard drives that are kept in the city of Santa Marta.
“If we were filming for ourselves, we could film for one, two, three or more hours and watch ourselves and we would not get tired,” he said during the Q&A.
In addition to capturing Wiwa life, the director chose to stress the importance of preserving nature, especially water, through scenes depicting the fruitful landscape and through tense scenes depicting nature’s destruction. In one scene, a pregnant woman fears for her baby’s health after leaving her home and seeing the nearby town poisoned by petrol and smoke.
“It’s really painful for us to watch this lack of equilibrium of the earth that continues to grow,” said José Mojica Gil. “It’s very painful to watch that process happen, that disintegration.”
In trying to depict the earth as a place of equilibrium, the collective also stressed the power of music as a way of maintaining peace and positivity within society through scenes depicting traditional singing practiced by the Sagas.
“Our life for all of us depends on good measure for music because music is harmony and it’s tranquility, and it’s a language of comprehension between nature and humans,” José Mojica Gil said. “So when mothers and fathers sing, the sound gets to nature. Nature listens, understands us, and responds with flowers, bird sounds, cricket sounds, clouds, sun, rain, water, everything.”
Reflecting on the importance of documenting the Wiwa, Rafael Mojica Gil also pointed out that larger production companies would often misrepresent indigenous life. When learning how to produce films, he journeyed to the snowy mountains with National Geographic and noticed that they would retake each scene “two or three times” in order to portray the indigenous people in a certain way.
“When we did this film, we didn’t want repetition,” Rafael Mojica Gil said. “It’s all natural. We wanted to let things happen as we live.”
In this film, the collective chose to accurately depict daily life for the Wiwa people with a medium that is, according to Córdova, “unusual” to indigenous peoples. However, something so foreign as film can unify and preserve a community and introduce a rarely documented people to the rest of the world.
“Indigenous filmmaking is not surprising to me in that making films is very much a collective effort,” Córdova said. “So it makes sense that communities that are used to collective work can embrace this kind of process in a really holistic, integral way and understand and value each piece of the work.”
“Ushui” was officially selected for a March 2019 screening at the Cartagena Film Festival , and it’s also being included in the 20th annual imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto this month.