Visual anthropologist Mattijs van de Port uses film as a medium for research. His essayistic film, The body won't close, won several awards at anthropological film festivals and also appeals to a wider audience. ‘What nonsense to do science only in the written word.’
Most scientists publish a paper about their research, you released a film. Why?
‘The task of an anthropologist is to immerse yourself in the world of others. And from that experience you will look at the world through the glasses of another group of people. You report on that. My interest in film as a medium for research comes from my experiences in the former Yugoslavia. I was there during the war and then stayed for fourteen months. That was a world that was literally and figuratively in ruins. When I came back to the university everyone said: we've had this mess on our television for months now and don't understand anything about it anymore. Can you provide clarity? That was the moment I noticed that in the social sciences there is very little room for the mess of the world.
Our job as scientists is to bring order to chaos. But when we have cleaned up the world something very important has fallen away, namely that chaos reigned. A British sociologist once put it this way: Academics distort reality into clarity. That statement has become pretty much my mantra. The medium of film offers much more room for the chaos in the world. As a visual anthropologist, I want to speak out about the world I study, but every image I introduce into my film contains details that pollute my statements. This is inherent in film. The viewer will always see that my devising and intentions cannot tame the world. Working with images was really homecoming for me.’
The body won't close by Van de Port is an essayistic film about the fact that the human body is both open and closed. The film takes the viewer to Bahia, a state in Brazil, where people have a very different body image than in Europe. ‘In Europe, we see the body as a closed container, in which an autonomous individual resides. Whereas in Bahia the body has to be open, so that spirits and all kinds of energies can have access.’
Van der Port films people in Bahia: a seller of medicinal herbs, a woman who drives away spirits, a father of a young daughter and two older men. Who they are and what their names are is not shown. Van der Port talks to them about the story of Besouro Mangangá, a story that young men in Bahia tell each other to this day.
Besouro was a Capoeira player who called on all the spirits of Bahia to make himself invulnerable. He closed his body. But as with all invincible heroes, Besouro had a weakness. His enemies sent a beautiful woman after him. Besouro allowed himself to be seduced and through the act of love his body opened up again. The next morning he was killed.
What does this story tell you about Bahian culture and the human body?
‘That total closure of the body can never take place. That is the dilemma and the balance we must seek. For the best things in life, your body must be like a wide open field, ready to be invaded, by a spirit, a lover, a song, the beauty of the world. Yet your body must also be a fortress, otherwise you are vulnerable. And that is especially true in the violent environment of Bahia.’
In addition to the story of Bahia, you also tell a personal story. Why?
‘I want to be transparent about who I am and from which position I tell the story. In modern anthropology this self-reflection is very important. You cannot present yourself as an expert who has not been shaped by his upbringing, position, color or gender. Not even in a scientific article. In the film I tell about my own homosexuality, the “faggot child” I once was, and perhaps still am. And I think it's important to share that, so the viewer knows that I'm telling the story from a specific perspective.’
You also talk in the film about being attracted to Bahian culture and continuing to return there. Why the interest in Brazil?
‘That was love at first sight. I arrived and thought, this is where I want to be. The way the world is there, I fit in pretty seamlessly.’
‘I think it had something to do with the Serbia I was getting to know. At that time, that was a world where the category was very much absolutized. Who is Serbian, who is Croatian, who is Bosnian; people were very much concerned with fixing identity categories and guarding borders. And then I came to Brazil and there all the borders are much more up for discussion. Everything is ambiguous. It is this, but it can also be that. That is something I feel much more at home in.’
Despite the narrative voice, much remains open in the film. Many things are shown but not explained. Aren’t you afraid that people will walk out of that cinema with ‘wrong’ conclusions?
‘'That is really a danger and also the reason I make essay films. Because then I have a voice to ask questions or frame the images. There are also filmmakers who want to sideline language and immerse the viewer in a ritual, for example. I find that problematic, because then people start to figure out for themselves what they're seeing if they do not understand it. And certainly images of black people slaughtering chickens and walking around possessed by spirits, you don't want to send those out into the world without comment. So much damage has been done in the past.
But you also have to be careful in the essay film. You mustn't appropriate the omniscient voice of God as a narrator, like David Attenborough in the nature documentary. You cannot name the other, you can only talk about what is happening between yourself and the other. Reflecting on what is occurring. Asking questions. I reflect on the difference, but I no longer make statements about who and what the other is. That is not of our time anymore.’
Who is the film intended for?
‘I am making the film primarily for anthropology. I am not a filmmaker but an anthropologist who works with film. That's a license to not care about the stylistic rules of film, as long as I can justify it anthropologically. But the nice thing about film is also that it has a much wider reach than a book. There are niches in the film landscape where films like this can do something. For example, the film is also running in the lhbtq+ film festival circuit. Last week the film won a major award for experimental film. My three films have not been selected for the Idfa yet. They might think, what the hell are we supposed to do with this?’
Does film also work as a medium for other fields?
‘I see that more and more. Philosophers who start making films, in Cultural Analysis I see people making films. Reluctantly I see some sociologists picking up cameras. I think more and more people will become convinced that there are different ways to report on research findings. What a nonsense to do science only in the written word, why? Shouldn’t we be exploring how other media can contribute to a richer form of science practice? I would be incredibly excited if there was a mathematician who said, I think I should film my thesis, because then I’ll get a much better handle on where I want to go.’
The body won’t close, Bahian tales of danger and vulnerability. Mattijs van de Port, 2021, 74 minutes.