HORENDI (Jean Rouch, 1972)

Among ethnographic or anthropological filmmakers, France’s Jean Rouch was perhaps the only one to rival Margaret Mead and, to the extent that he qualified, Robert J. Flaherty. Horendi is an engrossing, hypnotic, exciting, and surprisingly moving documentation of a seven-day ritual in rhythm and dance, by which Songhai women in western Africa, possessed by spirits, come to terms with these spirits and make peace with them. The film, whose title means “to put on a ceremony or festival,” lasts 72 minutes, not a week; it captures the basic contours of the ritualized dance, officiated by a priest, that sets free two colorfully dressed women, who have been diagnosed as possessed, while a white-clad third woman is roped between them. Male musicians, beating on overturned, hollow wooden bowls, provide the music; the zima also is a man.

This is a pure dance film; there are no explanatory title-cards and no voiceover narration, introductory or otherwise: just dance. Rouch’s patient, distanced use of the camera ultimately gives way to some startling closeups of faces. Rouch keeps the air moving to match the women’s feet. The entire ceremony takes place outdoors.

The premise is that invasive spirits are strong and must be subdued and embraced; to reach an accord with them is to prove one’s own strength. I may be wrong, because I’m guessing, but it would appear that spirits target females only. One may recall that the Songhai are, historically at least, Islamic.

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