Filmmaker and photographer Olivia Wyatt on her new film, working in East Africa, and maintaining balance between analog and digital techniques.
Olivia Wyatt’s documentary Staring Into the Sun—funded with a shoe-string budget using grants from Sublime Frequencies and money from Kickstarter—is a kaleidoscopic exploration of various tribal cultures in rural Ethiopia. Shot and edited by Wyatt, Staring Into the Suns cacophony of music and images makes it more of a visual essay than a traditional documentary. By keeping commentary and ethnographic contextualizing to a minimum, the sights and sounds of the countryside speak for themselves without the benefit (or hindrance) of description. Moving between humor and seriousness, ritual and daily life, Staring Into the Sun gives us an outsider’s perspective on a variety of East African cultures, yet remains refreshingly unconcerned with their interpretation or valuing.
A Brooklyn-based filmmaker and artist, Wyatt had studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri before moving to New York several years ago to work for Magnum Photos and later Magnum in Motion. It was then that she first began making documentary films, including a number of films documenting voodoo rituals among New York’s Haitian community. I spoke with the filmmaker about Staring Into the Suns upcoming screening next week (along with a number of other incredible films) as part of BAM’s Saharan Frequencies series.
Jonathan Andrews What prompted your interest in Ethiopia in the first place? How did the idea for the film first come about, and how did you manage to fund the project?
Olivia Wyatt Ethiopia fascinates me because there are around 80 diverse ethnic groups, and since the landscape is so harsh, many have maintained their traditions and are living as they have for thousands of years. So I decided to apply for a Fulbright to work on a project with the Dassanech tribe in Ethiopia. While I was applying, my boyfriend at the time sent me a link to the Festival of a Thousand Stars, which showcases the music of each of the 80 ethnic groups in Ethiopia. I said, “If I get the grant, we gotta go to the festival together.”
Unfortunately, I did not get the grant, but the time of the festival was coming up and I still wanted to go. So I started writing to companies and magazines to see if anyone was interested in some photos or footage. Sublime Frequencies got back to me and said it was up their alley and they would be interested in distributing, but of course they would need to see what I brought back. So I started emailing friends of friends who had been there, found a translator, raised money on Kickstarter and off I went by myself to Ethiopia.
JA When you first departed, was there a particular place or event you wanted to visit or attend? How did the finished film ultimately conform or change from the idea you started out with?
OW Initially I went to document the Festival of a Thousand Stars; however, when I arrived, the festival was canceled. I, of course, was slightly disappointed that I had trekked all the way over there for something that was canceled, but I couldn’t let it stop me from making something and so I decided to just travel to as many of the tribes as I could in the areas they call home. I did this by hitchhiking my way across the country on the backs of Isuzu trucks, buses, camels, etc.
JA How long did you stay with each tribe, and how did your relationships with them develop or change over time? Did the duration of your stay affect the aspects of daily life and the various events you were allowed to participate in?
OW I packed visiting 13 tribes into two and a half months and stayed with each tribe as long as I possibly could—but of course there were some that due to location I could only spend one or two days with, and one tribe I was only able to stay with for a few hours. When I would first arrive in most of the communities, the women would touch my skin, my breast, my hair. They would often adorn my body in some of their fashionable jewelry or clothing and braid my hair the way they braided theirs. It’s strange, but I felt with most of the communities that my bond with the women was almost instantaneous.
Also, there was one time I arrived to document a Zar [a spiritual mystic or holy man], whose practices are not exactly legal. I traveled all through the night and up a hyena-infested mountain with someone from his tribe whom had never even met him, and I was just fingers-crossed that he would even speak to me. When I arrived, his wife was screaming and holding tightly to their children (she thought I was there to take them away), but he looked at me and through my translator said, “the spirits told me you were coming last night in my dreams, I know you are here to see a Zar ceremony, there will be one tomorrow evening, return with a bag of Khat, some tobacco, and soda.” I only spent a total of five hours with him, and truly feel that without the help of supernatural and/or spiritual forces, I never would have been invited to witness and document such a ceremony. I spent the most time with the Hamar tribe, and by the time I left a baby was named after me, so I would say that I immediately felt connections wherever I went, but obviously over the course of time these connections deepened.
JA I’m curious to know—how was it traveling as a single woman in rural Africa? What kind of considerations did that pose?
OW For the most part, people were just very curious and gentle with me, and I felt as though the men had a respect for me as a foreign woman traveling solo, that I did not see them have with women from their own communities.
However, there were some scary moments. I was hitchhiking on the backs of Isuzu trucks at night; because the roads are so hot they melt the tires during the day. They call the trucks “Al-Qaedas” because there are so many accidents and so many people die traveling on them. Also, it is illegal for me as a foreigner to ride in them; I eventually started pretending I was married to my translator so that this wasn’t an issue, but initially they would hide me under chickens and what not in the backs of these trucks, and one time I was sitting next to a man who was missing an arm, when I asked what happened, he informed me that he used to drive one of these trucks and he lost it in a wreck.
I was the most frightened as a woman on one of these trucks when I was riding in the front of the truck and Yibltal (my translator/fake husband) was in the back. We couldn’t communicate, and I was wedged in between two drunk men and a driver who was pretty high on Khat. One of the men kept touching me. I would say yellum (no), but he would keep on doing it, and then the guy on the other side—the owner of the truck—would occasionally try to put his arm around me. These thoughts kept flashing through my head that they were going to lock the doors and have their way with me, so I made a scene and got the driver to stop the car, so I could communicate with Yibltal what was happening and have him move into the front and the man with roaming hands moved to the back. This man was fired for his behavior as soon as we arrived in the next town.
There were other moments, too: going to jail, having AK-47s all around in some tribal areas, my translator getting punched and in a full blown fight with a man carrying an AK-47, traveling at night on roads that are known for hi-jacking, having Cholera and dropping 20 lbs in one day. So many crazy incidents, but I don’t think my gender pertains to many of these, only the one I mentioned of the men getting grabby in the truck.
JA The role of music and ritual was central in your documentary—what can you say about the importance of music in these various cultures and these people’s lives?
OW Among the communities I visited in Ethiopia, music is a central part of their lives. I found that music was a way to connect with everyone, and everyone was involved in making it. They do it when they work, when they play, when they walk, when there is a celebration . . . always. Women even wear jewelry that doubles as percussive instruments. I really appreciate how much music and dance is incorporated into the lives of Ethiopians, as though it is one of the main threads keeping communities alive.
For me, music is the most basic and first form of communication, and I tend to agree that it predates verbal communication. For this reason, I am drawn to capturing music in other communities, because I feel it’s a powerful way for foreign audiences to connect to the subjects of the film.
JA The shots of the various dances and rituals in the film were fantastic—did you just happen upon events that were already occurring or were some of them performed for your benefit?
OW For the most part, I got lucky and ended up in places where things were naturally happening. Beyond the Zar spirit possession ceremony, some of the other things I lucked upon included weddings, and I was perhaps the luckiest to arrive at the Borena community the day after it rained so they were in the water wells working, which they only do on days after a rain. There were of course situations where I wasn’t so lucky and I asked to see a performance—I would say about 30% of the film is like this.
JA In Staring into the Sun, scenes of the various tribes are often interspersed with clips from Ethiopian television shows—what was your intention in juxtaposing these shots of village life with images as diverse as (what appear to be) music videos and newsreels? Also, where did you get those clips?
OW I got most of these clips from the Ethiopian TV station. There is only one government run TV station in Ethiopia, unless of course you are lucky enough to have a satellite, and on this station each tribe in Ethiopia is showcased for one hour each week. In this way, I feel that the government is honoring and helping to preserve the elements of each tribe that make them unique. I loved traveling to a part of the country in the northern part and hearing someone randomly singing a song from the south that they happened to catch on the TV.
There are certain tribal songs that are extremely popular across the country, for example the Hamar song that you see at the beginning of their section on the TV that then continues on with the women singing it live as they dance in a circle. This song is very famous all over Ethiopia, and I would hear communities everywhere singing their own version of that Hamar song. My motivation in incorporating and blending the TV footage in with the documentary footage was simply to show the influence the tribal communities have on pop culture in Ethiopia.
JA I know you’ve done a lot of work with the Haitian community and voodoo rituals here in New York, and there seems to be a real focus in your work on spiritual practices—is there any connection between those previous projects and this film?
OW I would say that everything I am naturally drawn to documenting is connected. I am extremely interested in anything tribal, religious, and ritualistic. I have found that within tribal communities there is extensive knowledge of and a symbiotic relationship between the people and their surroundings. Whether plants, animals, or the sea, there’s knowledge so vast and so rich, yet that’s something that I, personally—as a Westerner—feel so disconnected from. Often the elements of their surroundings also lend to the development of religious rituals where these aspects of nature are incorporated and worshiped in an animistic way. The Haitian community differs here because their worship is more ancestral rather than animistic, but to me both are magical and very closely linked.
JA Staring into the Sun utilizes a non-linear narrative with little use of dialogue or subtitles; the images work impressionistically, and the film remains relatively unconcerned with providing context. Can you talk about these stylistic/aesthetic decisions and why you made them?
OW I am not an ethnographic filmmaker in the traditional sense, since my work is way more experiential and experimental. I do not seek to inundate a viewer with my personal opinion about what they are witnessing nor do I provide much information beyond what they would see and hear if they themselves were wandering aimlessly within the countries where I document. Essentially, I am allowing the viewer to take his or her own voyage. I want it to be a visceral, poetic, and mysterious experience; I want to force the audience to connect with the people in the film on the most basic level which, for me, is musical no matter where I go.
Between you and me, I will sometimes watch ethnographic films without the intended audio and have my own soundtrack playing of music from the country featured. For me this creates more mystery and enhances my experience as a viewer. Also, this work is done very much in the style of Sublime Frequencies’s other films, which I have always been a huge fan of and inspired by, and it is a true honor and dream-come-true to have them releasing my work.
JA It looked as if the whole film was shot in analog, rather than digitally—was there a reason for that?
OW Well I lost a lot of work once while doing a project in Nepal during the Maoist Revolution. The project was all digital and I had a hard drive fail me, after that I went as analog as I could get, recording everything to tape, the audio to a Sony TCD5M cassette recorder with VU meters and the video to a Sony that captures onto an HD tape, so technically, the visual part is digital, but it is as analog as I can afford.
I just lost most of my equipment in Sandy so for my next project I am going to shoot digitally and on super 8 mm film. I think I gotta go all digital with the audio though cause I am going to be using hydrophones, and the company that makes the ones I am going to use does so specifically for the Zoom, a digital audio recorder.
JA This was your first film with Sublime Frequencies. How did your collaboration with them shape the project?
OW I love the SF style, always have, and was blown away when I first watched a film on their label, which was Jemaa El Fna by Hisham Mayet. When they showed an interest in the project I shaped it to mimic their style, but looking back on it this has more to do with my respect for the way they were creating already, than the fact that they showed interest in the project.
JA What are you currently working on?
OW Sea Gypsies, which is a film exploring the culture of one of the smallest ethnic minority groups in Asia. Their lives revolve entirely around water. They can swim deeper than any other human being, their eye lenses change shape, and they can see further underwater than any other human being, and they predicted the tsunami before modern scientists.
Unfortunately, a variety of sociopolitical groups are stripping them of their indigenous beliefs, and my goal is to capture and preserve as many aspects of their culture as possible, before it is completely altered. This will vary in so many ways from my previous work. I am going to shoot on Super 8 mm and digital format as I mentioned above. I will also have a narration of sorts, since my goal is to highlight the mythology, language, and other traditional beliefs. However, the film will lack a traditional documentary arc, therefore you could start and stop the film at any point in time or even just loop it, and the audio itself is going to flow more like an epic poem than anything else. I cannot say for certain as I have yet to shoot it, but I also envision half of the film taking place underwater.
This is also the first time I have a full team of people involved, which for me is really exciting. I will travel alone to work on the project, but there are some really incredible people involved in helping to make this happen. Women Make Movies is the fiscal sponsor, Kim Sherman (Sun Don’t Shine and A Teacher) is one of Sea Gypsies’ producers, Elisabeth Holm (Kickstarter Film Program Director & Welcome to Pine Hill) is the other producer, and Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy, is the Executive Producer.
Olivia Wyatt is a filmmaker and photographer living in Rockaway Beach, NY. For more information on Wyatt and Staring Into the Sun, visit her website.
Jonathan Andrews is a Brooklyn-based writer and film critic.