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.”
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous discuss their recent documentary on The Source Family, a past zeitgeist of trust, and the popular perception of cultists and communes.
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous’s new documentary on the Source Family— an LA-based cult, psych rock group, and health food restaurant operation—offers an often underrepresented picture of radical living in mid-century America. The film follows the trajectory of the Family and it’s charismatic leader, Father Yod, highlighting the group’s practices—from free love and white magic to yoga and health food—while maintaining a more objective criticism of the issues within the community. By drawing from the successes and failures of this experiment in alternative living as a sort of case study, Wille and Demopoulos ultimately celebrate the vivacity, creativity and purpose of the Family’s lifestyle, leaving the viewer with a much more rounded view of the cults and communes of the 1960s.
Jonathan Andrews The first thing I wanted to know was how you guys got exposed to the Source Family.
Jodie Wille The first time I ever got exposed to them was in 1999, when a friend had showed me this deluxe box set of Source Family music that was put out by Captain Trip Records, which is this Japanese psychedelic label. I was just shocked, because I had been researching fringe religious groups and cults for, like, 20 years, and I’d never heard anything about them. I saw the album covers, which blew my mind, as well as photographs of the Family, but it was all done in Japanese so I couldn’t read anything about it and there was nothing online anywhere! So for about five years that just sat around in the back of my brain.
But one day my ex-husband Adam Parfrey had come home with this student film he found about the Source Family that had very limited release through Amoeba Records. I was very excited to see something! It was definitely a student film, but when we saw the interviews with the Family members, I was just blown away by how articulate and charming the people were. I just didn’t expect that, that level of self-awareness. I saw that there was a Ya Ho Wa/Source Family website, and contacted them to see if they would be interested in publishing a book with one of my companies, Process Media.
Isis Aquarian [associate producer on the film and an original Source Family member] wrote me back right away to say, “That’s so funny your contacting us now; I’ve been working on this book with my brother Electricity and we just finished it.” So we worked to expand and rework it—that was how I first got to find out about the Family and first got to meet them.