It was a priori an impossible task: to film the invisible. Yet this is what filmmakers Corto Vaclav and Hadrien La Vapeur have been working on for several years, filming in Congo-Brazzaville. They made original documentaries there, evoking mysticism, black magic and witchcraft through a look at the practices and conflicts linked to these ubiquitous beliefs in society.
Filming the invisible
In 2019, they said thus, in the superb feature film Congo, presented at the Cannes Film Festival, the life and activities of a churchman and healer from Brazzaville, the astonishing apostle Médard. Today with Ordalies, the tribunal of the invisiblethey continue their exploration of the same phenomena by placing their camera in the customary court of Tenrikyo, in the working-class district of Makélékélé in Brazzaville.
This “witch court”, as it is known in the Congo’s capital, is the only local jurisdiction that deals with witchcraft cases. It is enough to read the program of one of his audiences displayed at the entrance of the modest building where justice is dispensed to have an idea of what makes up his daily life: “False accusations of black magic, chimerical dreams, sickness mysterious, theft of aquatic entity, practice fetishists”.
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In front of a large and attentive public, we will see all the magistrates officiating: the president and the vice-president of the court, assisted in particular by a clerk, a technician of the rites and a delegate to the ordeals (i.e. the authorizing officer of the ” mortar test”, which will generally be inflicted on the accused to decide their guilt or their innocence).
After declaring to the audience that “the spirits of former judges who now live in the land of the dead are among us and will get angry if we lie in court”, these men listen with infinite patience and seriousness to all litigants complaining to be the victims of spells or other misdeeds – sometimes giving rise to smiles by their surprising or irrational aspect. Charges often disputed by the “defendants” who, also present, ask the court, with supporting arguments, to consider them false.
Aquatic Entity Steal
Consider one of the cases occupying the court for a long time under the eye of the camera. Achille, a very elegant man in his forties, comes to complain of a “theft of an aquatic entity”: his mermaid wife, whom he calls Raïssa, has been stolen from him. One day, he was at the edge of the river where bathed the said mermaid with whom he consulted regularly. On the way back, he met “that guy”, as he put it, pointing to the accused in the room, a magician who offered to perform a ritual for him. “I felt negative energies while he was doing his magical operations. […] And since then the mermaid is gone and I have bad luck. No woman wants me. I keep losing money. My whole life is blocked. »
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A witness, member of his family, affirms that one thus stole “the power of our ancestors”, which depended on the frequentation of the mermaid and which one had entrusted to Achille. The “defendant”, the magician, who is given the floor, affirms that the rite he practiced was on the contrary intended to guarantee that Raissa would appear permanently to Achille. “But this one has several wives and the mermaid is jealous”, hence the problem that arose, he assures. The judges, faced with this “delicate file”, decide that it will be necessary to start a ritual with the magician again so that we can “bring back the siren which has been stolen”. This will have to take place “in front of all the parents of the complainant’s family, who will then have to confirm that everything has returned to normal”. A ritual is organized on the banks of the river and the magician says he is certain that Raissa will reappear soon. Everyone leaves happy.
“Reconcile those who are torn apart”
The interest of the film by Corto Vaclav and Hadrien La Vapeur lies in the fact that they make no comments and pass no judgement. By refusing, as they are keen to affirm, “any binary position, for example for or against the real existence of witchcraft”, they intend “to allow everyone to question their relationship to belief”. And to show that all this “is also a source of poetry, mysticism and identity”.
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This bias to expose without demonstrating leads above all to a better understanding of the role, and even the effectiveness, of a court like that of Tenrikyo which, with skill, without ever casting doubt on the reality of what is reports to him, succeeds “in disentangling complex problems” and, like an excellent mediator, “ends up reconciling those who are torn apart”. This without needing, as happened during medieval ordeals in the West, to put the lives of the accused at risk. By themselves resorting to practices close to witchcraft to settle the cases to be judged, and often to “neutralize sorcerers”, these “criminals of the invisible”, they do what the so-called “normal” courts cannot do. .
Sacrifice of a kid
Making such documentaries obviously presupposes obtaining the authorisation, even the complicity of the people on screen. “With rare exceptions, it’s never a problem,” assures Corto Vaclav. We have no trouble believing it after watching, at the end ofOrdeals, the sacrifice of a goat by the members of the tribunal in honor of the filmmakers and in the hope of obtaining, thanks to their images, great popularity.
The “night husbands”, between witchcraft and capitalism
What was, it is true, happened to the Apostle Medard in his country after the departure from Congo… even if he then took advantage of a presentation of the film in France, two years ago, not to return home and continue his activity as a traditional healer far from Brazzaville. Enough to provide material to soon tell a series of Congo ? Not yet: the directors ofOrdeals are preparing to leave to film another subject related to the theme of the invisible with the portrait of a “living dead”. To find out more, we will have to wait another year or two.
Ordalies, the tribunal of the invisibleby Corto Vaclav and Hadrien La Vapeur, broadcast on France 2 on September 22 at midnight.
We would like to give thanks to the author of this write-up for this outstanding material
Dating at the witch court – Jeune Afrique
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