In Congo-Brazzaville, witchcraft and justice at the “Ordalies, the court of the invisible”

Welcome to Congo-Brazzaville. “Witchcraft is also a source of poetry, mysticism and identity,” enthuses Corto Vaclav. The young French filmmaker shows in “Ordalies, the court of the invisible” a justice based on very mystical practices which is found at the heart of a system of reconciliation as surreal as it is effective. A cinematographic nugget presented at the International Documentary Festival (Fipadoc), in Biarritz.

RFI : We can be subjugated or terrified by your documentary, in any case, the scenes are so extraordinary that we don’t understand much with our heads. You and your co-director Hadrien La Vapeur have been exploring the worlds of the invisible and witchcraft in the Congo for years. After Congowhere you followed a healer, you immerse us in the Ordalies, the tribunal of the invisible. How do you look in your new film on Congo-Brazzaville ?

Corto Vaclav : In this film, we had the opportunity to be in a court that handles witchcraft cases. It was the perfect place to take a photograph of society, including its beliefs that are part of modern society, in today’s world. It was the means of attacking a rather complex problem: witchcraft, magic, which are omnipresent in the Congo. We show this omnipresence. We didn’t want to remain attached to a dark version of witchcraft, because it is for us also a source of poetry, mysticism and identity. And we were lucky to have difficult stories, but also much brighter stories, for example related to “mermaids”. We wanted to show that spirituality today, in the contemporary world, can be a source of creativity.

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What is a court of the invisible and a customary jurisdiction in this popular district of Makélékélé in Brazzaville? ?

A customary jurisdiction is a jurisdiction that is complementary to the district courts. You should know, in the Congo, everything is based on the French legal code and the Constitution of the Fifth Republic. But this creates a conflict with traditional rules, if only on inheritance. Tradition in the Congo is matrilineal and modern Congolese law is patrilineal. So that creates a lot of conflict. And the traditional courts are there to deliver justice in the face of tradition, when people know that “white” justice – as they call it – will not do them justice.

What conflicts are judged before this tribunal of the invisible ?

There are a lot of murder indictments. For example, when there are successions of deaths in a family, we will wonder who is at the origin of all these misfortunes. People in a family will accuse each other. The function of the court will be to unmask the sorcerer, but, basically, to reconcile the families. It’s the hardest part, to mend the fabrics torn by accusations of witchcraft. Another case shown in our film is a kind of love distress of a man who was married with a spirit, a spirit of a mermaid. One day he was robbed, kidnapped, his wife-mermaid. So he comes to file a complaint in court, so that we can return it to him. There’s all this wide range of business.

What happens when someone refuses to submit to court and does not accept judgment ?

Judges have only one real legal tool, other than imposing fines. They have the right to issue a warrant to the police. If someone does not come to the summons or if someone does not want to apply what has been in the requisitions and judgments, then they have the right to send the police. And the police must enforce their judgement. They cannot imprison or apply the death penalty directly, etc.

What kind of judges do we deal with in your film: magistrates, sorcerers, esoteric doctors ?

For me, they are wise, people who master the tradition. They are a bit like King Solomon. They know how to make judgments in impossible situations. They know how to cut the pear in half. They have this human sensitivity and this wisdom to be able to really find the thorn that creates all these problems around, and to solve and reconcile the families. They are everything at the same time: esoteric doctors, sages, judges, lawyers… And they are really on a mission to help people find solutions to problems.

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On the other hand, the methods employed also seem to be very “witchy”. At the same time, they manage to have astonishing, even troubling results: sworn enemies who reconcile, shake hands, kiss, toast together. Have you had the feeling that this customary jurisprudence works ?

I believe it really works. Their mission is essential. They allow people not to take justice into their own hands. For many family affairs, traditional or mystical affairs, at the time, sorcerers or the person accused of being a sorcerer were arbitrarily burned. Now that is no longer possible, thanks to this tribunal. They are the ones who take charge of the symbolic “killing” of the sorcerer, thanks to a magical instrument. The “mortar” ritual is the final test, the final ordeal, which allows the sorcerer to be reintegrated, since he can no longer harm. In fact, they neutralize wizards instead of killing them. This allows people to continue to live together.

At the end, the judges will sacrifice a goat in front of you to ensure the success of this “ film made by white people “. What does this change for your film and your view of this ancestral practice ?

When you arrive in the Congo and want to work on a dimension of the invisible, that is to say mystical, etc., you ask permission from men. But above all, it is necessary to ask permission from the spirits through men. This ritual that we see at the end of the film, this sacrifice of a goat, it is not we who asked for it, it is the judges who imposed it so that we present ourselves to the spirits of the elders judges. That is to say the ancestors who were the judges in this tribunal. Now they are disembodied, but they continue to rule from the other world, because in the Congo the dead are not dead. For this, you must always ask permission from the dead for any project.

In Congo-Brazzaville, have the Congolese themselves made films on these practices and their customary jurisdiction? Or is it your external gaze that puts them face to face with their practices ?

The Congolese make relatively few films on witchcraft, because, for them, it’s not something you go to out of curiosity. They go to a magician when they really have a problem. They don’t go there like that to ask him questions. This is the reason why there are quite a few films. There is a film of it, which was made a very long time ago about the court. On the other hand, he was only following a case that was not really linked to the invisible, the subject was not broached. Even on the Kinshasa side, in the documentary, there are quite a few films on magic and spirituality, because it’s something that scares even the Congolese. We, too, are scared of it, but as we are a bit more of a side step, we are less involved in these anxieties of being attacked ourselves.

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In Congo-Brazzaville, witchcraft and justice at the “Ordalies, the court of the invisible”

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