Saturday, January 28, 2023 at 4pm
Michael Oppitz's Shamans of the Blind Country

361 Stagg Street, Suite 407, Brooklyn

Shamans of the Blind Country, Michael Oppitz, 1980, digital projection, 223 mins

From Michael Oppitz's Mobile Myths:

Shamans of the Blind Country is an epic documentary on faith healing in a remote region of NW Nepal. Over a period of eighteen months the film follows the basic traits of a local religious practice, kindred in spirit to the many variations of the great inner-Asian tradition of shamanism characteristic for the Siberian part of Northern Asia and the entire Himalayan region.

Part I pursues the various types of healing rituals enacted by the shamans of the northern Magar of the Dhaulagiri region (in NW Nepal) for the benefit of their clients. In accordance with a diagnosis made for each individual case, the healer first identifies those who may be responsible for the disease or misfortune at hand. This may be a malignant spirit, the mischief of a witch, or the unsettled ghost of a defunct villager. Whoever has been pinned down as the main cause of disaster, will in the course of the ritual become the main addressee of the healer, his main business partner. For the healing ceremony culminates in a business transaction between shaman and this supernatural agent. The deal proposed is simple: blood for soul. As a rule, a person's well-being is affected when one of the supernaturals has abducted the client's life force, one of his or her souls. It is the shaman's task to trace the soul robber's hiding place and suggest an exchange: if the abductor is ready to release the patient's soul, he will receive the most attractive ransom: the blood of a sacrificial animal provided by the patient's family. In order to bring this exchange into effect, the hiding place of the soul-robbing agent has to be sought and found first of all by the shaman. This search is the main purpose of the healer's ritual journey. The deal may fail for different reasons: the shaman may have identified the wrong agent of misfortune; the healer may have taken the wrong route and therefore not have found the soul's hiding place; or the spirit, responsible for the abduction of the soul, may not be content with the barter. In either of these cases, the patient's life is hanging by a thread. The healer's last resort is to eliminate the supernatural agent by a surprise attack. Most healing rituals comply with the basic pattern outlined.

Part II of the film is focussed mainly on the transmission of shamanic knowledge from master to pupil. This is a long process of increasing intensity. First the initiand has to pass a series of tests, before his call will be accepted as justified. The climax is reached by his ritual birth on a pine tree, erected on the edge of the village in the presence of all shamans of the region. After this three-day ceremony an arduous period of learning begins. It includes a step by step acquisition of an enormous body of myths and ritual chants; of magical mantras and cosmological knowledge; the ability to conduct a complicated variety of cermonies prescibed by tradition; the proper use of medicinal plants; and an empathetic understanding of the fellow villagers' psychological disposition. It takes a good many years to bring all these different capacities to fruitful application. No books support the storage and retrieval of this vast corpus of knowledge; the shaman's only mnemonic aid is his drum.

In regard to its format, the film sets out with short takes and puzzling sequences, the sense of which becomes apparent only as the film progresses. Little by little the takes get longer, until they reach real-time lengths of several minutes. This approach reflects the starting position of an ethnographer new in the field, whose full grasp of a situation develops as his experience increases. In reverse to the pictures, the voice-over parts are more numerous and detailed in the beginning, while toward the end they diminish until they subside altogether. This too corresponds with the initial situation of the ethnographic field worker: as long as he understands little, he needs plenty of explanation. Watching the film, the audience is drawn into this experience of the researcher's gradual progress of understanding.

Apart from this the film obtains its formal shape from an elementary feature observed amongst the Magar people: Whatever they do in everyday life is referred to a corresponding event in the origin stories chanted by their shamans. Magar present-day life is coated by a mythical layer. This permanent reference to the mythical past and the deeds of its protagonists is facilitated by favorable circumstances: The shamans keep their oral traditions alive in the layman's awareness by practicing it almost daily—in the course of their healing séances. The mythical chants performed over and over again remain for the villagers a guide through the turmoil and hardships of their lives. It is for this interplay between mythical time and a profane present that Shamans of the Blind Country has been called a mythological film and for its frequent confrontation of contemporary people with heroes of the orgin stories also an epic film.

...

Right from its first screenings the film enjoyed an extraordinary international response: on festivals in Europe, Asia and America, on tours, in commercial cinemas, on TV, in conferences and seminars inside and outside unversities. In the newly established field of Visual Anthropology the film was established as exemplary: a model between scholarly documentation and art film. Especially in art circles the film met with strong responses—admiration, contradiction, inspiration. To indicate the spectrum, a few names may be mentioned as examples: in the fine arts Beuys and Polke (Beuys: “These shamans have literally stolen everything from me!”); in music John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, Dieter Schnebel; in performance art and theory: Richard Schechner and Joan Jonas; amongst writers Bruce Chatwin and William Burroughs, who gave his voice to one of two narrators in the English version of the film; and amongst experimental filmmakers David Larcher, Jack Smith and—for non-fictional film—Robert Gardner. In the fields of anthropology, in comparative religion and in ritual studies the film has become a basic work of reference. And by the general public it is quoted as a witness for a way of life in societies without writing.

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Michael Oppitz was born in 1942 near Schneekoppe on the Czech-Polish border (Silesia); childhood and schooldays in Cologne; university studies in Berkeley, Bonn, and Cologne; doctoral thesis 1974 on the history of structural anthropology; post-doc thesis on cross-cousin marriage; visiting professor in England, France, USA; professor of social anthropology at Zurich University and director of the Ethnographic Museum Zurich from 1991 to 2008; emeritus since 2008; intensive fieldwork in the Himalayas, amongst the Sherpa (1965), the Magar (1977-1984), the Naxi of Yunnan (1995-96), and the Qiang in Sichuan (2000-01); various books on kinship, mythology, ritual, comparative religion, and shamanism, on visual anthropology, semiology, and material culture; most recent publication a two-volume book on shamanic drums; a comparative study on the myth of vanished scripts in illiterate societies is in preparation.

Tickets - Pay what you can ($10 suggested donation), available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 3:30pm. No entry 10 minutes after start of show.

For those interested, a exhibition of Oppitz's photographic work, Singers of Ten Thousand Lines, will be on view at Galerie Buchholz from January 27 - February 25.