“God Is a Woman is a charming and insightful documentary that values its subjects.”
How do we see ourselves, and how do we want others to see us? These are universal questions in the way we relate to each other, but in the case of indigenous people they become more loaded when taking the cultural differences into account. This becomes particularly relevant when it comes to anthropological documentary filmmaking. These films tend to be made through an exoticist lens, portraying the people and their customs as a curiosity but leaving them little dignity and inevitably rendering them as either intellectually or culturally inferior (or both). These specific questions arise in a discussion between members of the Kuna people, an indigenous tribe mostly living on islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, the subjects but also collaborators on Swiss-Panamanian filmmaker Andrés Peyrot’s God Is a Woman, the opening film of this year’s Settimana della Critica.
In 1975, French documentarist Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau, a 1962 Oscar winner for The Sky Above, the Mud Below, set out to live with the Kuna with the intention of documenting their matriarchal society. Together with his wife Kyoko and young daughter Akiko, Gaisseau spent a year with a single tribe, filming their rituals in intimate detail. The surviving villagers still have fond memories of the Gaisseau family’s time in their midst, but after nearly 50 years one thing still is missing: the film.
Peyrot unearthed the original copy of Gaisseau’s film in a Parisian cellar, and is determined to give the tribe themselves and their way of living back, but also use it as an examination of the way we see ourselves and others, in particular those markedly different from us, and how we portray that on film. In the half-century since Gaisseau’s departure times have not stood still in the community; easier communication and transportation means that it too has been touched by modernity and Westernization. Some left the islands, to study and to teach, and some to search for that long-lost visual memory of their history and culture when it was still mostly untouched. One of them is Arysteides Turpana, who became a university professor and uses his connection to trace Gaisseau’s reels. When Peyrot and an old friend of Turpana discover the film in Paris, a young Panamanian filmmaker of Kuna descent, Orgun Wagua, is enlisted to create an outdoor cinema in the community so they can finally see their past.
Once we see what Gaisseau has shot, the discrepancy between how he has filmed the Kuna community and the people we have met throughout is notable. Even if it has been 50 years, the perceived primitivity and naivety in Gaisseau’s images is in stark contrast with the intelligence and in some cases cosmopolitanism of people like Turpana or Wagua. The anthropological angle of Gaisseau’s work, and he was certainly not alone in this in the ’70s, reveals a Western haughtiness that makes you wonder why documentaries like this were made, and still are made today. Communities like the Kuna are not some sort of cultural attraction to be studied by tourists and scientists alike.
Despite some pacing issues and characters dropping in and out of the film without much introduction or explanation, God Is a Woman is a charming and insightful documentary that values its subjects. Although it highlights the important position of women within the community, the title doesn’t really gel with what the film is about, especially because the film shows mostly men that have ‘left the nest’, so to speak, and demonstrated that any background can produce greatness. That said, the contrast God Is a Woman shows between the exoticism of Gaisseau’s work and the reality of the community is poignant enough to overcome the film’s shortcomings and erratic choices, and the moment the old film is screened on the island and people get to finally see themselves shows the magic cinema is still capable of. Its message that cultural differences do not equal differences in human value is important, but it is cinema’s power that touches the heart.