The infinite ocean between our voices March 25, 2010


Poet's Salary, dir. Eric Wittersheim, France (filmed in Vanuatu), 59 min

I would like to point out that with the title of my blog entry I don't aim so much at the film of Eric Wittersheim but rather something more general in anthropology and in travelling and even more widely in the communication between cultures.

The Worldfilm festival has many charms. The dense programme will take us on a sensual trip so that within half a day one can travel from Africa to South America and Asia. That's what happened today at least.

As a bonus, you're surrounded by adorable people who all are, in one way or another, looking for the same things – all sorts of interesting things from all sorts of different worlds that have reached to us to Tartu by means of visual art. But the real treat of the festival is that the films come down from the screen right into the hall, or even to the cushions of the chillout roosm or to the cafe. 

Many film authors are present at the festival, in the flesh, and when the film raises some questions within you, you can ask them out right here.

Eric Wittersheim's film “Poet's Salary” took us to the Melanesian archipelago in the Pacific ocean. The film observed the relationships between the researcher and his subject. Eric, who has been interested in the politics of Pacific islands for a long time, travelled there this time together with a linguist Alex and an ethnomusicologist Monika. The film's approach was nicely personal, bringing to the spectators something quite normal in the life and fieldwork of an anthropologist – things never go exactly as you plan them. Anything is possible, but nothing is certain. A Western researcher whose life is guided by deadlines, budgets and systems, has to forget all this in a Third World country and go along with a very different rhythm of life. There's no system, and not much money either. And the deadlines? What deadlines? We are very much alive, aren't we – let tomorrow come first!

The film's protagonist, Alex, is a talented linguist who has worked on the island for years and has thus become very well known to the locals. This time he came with his wife and two kids, because a song in the languages of the ancestors was to be performed in his honour. But the musician who had this task behaved as old musicians sometimes do – there were the Christmas and other holidays and so on and so on... well, the song wasn't quite ready yet.

Alex describes his reality on the island as a researcher:

  • 20 % of his time goes to buying food, shopping and such;

  • 20 % of his time is taken walking around and visiting friends;

  • 30 % of his time he hears incredible stories about demons and ghosts and so on;

So some 15-20 % of time will remain for research work, and only this part is what he will later present to his colleagues.

One can go on by speculating that this is probably also the case with all the films in the Worldfilm festival – a film presents maybe only 15 % of what the author experienced.

But how to cope with this 15%? Both Alex and Eric have families among the locals who have adopted them. It appears to be very popular for the families on the Pacific islands to have a Westerner in a family. You are adopted, symbolically. For the locals, the “white man” is a prestigious thing. For the Westerner, on the other hand, this habit gives a steady position – you are somebody, you belong somewhere. Now people know how to approach you. This also makes the research easier, as you become part of the local community.

These are the themes that Eric Wittersheim points to, seasoning his film with samples of local music, and with images smelling of rain.

And finally the song dedicated to Alex was finished. Local men sang in their ancient language about how they had taken Alex as their son and dedicate this song to him. For posterity.

But the everlasting paradox of the anthropologist is, in my opinion, best described by another line from the song – between our voices lies the infinite ocean.

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