SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

I can say without any exaggeration that SistaGod is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. Written and directed by Yao Ramesar, it’s the first in a trilogy of experimental films about an enigmatic young Trinidadian woman named Mari, whose dreams herald death and destruction. Set over an eerie soundtrack and jerky camerawork, SistaGod is as unsettling as it is compelling. The tempo of the film is strange, at times slow, at times fast, making the film seem disconnected from time altogether

Endings and Beginnings

SistaGod contains almost no dialogue, relying mostly on Mari’s narration to tell the story. Indeed, the first twenty minutes or so are a monologue delivered by her. Her narrations are powerful and poetic, so please forgive me when I quote them at length. Mari tells us that her father was an American Marine sniper who served in Desert Storm. He suffered brain damage, and “My mother, his caregiver, nursed him back to health.” She continues: “I was conceived in the cemetery next to our house. I was born a throwblack, came out darker than expected,” so her father suspected that she was not his child and left. As a result, “My mother spent most of the rest of her life in the asylum, or madhouse, thumbing through the memories of her one great romance. She tried her best to salvage some status, making sure I spoke and thought in standard English, making sure that even though I only had one dress, it was a good dress.”

Mari is surrounded by death from the start: “Living on Cemetery Street, my next-door neighbors were dead people, their restless souls threatening to possess us all.” Perhaps it is her familiarity with death that enables her to cheat it at an early age: “On my ninth birthday, I picked some poison berries. I don’t know who or what made me pick or eat them, but they stained my tongue black and nearly killed me, or so my mother claimed.” Regardless, this experience gives her supernatural and clairvoyant powers: “When I was 18, a spirit entered me telling me I was God, to prepare for the end of life as we knew it.” Mari’s mother orders that she be exorcised, but the exorcism only strengthens her newfound spiritual powers.

The Coming of SistaGod

Mari soon reveals that she is pregnant, presumably with the child of God (or perhaps, in a less fanciful interpretation, the child of the man who administered her exorcism). “When my mother found out that I was pregnant,” we learn, “she threatened to kill herself, jump off the waterfall. After they subdued her, she started sewing a Carnival costume for me.” We see the main character, fittingly enough, dressed as a Carnival character known as Baby Doll, an unwed mother. (The backstory of Baby Doll is explained here.) In the lacy white costume, Mari looks ghostly and frightening. And with this costume, she transforms into SistaGod.

Only SistaGod knows that this Carnival would mark the end of the world—the Apocalypso, as she calls it. “While we were waiting on the next epidemic, or the next World War,” she narrates, “we went out with a whimper: ‘Save the Earth.’ The earth survived. People disappeared, everybody in the blink of an eye. At least they went out playing mas. They all took their final vows before the mass [or mas!] destruction.” Some of the masquerade dancers faint and then begin flailing. Is it an act? Is this the work of SistaGod? Nothing seems certain in this movie.

All that is certain is that, following Carnival, SistaGod finds herself alone: “Then they were gone. Even those in Hell and beyond. I alone survived the Apocalypso. I looked at all the names in the departure lounge. Only the gods were left standing.” Wikipedia calls the film a fantasy. I guess that’s accurate. I’m really not sure it fits into any genre, but fantasy is as good a category as any. (Oh, and one other thing is certain: This is a phenomenal film and you must check it out, if possible!)

Up Next…

Confusion Na Wa (Nigeria, 2013)

Does the President Have AIDS? (Haiti, 2006)

From director Arnold Antonin, this film tracks the trials faced by HIV-positive Haitians as they struggle to maintain their reputations and careers, while balancing their health with pursuits of sex and romance. The titular “president” is Dao (played by Jimmy Jean-Louis of Heroes), a superstar Compas musician and the “President” of the Haitian music scene—“the only president who can’t be overthrown,” as he puts it. To his manager’s chagrin, though, Dao is also a drug-user and inveterate womanizer, prone to unsafe sex.

Lifestyles of the Poz and Famous

Although HIV is a global health crisis, the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Haiti is one of the highest in the world, with approximately 1 in 50 adults being HIV-positive. Historically, HIV has been closely associated with Haiti; in fact, HIV used to be called the “4H disease,” since it seemed to predominantly affect Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and homosexuals.

Even as Dao continues to have frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis, he refuses to believe that he could possibly become infected. He tells himself in the mirror: “You are not ill. Nothing can happen to you.” And yet, he continues having frequent unprotected sex in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Despite his sexual behavior, Dao espouses respect for women. During one of Dao’s concerts, a man (Larieux) begins assaulting a woman (Nina), and Dao stops the concert to tackle Larieux. Following this “humiliation,” Larieux vows vengeance on Dao.

Like Dao, Nina comes from a poor family, but she maintains a confident and independent attitude. She tells her friend: “I don’t need a man to solve my problems, Carline! Why does it have to be a man to solve my problems?” Nina refuses to have sex with Dao unless he wears a condom, to which he reacts indignantly: “But I’m the biggest, the best—I’m Dao!” he cries. “Are you implying that I may be sick?” Nina responds: “Who’s to say I’m not a high risk girl myself?” Later, Nina implores Dao to see a doctor to “do yourself a favor, do us a favor.”

Matters of Faith

Vodou is a strong undercurrent in the film. Dao maintains an altar to the Erzulie family of lwas, including Erzulie Freda, the lwa of love and luxury. As he begins to fear for his health, he kneels before the altar and prays: “Oh my goddesses! Don’t let your lover down! Come to my rescue!” He tries to hide his illness, but those closest to him—his manager, his mother, and Nina, for example—suspect that he’s unwell. Dao’s mother suggests that he speak to her cousin, Bayawon, a houngan. At the ceremony, she cries: “Whoever the dead, lwas, spirits, whoever the invisible may be that eat away the body and soul of my child, I order you to go. Leave now if you don’t want to suffer as much as my child.”

Haitian_vodou_altar_to_Petwo,_Rada,_and_Gede_spirits;_November_5,_2010.
An example of a Haitian Vodou altar. (Image: Calvin Hennick, distributed by CC BY 3.0 license)

The film takes a decidedly anti-Vodou stance. At one point, Bayawon tells another houngan that, by treating Dao, “We are emptying out his pockets. His illness doesn’t depend on us.” Later, he tells Carline that in order to win her boyfriend back, she needs to have a “threesome” with Bayawon and the spirits inside of him.

Indeed, Dao’s Aunt Ninon is horrified to learn that Dao’s mother took him to see a houngan: “Dao was brought inside the devil’s lair. Oh, heavens no! The world has forgotten that Christ is the only answer.” Nina agrees, calling Bayawon a bokor, or sorcerer willing to perform evil deeds. Ninon frantically takes Dao to see a pastor to heal him.

In the end, however, it is Western medicine in which the film places its strongest faith when it comes to dealing with the AIDS crisis. Following his diagnosis, Dao declares that after all he’s been through his music will have a new, “sensational” sound. He shocks his fans when he announces: “I have AIDS. It’s unfortunately a disease that lots of Haitians have and they must go on with their lives like the others. They must respect themselves, avoid contaminating others, and continue living in harmony.”

Up Next…

SistaGod (Trinidad and Tobago, 2006)

Anita, the Insect Hunter (Honduras, 2001)

First of all, I’ll preface this by saying that I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of this film with English subtitles, so I hope my interpretations are valid. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, this film, directed by Hispano Durón, is the story of a teenage girl, Anita Fernandez, with an apparently idyllic life, told primarily through the recollections of her younger brother Anibal. Anita is celebrated for her intelligence and beauty, “until one day,” her brother remembers, “she gave it up to hunt insects.”

Great Expectations

We first glimpse Anita’s anxieties through her strained relationship with her short-fused and overbearing father. He wants her to be more like the “Turks,” a Honduran term for Palestinian immigrants and their descendants, stereotyped as wealthy businesspeople and social climbers. (See this article for more info.) Anita’s brother tells us that “Papa had contracted many debts. He wanted to have more than he could. From time to time it made us remember who we really were.” When Anita plans her quinceañera, her father is concerned about making a good impression on her friends. In order to improve the family’s financial situation, he has an affair with a Palestinian credit manager.

During the party, Anita’s father sees some “Turks,” including Anita’s crush Fernando, hanging out at a gas station, apparently up to no good. Anibal recalls that “Papa was furious that day,” because Fernando and his friends had not come to Anita’s party. Her father screams at Anita in front of her friends, cursing her for not associating with the “Turks.” Anibal says: “And so it was then that Anita changed, never again to be the same.”

A World of Her Own

After her father’s blowout, Anita becomes obsessed with insects, especially moths and butterflies. In religion class, she begins reading from Deuteronomy 28, her recitation growing louder, faster, and more fervent. As she concludes, a large moth appears in the room, causing a commotion. Anita reaches out nonchalantly and catches it in her hand, to the amazement of her classmates and teacher. When Anita witnesses her father’s infidelity, she retreats further inward. She begins dissociating, acting like an insect at dinner, shutting out the world. To Anita’s horror, her father burns her insect collection, rendering her almost catatonic. “Anita,” her brother laments, “she was no longer with us.”

Anita’s parents seek medical advice, prompting her to run away from home. While hunting for insects, she meets a drug dealer who gives her an insect larva as a gift and asks her “Are you crazy?” He tells her there are many more insects at his place and takes her there. While she remains catatonic, he undresses her. He admires her body as he washes her feet and bathes her. She remains more or less catatonic, even as he rapes her.

Back at home, Anita’s family comes to grips with her absence: “At first it seemed that there was nothing more important than finding the culprit. Guilt lingered like a ghost prowling around the house. Nobody wanted to be touched by it. We hid behind grief or behind rage.” Over time, “The ghosts of guilt had disappeared. We only had to deal with shame.” Where did the shame come from? Their failures toward Anita? Their inability to keep up appearances as a happy family? Did Anita’s disappearance serve as yet another reminder of who they really were?

Connections

Like Ruba in Third Person Singular NumberAnita is a bright girl whose promising future is dashed by the constraints placed upon her by a demanding patriarchal figure, as well as society at large. Anita and Ruba both find solace within worlds of their own creation, Anita’s populated by insects, Ruba’s by younger versions of herself. Anita, the Insect Hunter is difficult to watch at times; despite its unique and engaging premise, the unending sequence of tragedies the film’s protagonist faces can be difficult to stomach.

Up Next…

Travellers and Magicians (Bhutan, 2003)