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DIVINE CARCASSE
DIVINE CARCASSE Bookmark and Share

59 minutes, 1998, Belgium / Benin
Producer/Director: Dominique Loreau
in Fon, French and Yoruba with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
CRITICAL COMMENT
"A delightful and whimsical look at use and reuse, at natural and spiritual A delightful and whimsical look at use and reuse, at natural and spiritual transformation, what might be called 'recycling west Africa style,' in the ethnographic spirit of Jean Rouch"
Edna Bay, Emory University
"An offbeat idea, this quasi-nonfiction narrative about a European car passed from owner to owner - and from culture to culture - is more about communities than individuals...An unusual take on African or Third World economic/cultural currents."
Variety

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Divine Carcasse is an unusual hybrid, a half fictional, half ethnographic film. It is a study in cultural contrast, between a desacralized, materialistic European view of reality and an animist, pre-industrial African one. Belgian director Dominique Loreau has described her film as "an encounter with another culture, another way of relating to the world, objects and death - one that challenges our own relationships to the world."

In a sense, Divine Carcasse could be seen as just an extended play on a double entendre - that "ancestor" in French slang can mean an old car but to Africans refers to the omnipresent forces that shape their world. This film shows the literal metamorphosis of one of the most prosaic artifacts of Western culture, into a revered fetish of the coastal people of Benin. In so doing, it provides a concise lesson about the uneasy encounter between European technology and African tradition offering insight into some of our most deep-seated ideas about economics, art, anthropology and religion.

In the opening shot, a mysterious cargo ship approaches the Benin coast much, one imagines, as did the brigantines of the first European explorers. In its hold, however, is a 1955 Peugeot imported to Cotonou by Simon, an expatriate European philosophy teacher. His friends deride the car as an unreliable means of transport but relish its nostalgia value but their view of the past extends no further than their own youth in the 50's. Of course, a car can be a fetish object in European culture; a friend suggests Simon can use it to pick up women. But it remains primarily a disposable commodity to these complacent members of the consumer society who drive along singing, "My life is on credit and in stereo."

The philosophical ambitions of this deceptively straightforward film are suggested by Simon who is preparing a lesson on Plato's "Myth of the Cave." In a remarkable prefiguring of cinema, Plato described ordinary perception as confusing the shadows on the walls of a cave with the object passing by outside which produce them, the " things in themselves." This locus classicus of the fundamental distinction between a higher noumenal reality and the everyday world of phenomena or appearances has haunted Western philosophy from Plato to Kant's epistemological skepticism to the radical relativism of today's discourse theory. A small fetish object above Simon's desk reminds us, however, of an alternative African metaphysics which sees the natural world as suffused with immanent noumenosity revealing itself through objects, people and gods.

The film's focus rapidly shifts from the European expatriate community to urban, modernizing Africa, a transitional space between these two worldviews. Simon in frustration gives the decrepit car to Joseph, his cook, who hopes to ride it to financial success and independence. When he shows it off in his natal village, the crowd is shocked that the French call such cars "ancestors" since they look at their own ancestors as "guides and protectors." Joseph's wife, fearing the villagers' envy, asks for the ancestors' intervention on the grounds that the car will lift the fortunes of the entire family line. But Joseph's taxi business is a failure and during a "ghost dance" or egungun ritual the ancestors tell him that his recently deceased maternal uncle has cursed him and must be placated. The ancestors still don't seem much help; Joseph is forced to sell the car to a garage which discards it as scrap.

At this point the film's fictional narrative disappears entirely to be replaced by a nearly documentary study of an actual Beninois metalworker making a fetish commissioned by the village of Ouassou. We watch as he uses pre-industrial techniques to turn the car door into long strips of metal, presumably in imitation of the straw garments worn by the other fetishes. This fetish, the ram god, Agbo, master of the night, symbolized by the horns of the crescent moon, is brought back by four village elders by boat - the same way the car arrived at the film's beginning. The film ends when the statue is accepted or recognized by the joyful villagers and joins the other fetishes in the zangbeto society supposedly a kind of night watch for the village. Dark falls but the fetish's eyes blaze - perhaps amazed at its metamorphosis from a car into a god who sees in the dark.

This change from fiction to documentary is not arbitrary; it illustrates the difference between the Europeanized sector where people like Joseph see themselves as individual subjects and agents of their own fates and rural areas where they are imbricated in a complex matrix of collective values, mores and activities. Their world is part of an on-going shared narrative where the past in the form of the ancestors is always connected to the present and future. It could be said no one ever fully dies in Benin. Divine Carcasse may even ask if a culture which overtly sees itself as dominated by supernatural forces is any less free than the illusory individualism of our own capitalist culture locked in the equally tight grip of Adam Smith's "invisible hand," not to say, the very visible one of Madison Avenue.

The distinction can, however, be most clearly seen in the different attitude to the fetish itself. In the West, it would be seen as a self-contained, finished creation by an individual artist to be consumed simply for its aesthetic value. In Benin it is a functional object constructed by an anonymous craftsman which only fully assumes its meaning when it is used as a vessel on which a god alights. Surprisingly, it is Jean Genet who makes this point in the film's epigraph: "A work of art is not for the generation of children, it is offered to the countless generations of the past, who approve or reject it." It may seem to Africans, perhaps, too obvious a point to make.

Divine Carcasse can also be seen as an allegory of Europe's encounter with Africa. Colonialism brought to Africa a version of their own technological civilization, albeit a run-down, and second hand one, which post-independent African states have attempted to make work only to have it fall apart entirely. In the end Africa must rely on its own resources and traditions so that as the film moves forward it also moves backward into a pre-colonial past culture. Perhaps such a simple "return to the ancestors" is impractical in a relentlessly modernizing, globally inter-connected world. But Africa like much of the world is struggling to develop its own version of modernism in which objects can be produced not for profit or for supernatural beings but simply for human use.

Divine Carcasse, in its wry awareness of the ambiguous relationship between fiction and documentary, builds on the work of pioneering ethnographer Jean Rouch. It deliberately does not ask us to chose between African and Western perspectives but to recognize both as equally valid and equally fictional. The film is just one reading of Beninois reality just as these few paragraphs have been just one reading of the film. Dominique Loreau points to her film as illustrative of this polysemous vision of the world: "My film is itself a fiction by its very nature; an object passes from hand to hand changing its meaning according to how we use it. It is a fiction and realty at the same time. Like a fetish, it is a fiction which creates a reality."

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