Friday, June 29, 2007

Silverdocs: Living Goddess

Living Goddess

The line at 10:30 a.m. is quiet. A couple, one crocheting a scarf, the other reading Moby Dick, stand in front of me. Photographers snap the line. A volunteer who looks young enough to warrant a babysitter, is directed to sit still in a chair. The headsetted, suited AFI employee jokes about canceling the screening despite how long we’ve waited. The joke flops badly and we scowl at him on our way into Theater 2. The people sitting next to me debate how to fill in their ballot. At every screening volunteers pass out little strips of yellow paper with the name of the film and the numbers one through five. Audience members are supposed to rip out the number that we rate the film. No one understands the number ripping system. It was clearly designed by someone proficient at test marketing screenings, but not remotely familiar with the inside-the-beltway abject fear of dangling chads. The films with the highest ratings are screened again the last night of the festival. “What do I base my decision on: my subjective opinion,” (as opposed to her objective opinion, I suppose), “or the likelihood that people will attend a screening on Sunday evening? Or based purely on this film’s maker’s ability to feed the media machine. Let’s just circle 5 before we see it.” This filmmaker’s ability to feed the media machine is quite well-developed if the repeated promos on WAMU and the sold out crowd here this morning are any indication. Every seat is full and people are standing, until AFI staff bring them folding chairs. It appears that the entire embassy of Nepal is present. At the theater’s entrance the subject of the film appears as indicated by enough camera flashes to be seen from space (I’m sure there will be a documentary on that phenomenon next year). People stand and lean over to get a peek at the tiny little girl. Once she sits down, commoners with their point-and-shoots line up to take pictures. Non-anglo children pay their respects. Anglo adults pay their respects. The crochet-er from the line ends up sitting next to me an proceeds to crochet at least through the Silverdocs promotional reel if not the beginning of the film itself. After that I did my best to block her stichery from my perception.

The film begins abruptly with a brief history of Nepal and the legend of the living godess, Taleju, a form of Kali. Digital brightly colored amorphous blobs dance behind white text. Cut to a little girl named Sajani in a religious building’s courtyard. The first subtitle, “Hey Goddess, where are you going?” Insert of the TV news talking about the political situation in Nepal. The goddess explains that the goddess is a Buddhist girl possessed by a Hindu goddess. “I am the incarnation of Taleju.” Her mother explains that she prays to her daughter. Sajani explains that she wanted to be a goddess since she was little. She describes what people do when they come to worship her as she plays with a stuffed unicorn. During a formal procession under an umbrella people walk up to touch her. A little boy says, “We always worship my sister even when she is not a goddess.” The father says that things are better now that his daughter is a goddess.To be selected as a goddess a girl must have the 32 perfections. Titles describe some of the perfections as images show that aspect of Sajani or one of the two other goddesses. The king of Nepal gets his power from the child goddesses. There is one adult goddess. She never bled, so she is still a goddess. She recites the history or myth of the goddesses’ origin. Sajani says another god lives in her courtyard. A red statue of a male god is carried out of its place in her courtyard.A political rally includes anti-monarchy demonstrators. The military maneuvers in response. The king’s people sacrifice cows and goats. It is a bloody display as heads are severed and the heads are dragged around a courtyard in a circle.Sajani says, “People look for omens when they worship me.”The older goddess says, “People have wondered if what we say is true.”Riot police stand by at a pro-democracy rally.Her mother explains that Sajani cried in the temple once. This omen led to the king’s brother assassinating him and taking the throne. Some people lose themselves in religion.Intertitle: Ceasefire rejected by the king.Images of people bathing in a river. Women are the source of power and energy. Siblings play in the courtyard while Sajani looks from the throne room window. Police beat protestors at a pro-democracy rally.Even the goddess has to do her homework.People fight back against the police.Sajani says, “I’m scared the army will not let me out. The king’s government hurt me a lot. Because of the protests I cannot play with my friends.Police fire tear gas at protestors and spray them with fire hoses.People sacrifice cows and chickens.Intercut preparing goddess for ceremony and sacrificing animals. Blood in the streets. Animal heads. Father painting the goddess’s forehead. “I’m not allowed to say what happens in Taleju temple.” Cut to the temple doors closing behind her. Cut to black. Then cut to another time when she tells what happens (something about buffalo heads) and another shot of the oldest goddess explaining what happens (they become the physical embodiment of Taleju). Her father carries her after she exits the temple. A voice-over interviewee says the face of the goddess changes when she leaves the temple. Sajani sticks her tongue out at the camera. A man is trying to make an offering to the goddess. He and her family are trying to get her to drink the alcohol he is offering. Sajani appears drunk and upset as they force her to drink.Intertitle: A shoot-on-sight curfew is issued.No one can go outside. They can’t get water. The father says we’ll get peace because we have gods and goddesses but if we get a republic, religion might cease.Police shoot a protestor. Protestors beat a policeman. Policemen guard a collection of corpses.The king abdicates the throne.Sajani plays with a music box. Her mother says she will only be a goddess until she is 12 years old. Sajani is dressed an a uniform just like her sister to go to school.Credits over Sajani dancing.

Q & A with director.
Q: How are the goddesses selected?
A: They are chosen from the caste of goldsmiths. Priests cast a horoscope. Only girls with that horoscope are eligible. They must have no scars or cuts. They must have the 32 Perfect Attributes. Then there is a final initiation.
Q: You said they must have no scars or cuts but the oldest goddess has pockmarks.
A: It is an organic religion that people live within.
Q: Something about the political aspects of the film.
A: I wanted to make this film for 15 years because I was interested in the subject of the living goddesses. As we were developing the film the political situation intensified. Pre-production was finished about February 2006, which was a few weeks after the king’s coup. No one could have predicted the political changes that took place.
Q: What do the goddesses do later?
A: There are many superstitions about ex-kumari. But they get married and lead normal lives. One is a teacher, another a pharmacist, another a university student studying computer science. They are still honored and respected within their community.
Q: Will the tradition of the living goddesses survive in a republic?
A: Political reform will affect ancient customs. Democracy is about people taking control of their own lives. One way that might impact the tradition of the living goddesses is that the caste system might change.
Q: What were the different kinds of demonstrations?
A: There were many different groups. But they are generally grouped as Maoists, the 7 democratic political parties, and the monarchists.
Q: As a goddess was Sajani in particular danger?
A: No. The goddesses would not be specifically targeted. She was just in danger because the unrest was near her house, as was everyone else who lived near unrest.
Q: How did you get footage of the protest?
A: We did have problems getting the tapes out at the end. But we had no problems shooting the film other than getting hit by a stray rock or rubber bullet in the crossfire. We just introduced ourselves and gave cigarettes to the cops and the protestors.
Q: Did you have any shooting agreements?
A: We had no agreements with the police or the rioters. Press passes mean nothing in that situation. We were just trying to maintain relations with both sides.
Q: What does Sajani not like about being a goddess?
A: She doesn’t want to tell you. You’re scaring her.
Q: What do you like about being here?
A: She enjoys being her very much.
Q: [In Nepalese]
A: [In Nepalese]
Q: How did you meet the goddess?
A: I was introduced to her by the head priest. I came to her home and we had tea.
Q: Was there a language problem?
A: There was a total language problem. The associate producer was the interpreter. The sensitivity of the translation was key. Academic translators scared kids. We went through four translators. The one that worked out was honest about what the kids were saying.

Click here to return to Gnomicon home page


Sarah said...

NPR did a piece on the goddess.