"With black and white I went straight to the bone of the thing, to the marrow, it was more poetic and also more naked. I wanted it to be about myths, about legends, about the soul of the place"
- FLMTQ Interview
Jordi Esteva is a Spanish writer, editor, producer and film director. Originally a photographer, Esteva has directed three documentaries that explore the ceremonies, rituals, and ethnographic details of far corners of the world, such as the Ivory Coast and a small island in the Arabian Sea. His most recently film, Socotra, the Land of Djinns, premiered at Documenta Madrid.
In an exclusive interview with Filmatique, Jordi Esteva discusses djinns (ancient Islamic spirits), oral traditions, camels, patriarchy, dying languages and his next project.
FLMTQ: You've been a journalist, a photographer and a writer as well as a film director, with a particular focus on cultures from Africa and some parts of the Middle East. What motivates this focus, and what has been the personal and artistic journey that landed you on Socotra?
JORDI ESTEVA: I could say that my work is a bit biographical because I like to get involved with a subject I'm studying. I was in Socotra for the first time in 2005, and I went three times after that. At the very beginning I was not filming— I wanted to make a book about Socotra. I was interested in vanishing worlds. That's the subject of my films and books— worlds that are disappearing in front of us. These societies are pretty fragile, or not technologically developed, which makes them more susceptible to globalization.
What I found on Socotra was really fascinating— it was a dream for me. I thought a lot about the island before; it was one of the places I really wanted to visit and it was when I was doing research for my book The Arabs of the Sea that I talked a lot with sailors and merchants of the Arab harbors. They always talk about Socotra with a bit of fear because it's an island that's isolated in the middle of the Indian Ocean and the monsoons— the winds that in other parts of the Indian ocean were very favorable for sailing boats— in Socotra were very dangerous because there are no natural harbors. There's a lot of coral reefs that make the sailing difficult and dangerous.
Socotra was part of South Yemen which was a Marxist state, so when I realized there were some commercial flights from Sanaa, in Yemen, to Socotra I took the first plane because it was a place I've dreamt of since childhood. I was one of those boys that didn't like school, I didn't like family, I didn't like the priest, I didn't like anything. So what I used to do is dream with the atlases and maps and books of geography, things like that.
So I went to Socotra and there, by chance as many interesting things happen, I met the son of the late Sultan of Socotra, who was deposed by the Marxist government in 1967. I thought, this family doesn't have any power now, any political nor economic power, but they have a lot of prestige because the people, when they think of the Sultan, they think of the good times when they were free— although they were under British rule, but it was the Sultan who ruled the place. The people look to the past and they really liked this era, so going with the Sultan's son opened doors for me because all the local clans and tribes really liked him. Thanks to that I could go to very, very remote places in the interior of the island to where I couldn't go alone. Thanks to his company, I went three times with camels— you have to go walking because there are no no roads at all. It is very rough.
So we did three expeditions to the top of the mountains, to Skand, those mountains that look like fingers of granite, and it's quite high. According to the legends this was where the roc bird of Sinbad used to live and make his nest, as well as the phoenix bird. Those legends about the island were fantastic, like a dream come true because every night around the fire people came from their settlements to tell stories about monsters and evils and snakes and djinns, all those things that I really love.
I gathered all that information and made a book called Socotra that appeared in 2011. After few years I missed the place very much. I missed all those nights under the stars and the cave and the people because I formed friendships, especially with Sheik Mohammed, an old man who looks a bit like Don Quixote and has a lot of stories to tell and is very good at it. So I felt the need to go back to Socotra.
I thought, well now that I know the people, I should do a film. And that's what I did. In the book there is a lot of myself, my reflections, my thoughts and things like that— I didn't want to be present in the film at all. Of course when you do a film, from the moment that you start framing you begin manipulating reality. In that sense I am of course present in the film— but I wanted the people to talk for themselves. I also didn't want to do something very anthropological or orthodox. My approach was more poetic, with a lot of time, really slow, a bit Russian, you know, and I wanted some intervals where apparently nothing was happening— the water, the insects, and all these things— and then of course the people by the fire explaining myths and legends.
And what I found especially interesting was they were doing so in Socotrian, a language that is going to disappear because it is not written. The young generations don't speak it in a pure sense. They speak a version of Socotrian that's by now very contaminated by Arabic. Only the old people speak the real Socotrian which is a language that goes back to pre-Islamic times; it's related to the old Sabaean, the old kingdom of Sheba, and also to some dialects which are still spoken in Yemen and South Oman.
So for me all this was a challenge. It was really fabulous to be with those people. And the places where you imagine there are shepherds, there is no agriculture— only a few dates by the sea. It's a bit like going back to the Neolithic age because they still live in caves and they still remember how to make a fire with some sticks. They didn't care at all about the camera— for them it was as if the camera did not exist. And every night we had a kind of feast because they don't usually eat meat: only on very special occasions, like festivities and marriages and things like that. But I was giving them a goat every night. That way a lot of people came from the surrounding areas and they were very keen to share their histories.
FLMTQ: As you said, the moment in which a person who doesn't come from the island arrives with a camera, this person is in a way reframing their lives from a different point of view, from a different perspective. You said they didn't mind the medium, but can you reflect on how perhaps they related to something that I think is new to them— the idea that you took away a film that will be seen by the rest of the world?
What's their understanding of this, or is it something that for them is not important or relevant? How did you persuade them?
JE: The first time I came it was almost impossible to take even a single photograph. It was very difficult for me to take even a single photograph— I don't know if they still think that you're stealing their soul or something like that. I don't know exactly as they didn't want to talk. They also didn't want to talk about djinns [supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.] They said they didn't exist anymore; in the past old people told stories about djinns. The Imams from Sanaa, the religious people, told them all those things were very bad and some of them were against Islam and so on, so they refused to talk to me about all that.
I was with them four nights or so the first time, and it was me who started telling stories, not them. I just started explaining things that happened to me in Africa with spirits, etc. Of course I was exaggerating a bit because I wanted them to feel free and then suddenly one night, one of the old men told me "oh yes, we also have spirits here" and from that moment the ice was broken.
The same happened with the camera. Suddenly they didn't feel that power of the camera. They just didn't care. When I went for filming we were a very small team, just three people— one for sound, the other for camera and me also with the camera and directing. So they didn't care about the camera. We didn't travel with expensive material or anything. We were filming with normal cameras which had a video option, so it was not that intrusive. I come from the world of analogical photography so I wanted to do it in black and white, with the Kodak Tri-X, and a lot of grain because it gives you a poetic feeling.
Nowadays to shot a film like that analogically would be a bit against the times but also very, very expensive. So we did it digitally but then in the post-production we dated it— we put it black and white with a bit of grain and I tried to capture the feeling of the black and white classics and Satyajit Ray who I love and Flaherty, all that stuff. I'm very happy to have done it in black and white because the island is fabulous, it has beautiful light, also incredible pictures but that was not what I wanted to depict. I wanted to depict the soul of the place, the legends, the myths, and for this color was no good.
With black and white I went straight to the bone of the thing, to the marrow, it was more poetic and also more naked. I wanted it to be about myths, about legends, about the soul of the place.
FLMTQ: It's a great choice because it gives the film a mythical tone, a notion of the ancestral that roots it in ancient times. It's also particular that the majority of the people that we see speak in the films are the elderly, who are there to communicate a sense of perpetuity, or continuity to these legends, these myths, this island, and this nature that has existed for millenniums It's a land that has seen Christianity, Islam, and explorers throughout the centuries. Black and white lends a sense of eternity.
JE: Yes. I'm aware that it's a difficult film. It requires a lot from the audience and I know this. It would be easier to do it in fantastic Technicolor or something, but that was not my goal.
Also, you can say there are almost no women in this film. Because it's a patriarchal world and also because it captures an expedition that the men do just before the rain starts. Maybe I should have explained that in the film, but I didn't want to, because I didn't want to explain anything in the film. I just wanted to let things happen.
I can say one reason for the lack of women, is that the women really didn't want to be photographed or filmed, and the men wouldn't allow it either. These people are nomads in their own island because they have two or three dwellings. The dwellings you see in the film are really poor— that's how you live there: in houses built with stones, without clay, and in caves. And they follow their goats, they follow the rains, they follow the pastures and at that time of the year when the men go to the top of the island before the rains come, the women are still with the children and some animals in other dwellings below, near the sea. They come a month or so after the period when we shot the film.
So at the moment I was filming, it was only men on top of the mountain. The rest of the family would come after when the rain started. The rain means it's going to be green, which is good for cows and sheep.
FLMTQ: What's interesting in the mythologies of djinns, especially given the lack of women in the film, is the notion of women being evil. Can you reflect on this mythology, and the link between djinns, women, snakes, monstrosity and evil?
JE: It's a patriarchal society. We cannot forget that it's Islam and they are afraid of women. This is what machismo is all about. It's a very patriarchal macho society so the women are dangerous, they have to be kept under the reigns, they have to be kept at home. That was maybe the way people thought in some places in Europe 200 years ago, in Sicily or Andalusia, I don't know.
It's not explained that well because it was for them to explain, not me. In fact, it's devils that transform themselves into animals to approach people and then do bad things; or into beautiful women to seduce men and then eat them or kill them or do harm.
I was not with women because it's not possible in that society. It would be very difficult even for foreign women to be allowed to stay with the women there, because they represent a foreign influence and that seems to be avoided.
So I don't know about the world of women. It would be very interesting to know which kind of stories they tell at night. Maybe they have male djinns; that would be nice.
FLMTQ: It's interesting how you captured the faces of people around the fire listening to the elderly men's stories. They smile, and are excited by these stories which are actually frightening. But they seem to enjoy exactly that type of narration.
JE: The second actors are very important. Of course the main person who is telling the story is very important, but also the people who are listening. When the main character is saying something impressive, we can just cut to the face of one of the listeners, and see that he's astonished.
You can also see how they live there. There's no internet, no radio, no cassette players, nothing of that kind so their way of enjoying themselves after a hard journey is just to sit and have some tea by the fire and tell stories.
That's something we have lost. So for this, I really loved the place and I loved this kind of life because it was like ancient times. It was oral literature. I knew the ones who were the best storytellers, and they know the stories by heart. They've been hearing these stories since they were children.
There's a part in the film where one of the men is telling a story about an evil woman who was whistling, and he tries to go straight to the end of the story but one of them says "no, no, no, you have to whistle again like she did!" They know the stories but they want to hear them again and again and again, especially if told by one of these elders.
FLMTQ: Another element crucial to their daily lives seems to be music. The film starts with a chant and ends with a chant, which again gives an ancestral mood to the story. So in a way music is the vehicle you chose for the audience to connect with the story— the chanting is very earthly as it comes from inside the body, from people, and it's universal because it's a language you don't actually need to know.
How did you decide to use this as an element?
JE: They sing all the time. Camels are very weird animals. I have a lot of empathy for animals— I am an animalist, a vegetarian, I have a dog and seven cats and I love animals so the first time I was with those camels I tried to be gentle with them and make some kind of friendship. It was impossible. I started caressing them as if they were dogs and suddenly they wanted to bite me with these big teeth so I just said "ok you don't want to be my friend, I'm not going to tell you anything, it's finished."
But camels are very special. Camels are the Soctrians' way of transporting things and they're very expensive and have to be kept well. So the men sing to the camels when they go to the mountains. They sing to them all the time because they want them to be gentle, they want them to be quiet, they want them to not be nervous. I don't know if you noticed but all the time when you see the camels traveling around, trekking the island, the men are always singing to them.
And when the men discharge the camels, when they take out the blankets and the cargo, they also sing. They don't want the camels to make a sudden movement that could break the things they transport.
The music at the beginning and end comes from a kind of poetic competition that takes place when the men gather at night— there are two groups of people, and one of them starts singing. It's very monotonous but I like it. One of them starts singing about the virtues of their pastures, their animals, their camels. Then they pass the torch to the other group that has to say something poetically superior. It's really beautiful.
The sound of those kinds of chants is very archaic, but connect with very, very old songs of work from the Mediterranean. There are recordings like that in the island of Mallorca until 30 or 40 years ago— chants of people working in the fields, watching the olives. The songs were not that different in melody so for me it's very universal.
For that reason I put it at the beginning and end, along with the flute which was also very magical. The flute goes with shepherds since the times of Homer or the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, or the Egyptians. They spent a lot of time alone in the mountains and made flutes from the bones of one of their goats, which they would just play for themselves. It was very important for me to have this part of the flute player.
FLMTQ: Can you reflect on some recurring aesthetic elements in the film— for example, the rack in focus between two characters when next to each other; or long-distance shots of the landscape; or long-distance shots of people within the landscape; versus extreme close-ups of details: hands, parts of the face; with both slow motion and some really fast tracking shots? Was this all done with a hand-held camera?
JE: Yes. It's also done with those little Sony's, which are again photo cameras with a video option. For me it was perfect for what I wanted to do— it was the best choice I had. I don't know how to use sophisticated cameras.
For me this was perfect because what I don't like or what I used to not like about digital cameras is the depth of field. I'm very interested in depth of field. So I used those little Sony camera but I put on my old Nikon lenses, analogical lenses from the 50s, 60s, 70s, some of which I bought second-hand. Lenses which are not manufactured anymore.
I wanted to have the real photo texture in the film so I had to use old photo lenses. I didn't want to have this digital feeling that everything is perfectly sharp… I'm afraid of that. I like the imperfection. Maybe that's a bit pretentious, but art is supposed to be a little imperfect.
One of the directors I like the most is the Bengali Indian Satyajit Ray, with his fabulous camera. I like it when something is a little out-of-focus. Albert (the cameraman) and I have been working on two or three films now and we understand each other very well.
I like the hands, for the feet, for the fire because I like the textures, the elements of fire, water, air. So I played with all those things.
FLMTQ: Another fascinating aspect is the structure of the images themselves— a precise structure to how you decided to film, then of course the structure that came from when you reworked the material in the editing phase. For example, when the film cuts to slow motion footage is a moment of stretching the tempo. Did you consciously seek to evoke musicality, or rhythm, in the editing?
JE: It's the rhythm. After a dramatic story like when the son of the Sultan he explained that his father died, which is very tragic— I just couldn't cut like that and pass to the next scene. I needed him to be very, very slow. For me that's one of the points in the film— when he moves very, very slowly and you know he was really moved by the story because he doesn't have the chance to explain.
We don’t understand Socotri, but because I went there many times before I knew the stories. So I asked them to tell those stories again and I knew what they were talking about. The next morning, in the hours when the sun was too high to film (I don't like to film at midday because the light and the shadows are too strong), we listened with the son of the Sultan to what we had filmed the night or the day before. I was recording it in a mixture of English and Arabic because the son of the Sultan speaks broken English, and I used to speak Arabic because I lived in Cairo for five years. So with my broken Arabic and his broken English we could translate everything.
FLMTQ: At the other end of the spectrum are the moments when the editing is so fast and abrupt that it nearly creates the effect of a jump cut. One instance that's particularly beautiful is the opening sequence— the chant, then the long distance shot of the lake, the water, the trees and the animals, then a young man who is climbing up a tree; he takes the fruits in his hands, this gold of nature; his face, glimpsed for just a second, before the audience is plunged into the film.
JE: Even though the Socotrians have their own language, they still belong to the Arab world. This young man, for me, was like Nourredin— one of the characters of Arabian Nights. The Arabs invented storytelling, they were the best at that, so this young man reinforced what I like in this culture, which is the storytelling.
This sequence at the beginning of the film was a perfect way to signal the beginning of a storytelling session. In these times when we associate the Arab world with terrorism, it was a way to reinforce the positives of the culture. I'm still attracted to the Arab world, for its culture, the storytelling, the hospitality, the friendship. This young man's smile was all of those things.
FLMTQ: How did you structure your film at the development level, as you didn't have a script?
JE: It was quite easy because I did a book before. So the structure was those people on an journey to the mountains— I wanted to follow them straight up to the very top. To follow what was happening, from the very beginning to the top of the mountain. The structure was an ascent, a trek, a trip to the heights of Socotra.
Of course, the script it has some failures. I didn't want to explain certain things. Some people have asked me "but what do they have in the camels?" "What do they do exactly?" But I didn't care— I don't care what they are transporting. There are always people who want to know everything and sometimes, especially at festivals: "Why don’t you translate?" "There are a lot of things that you don't translate." For me it's not important. It's not an anthropological or journalist film. For me it's just an homage, a tribute to these orators.
The African writer Amadou Hampâté Bâ said that when an old man dies in Africa it's like a whole library was burnt. Socotra is an homage to those elders. They have all this knowledge like traditional doctors, they really know the virtues of the plants and all that because they don't have medicine, so they use the plants. Sometimes they mix it with a bit of magic so in that way, they are sages.
FLMTQ: In the film nature is certainly depicted as an empress, as if nature had a godly connotation for the Socotrians. Indeed, the final words of the film are about the mountain.
JE: The Socotrians are very integrated with nature. For example, when they kill a goat they pray to ask god for forgiveness. Because they are going to take a life, but that life is going to save their lives. Or when they gather things, they just take what they need. They don't collect even medicinal plants in their houses; when they need it, they go to the bush and they take the plants they need, that's all. So they have this idea, which today is considered very ecological.
What was very important for me was the landscape. At the very beginning, when they pray, I put this fantastic landscape with the clouds and the rays of light. I'm not a believer at all— I'm an atheist— but I do believe in spirituality. And I wanted to put a call to prayer different from the calls to prayer that you hear in, say, in the suburbs of Cairo or something like that which have a political meaning. I wanted to put something more pantheistic. It was like a prayer for nature.
FLMTQ: Was it a difficult process to to be there as a foreigner and get the permission to film?
JE: I didn't gather any permission or anything. I didn't ask. It's an island which is very isolated and I was with these people who are friends. In other words I could say I was invited with them to their places, to the places where no other people can go because some of those places are very tribal. There is no police, there is nothing, maybe there are police in Hadiboh which is the village or the settlement which is the capital of the island. But I was invited by these people, they were my friends, I was doing what I wanted to do with them, I didn't need any permission or anything.
Yemen is now being bombarded by Saudi Arabia, in a coalition of Emirate nations, with bombs made in the UK, or in Spain. It is really very sad. Everybody is talking about Syria— what's happening there is horrible, but nobody is saying anything about Yemen which is also being destroyed. There's a famine in Yemen.
This doesn't happen in Socotra, because Socotra is so isolated. It's not important politically but the island is suffering a lot now because there are no commercial flights now, and very few boats, so the people are suffering. Two years ago they also endured a lot of damage from some cyclones. I'm collaborating with a small NGO called 'Solidarios sin Fronteras' and we are just two or three people, very brave people, two girls or two women in Spain, and one in Yemen and a man in Socotra and we use the money to buy sacks of cement to repair the buildings that have been destroyed. We also have an orphanage. Socotra has given me a lot— pleasure, knowledge and the opportunity to make books and this film and everything. So that's the least thing I could do, to try to help them now.
FLMTQ: Are you investigating ideas for a new film in another culture, that perhaps is also disappearing as being engaged with this type of subject seems to be a quest in your professional life?
JE: I shot the first part of a new film about a year ago in Colombia, in the Chocó area near the Pacific. There's an Afro-Colombian community also with an oral literature.
We have to go back; when we were filming it was a bit difficult, due to this problem of guerrilla warfare. We realized the security was not that good, so we had to stop filming. Now that it seems everything is going alright again, we'll go back in a few months after we gather the money.
I'm also writing of the years that I lived in Egypt. I was in Cairo researching the Oasis.
Interview by Dr. Loreta Gandolfi
Affiliated Lecturer in Film
University of Cambridge
Guest Curator, Filmatique