Roxana Waterson is a social anthropologist who has taught in the Department of Sociology since 1987. She has done extensive fieldwork with the Sa'dan Toraja people of highland South Sulawesi, Indonesia, from 1978 until the present. Since 2001 she has taught courses in the analysis of ethnographic film in anthropology, including a practical course on the use of digital video as a medium for social science research. In this course, students are taught to shoot and edit their own 10-minute videos on topics of sociological interest. From 2005, with support from the Faculty Research Support Scheme, Roxana started shooting video footage on her fieldwork trips to Tana Toraja with the aim of producing a film portrait of Ne' Sando Tato' Dena', a priest of the Toraja indigenous religion whom she has known for over thirty years, and who is an acknowledged cultural expert. Filming was completed in August 2007, and the film was edited into its finished form during sabbatical leave that same year. The film has so far been screened in two International Ethnographic Film Festivals, at Gottingen, Germany (April 2008) and Sardinia, Italy (Sept 2008).
When I started this project, I had been working for many years on a long book about Toraja society and how it had changed over the course of the twentieth century. This has now been published ( Paths and Rivers: Sa'dan Toraja Society in Transformation , Leiden: KITLV Press, 2009). I have always been interested in film and especially ethnographic documentary, and had spent some years learning and upgrading my own practical skills in order to teach these skills to students in my courses. So I wanted to see if I could put these to use in my own research and make a film of my own, single-handed. A topic that has concerned me very much in my research since the late 1970s is the indigenous religion of the Toraja people, which is called Aluk To Dolo. When I first lived in a village there, almost everyone in that community still adhered to the Aluk To Dolo and it was very much a part of everyday life. By the time I returned on a later trip in 1994, after an absence of some years, I found that everyone in this village had become Christian, and the same pattern was repeated in most other districts so that Aluk To Dolo appeared to be in sharp decline. I have written at length about the place of Aluk To Dolo in the traditional world view of the Toraja, and the changes that have gradually taken place since the Dutch Reformed Church Mission was first introduced there in the early years of the twentieth century. Now I wondered if the religion might soon cease to exist. I asked myself what would be lost along with it, since there is a very rich corpus of myths and rituals bound up with it, which young people now know increasingly little about. The film was conceived as a portrait of one person, who more than anyone else I know still retains this older poetic knowledge of myths, genealogies and ritual poetry. Because I have known this person for over thirty years, he was quite agreeable to being filmed. I already had a strong rapport with him, since he had taught me a great deal over the years about Toraja culture and beliefs. He often officiates at major rituals and can recite for an entire night the complex ritual verses that tell of the origins of the world and everything in it. His knowledge of this oral lierary heritage is unparalleled, yet his dilemma is that he, like all the other priests of the traditional religion I have ever met, has no-one in training to succeed him. I wanted to convey something of the context in which he now carries out his duties, not knowing if his knowledge will die with him eventually and be lost.
Making a film was a very different way of trying to convey something of my fieldwork experience. It is highly personal and the viewer will always be able to pick up traces of how well the filmmaker has been able to relate to the participants in the film. I learned that film editing is also a radically different process than writing, one that is most effective when it flows like music or poetry. There is much that film can convey to an audience, in a more vivid manner than most academic writing, about social contexts and interactions, and the personalities of the people we encounter in our fieldwork. I was lucky to film one really major night-time ritual while making this project, the drama and intricacies of which would be very difficult to convey in writing. I am grateful to the Faculty for their support for this project and I hope it might inspire more of our graduate students to think about the potentials of incorporating video into their own research.
“WHEN THE SUN RISES: A TORAJA PRIEST OF THE ANCESTRAL WAY”
Tato' Dena' is a special priest of the Aluk To Dolo ("Way of the Ancestors"), the indigenous religion of the Sa'dan Toraja of Sulawesi, Indonesia. He officiates especially at rituals celebrating life and fertility, and knows by heart a vast repository of ritual poetry, myths and genealogies. But conversion to Christianity is now so far advanced that today, perhaps less than 5% of Toraja still maintain the Aluk To Dolo. The film is a portrait of Tato' Dena', but the bigger question it asks is whether this religion can survive at all? Will Tato' Dena' have a successor, or will his poetic knowledge be lost?
Dir. Roxana Waterson (2008)
Length of film: 66 mins
Major related publication:
Roxana Waterson, Paths and Rivers: Sa'dan Toraja Society in Transformation , Leiden: KITLV Press, 2009. (Pps. xxxii, 510. 44 black and white photos, 8 colour photos, maps, diagrams, appendices)
Southeast Asian Lives:
Personal Narratives and Historical Experience
Paths and Rivers