Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Revealed Truth Part 1: Shepherds and Fishermen

The Archangel Gabriel rouses the shepherds awake, but the cows in the background are not part of the scene. A herdsman decided to graze them in the field while he watched the performance.  During filming, the Biblical world of the play often blurred with the rural life of the village where it was performed. More examples can be found in the nativity and fishermen scenes in the video below.

The Nativity

Most of the nativity scenes that I've seen usually substitute a doll for Jesus, but in Kiwangala it's not so hard to strive for authenticity in this department.  Seven of us in the cast and crew got in a saloon car and drove a few kilometers out of the trading center.  The road quickly turned from a potholed monstrosity into a single-lane, dirt path.   This is no problem for Ugandans who drive small sedans.  They tackle terrain that soccer moms with 4x4 SUVs in the U.S. would never dream of attempting.  Twenty minutes later and deep in a banana plantation we parked in front of a small shamba.  A farmer and his wife were drying coffee beans out front.  A newborn baby was napping in the shade.  Around the back were cows, sheep, and a manger.  Naturally, things fell into place quickly.  It was just a matter of putting the baby in the trough.

The Music and Animation

As the shepherds visit Jesus they sing a traditional Christian folk song.  As I was recording the dialogue for this scene, the cast spontaneously burst into this song.  When you're recording something in a language you don't fully understand you tend to zone out and focus on the technicalities of the mixing.  When the actors started singing I immediately became alert and got goosebumps.

The reprise plays over a fish animation.  I bought a whole tilapia on market day for $1.50 from a man selling them out of a basket on the back of his bicycle.  After photographing the fish for the movie I wrapped it in banana leaves and cooked it over hot coals.  It was delicious.

The Fishermen

The fishing village where we filmed is one of many landing sites in the Rakai district.  They dot down the coast of Lake Victoria to the border of Tanzania.  While they are little more than shantytowns these villages have an infamous reputation.  As early as 1982, entire communities in the area had become sick with a mysterious illness called silimu, or in English "slim".  Perfectly healthy people would get really skinny and drop dead.  At first witchdoctor juju was blamed, but eventually scientists arrived from the west, backtracking Patient 0,  and diagnosed the disease as HIV.  Landing sites like Kasensero became the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Over the last twenty eight years there has been a marked improvement and drops in infection rates, but the toll the disease has taken is still visible.  As a result, people live a primitive existence in mud walled homes and depend on the lake for their subsistence.

The video footage is a little shaky.  I was shooting from a fishing boat that kept tipping precariously from side to side.  I had to wade through the lake to board the vessel and as a result contracted schistosomiasis.  Yet, in retrospect it was worth it.  Shooting this scene was a special moment for me as a filmmaker.
The lack of economic development at the landing-site reinforces the literalness of the passion play.  The fishermen know what the apostles went through.  They've experienced the same anxieties of not coming home with a full catch.  If they caught as many fish as the apostles do in the movie, it would be the equivalent of winning the lottery.

However much the landing-site is in harmony with the life of Jesus, the real world still creeps into the film.  Jesus performs his miracle from a boat with an outboard motor and modern technology breaks our suspension of disbelief.

Likewise, filming unintentionally captured the sordid moments of the people in the village.  Near the end of the scene, a man and a woman can be seen quarreling in the background.  The woman runs into the field as Jesus comes ashore.  The man, who seems to be holding a knife, chases her down and drags her out of the frame.  The preaching of Christian values juxtaposed against the backdrop of domestic violence is a theme that will repeat itself later in the movie.

The Revealed Truth Blog Series

This post is the second of a nine part series that takes an in-depth look at the The Revealed Truth and how rural Ugandan culture influenced the making of the film.  The  movie is about an hour  long  but I've broken it down into 5 to 10 minute blog-size episodes.  The next post will feature the teachings of Jesus.

The previous post was The Revealed Truth: An Introduction.