Dance to the Spirits -- Film Review

Documentary on an African medicine man is of considerably more than ethnographic interest.

VIENNA — "Nobody knows about our knowledge," remarks Cameroonian traditional-medicine practitioner Mba Owona Pierre in "Dance to the Spirits," but anyone who sees this absorbing profile of the man, his work and environment will know considerably more on the subject than they ever did.

Avoiding National Geographic clichés by taking a holistic approach to his material, director Ricardo Iscar delivers an accessible and unhurried movie that's all the more intriguing for leaving many questions unasked. A solid choice for festivals showcasing non-fiction fare, Dance to the Spirits,co-produced with Catalan TV, is highly suitable for small-screen exposure.

Inspired by the researches of anthropologist and ex-missionary Lluis Mallart, who wrote extensively on the belief-systems of the Evuzok tribe in a remote, heavily-forested corner of Cameroon, Iscar focusses on Owona Pierre's clinic in Nsola village. A charismatic, dignified elder, Owona Pierre is an expert in the healing of "night-world sickness," maladies he reckons are caused by spirits known as evu.

His cures are heavily reliant upon materials taken from the forests that surround his village, but the encroaching forces of “progress” and industry mean that "all the medicinal trees are disappearing." Owona Pierre remains a key figure in the community, as the Evuzok prefer to trust his methods rather than Western-style techniques.

Not that the two are mutually exclusive. As Owona Pierre remarks, traditional African medicine (the film avoids the term "witch doctor") represents "an important legacy to pharmacy." And while Iscar's style is very much fly-on-the-wall rather than investigative, we see that the patients' belief in the medicine-man's skills and powers is likely a crucial element in their journey towards health.

With Owona Pierre seldom off-screen, Dance to the Spirits — taking its title from an energetic ritual shown in the final reel — sketches in his alluringly exotic surroundings with an unfussy but sharp-eyed attention to detail. Droll grace-notes abound, as when, in a disarmingly workaday touch, we see the cat-loving "doc," mere hours after his strenuous nocturnal exertions, pressing a shirt with an ancient-looking hand-iron while African pop blares from a portable radio.

A graduate of the esteemed Deutsche Film und Fernsehakademie Berlinschool, Iscar, a former collaborator of revered Catalan director Joaquim Jorda and previously best known for 2005's mining documentary Black Earth, takes a detached, eavesdropping viewpoint, eschewing commentary or explanatory captions. This gambit may leave some a little bemused or baffled from time to time, but our indulgence and patience is, in the end, amply rewarded.

Production companies: Unicamente Severo Films; Films 59; Televisio de Catalunya
Director: Ricardo Iscar
Screenwriter: Ricardo Iscar, Daria Esteva
Producers: Daria Esteva, Pere Portabella
Director of photography: Ricardo Iscar
Editors: Nuria Esquerra, Raul Cuevas
Sales: Motion Pictures, Barcelona
No rating, 79 minutes