The scene being described is possibly the most unforgettable in the film Yo Soy Hechicero. Or, at least, it was the most unforgettable for myself. Eduardo performs a ceremony as a 'gift' for a woman. In the process the woman fondles a severed dove head, animals intended for sacrifice are running amok, and, yes, Eduardo 'goes down' on a duck neck. These elements make for great sensational cinema, but there is much more to this scene than its graphic content. Much more could be gained from close examination if one is willing to watch.
When speaking with Ivan, one of the filmmakers, I sensed a bit of pride in him that many people could not handle this scene and needed to leave during his screenings. Yet Ivan agrees that this is one of the most important scenes in the film and as he put it, "we wanted the audience to feel the same thing we felt. It is grotesque, but it is in the context of the film…without that moment, the film would have no impact."
The content of the scene is enough to make it notable, and it does convey to the audience what it is like to be a part of Eduardo's practice of Santeria. From back history, I learned that the woman who is the focus of the ceremony is, at that time, not committed to the practice. The ceremony is performed to help convince her of the reality of the orishas and of her saint in particular. As we travel with her through the ordeal, we are being taken on a parallel journey by the filmmakers who hope to convey the 'reality' of the experience as they saw it. We follow her into trance and watch as she achieves what is needed to validate her experience. If we allow the scene to absorb us we too are brought through a trance-like experience; what we think we know of the world is challenged as we are asked to open ourselves to what we see and accept a new interpretation of reality.
The impact of this scene is greater than if we were reading an impersonal, impassionate description of Santerian practices. Though removed to a safer distance from the intimate exchange, we get to experience something outside of most of our normal paradigms without offering much of ourselves in return. Why is this important? According to author Joseph Murphy, "…Santeria, as a religion, requires this 'sense' of religion in the observer in order for him or her to understand it properly. It is impossible for the outsider to know what Santeria means to the Santero, but this religious sense in the observer can only bring him or her closer to what a santero believes than attempts at detached objectivity" (1988: 128). The filmmakers' gift to us is this audio-visual experience that challenges us to consider Santeria with greater empathy by being a part of the ceremonies. And they are nice enough to take the time to make the contacts and personal investments that allow us to have such intimate information without us needing to commit anything of ourselves.
To bring more depth and context to this scene, I examined it many times. Through reading I gained a better understanding of elements in the ceremony. The greatest resources I had were the filmmaker, Ivan Drufovka, and an interview with Eduardo Nunez himself.
The woman in the ceremony is Alba, who is featured a few times with her husband Johnny. At this time, Johnny had been abusing his wife and the two were seeking help from Eduardo after a bit of trouble with the police. Eduardo explained to me that Johnny was a 'macho' type of man who had hit his wife. Because they had fought, Eduardo informed Johnny that," you are a son of my house and she is a daughter…so you are in trouble with me." Ivan had explained that Eduardo is angry with Alba during this scene. When I inquired about this Eduardo claimed that he was angry because he had been telling Alba to leave her husband, she needed to change her life and not "continue the circle." In the scene the husband is shown sitting on the couch gazing down. It could possibly be interpreted that Johnny is regretful, or embarrassed.
As the scene mentions, the ceremony performed is a 'gift' for Alba. When I asked Eduardo why, he explained that the ceremony was intended to change her life, it was needed to help her with problems in the house. She did not have money; money for candles, animals, the items that would help her bring prosperity to her life, and therefore, she couldn't get the help she needed. Eduardo was giving this ceremony to her as a gift to help her, "a gift of life in exchange for life to make everything OK." Ivan also explained that Alba was not committed to the tradition and that this ceremony was intended to help her become committed. The ceremony would convince her that her saint was Ochun.
From further reading, I was able to decipher more elements of the scene. For example, the beads Alba wears are blue and white, the colors of Yemaya, the ocean mother. Yemaya's animals include the duck, which is given here in sacrifice. According to Eduardo, Yemaya and Ochun are like twin sisters. Alba's path is Ochun. Ochun is the real mother and Yemaya is a step mother. When one Orisha has a child the other one 'carries' it. This seems to apply to Alba, who is the child of Ochun, but is wearing the colors of Yemaya. Also, towards the end of the ceremony Eduardo is spinning Alba around and seems to call out "Yemaya, Yemaya." These elements reveal which orishas Eduardo is working with for Alba's benefit.
The duck, an animal of Yemaya, is given to the "powers of the universe" to bring prosperity to Alba. The blood of the animal, still fresh on the knife, is placed on Alba's tongue (much to the amusement of an onlooker). This exchange was an act of respect for the animal given . According to Eduardo, every person on the planet must give respect to the killing of an animal. A prayer or secret is needed to show respect for the life given to us by God in exchange for the life of the animal. The blood is given to Alba to represent how the life of the animal was given to her by God.
The duck placed on her head has its own significance. The head in Santeria practices is the seat of the Orishas. When the head has been properly prepared through initiations, the Orisha will come down to take its place in the head. The head is also associated with the sacred stones that are said to contain the essence of the orishas. Sometimes during initiation, a devotee will shave his or her head to resemble a stone, the other seat of the Orishas. "When blood is poured on the 'heads' of the Orishas, the sacred stones, or the prepared heads of initiates, the orisha is fed, and the devotee shares in the Orisha's ashe (life force)" (Murphy 1988: 136). Eduardo explained that the duck on Alba's head was there as an offering of blood to feed her orisha.
If one can manage to keep their eyes on this scene they will notice some cinematically perfect moments. These beautiful moments are part intuition of Ron, the cameraman, and part extreme luck. When editing for the finished product, how could one resist not putting this scene in here? The mood of the scene is mostly chaotic, there are quick edits that add tension to the already disorderly happenings. In such a sacred moment, we are faced with the mundane acts of animals evading capture and knocking over offerings in the process. In one of the most charming moments, a dove manages to slip from its perch on the picture frame causing the lights to go out. These mishaps could have been edited out, showing a ritual without incident, but I believe the overall impact would have been lessened.
From chaotic and quick movement, we are given slow intimate moments with the subjects of the film. These shots emphasize the contrast with the erratic atmosphere and bring us closer to an understanding of a sacred moment. Following recapture of the pigeon and its sacrifice, we are allowed an incredibly close shot of Alba's hands with their delicately manicured fingernails ornamented with roses. The camera pans up to her bosom and comes into focus on her beaded necklace of blue and white. When the camera pans back down to the hands they are open, revealing the severed dove head, its eyes closed and looking peaceful. These hands with their flowered nails caress the head of the bird. This is entrancing, capturing a sincere moment in such slow, close focus that at the same time shocks us with its content. It is beautiful and grotesque. We then return to the quick edits and another fiasco with the duck, also evading capture.
The duck is retrieved and a bag is put over its head to calm it, bringing it to sleep before its death. From below we see Eduardo, bare-chested and deliberate, dedicate this animal to the universe for the sake of Alba. The knife is raised, covered in feathers and is brought down to finish the job. This is another pause in the proceedings which emphasizes the sacredness and importance of the act.
My understanding from Ivan is that he and Ron discussed whether or not to put the moment Eduardo tastes the duck neck in, but it was the culmination of the act; what came from this long, involved ceremony. We apparently miss the beauty of the duck crowning her head in that moment which, as Ivan explained, "was beautiful, like a hat." As it rests on her head, the music droning in the background, the animal begins to move, 'beckoning' Eduardo. At that very moment the music cuts, giving us silence as Eduardo places his mouth over the duck's neck. Just as he begins pulling back off the neck, the music starts again with a loud cry. I have watched this closely many times and it is not an audio edit. The culmination of the ceremony performance just 'gels' at that moment bringing us one of the most incredibly lucky cinematic moments captured.
For those still watching after this point, the scene picks up pace again and Alba reaches her trance state. She stumbles around and ends up on the ground, enfolded in the arms of Eduardo. After being helped to the couch, she is slapped out of her trance and is left to look stunned and dopey as a phone begins ringing. This audio, which is matched to the following scene, brings us also out of our own personal moment and the filmmakers lead us back to another world, just as Elba is being brought around.
What is so disturbing about this scene that causes audiences to leave? The immediate answer is that this scene shows graphic animal sacrifice. There has been much controversy over the use of sacrificial animals in Santeria practices. In one community, the residents objected to the religion enough to attempt a ban on animal sacrifice under the guise of health concerns and sanitation (see Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo vs. City of Hialeah). Just as this court case was a fašade for the religious intolerance of others, so could this first reasoning be fašade for our reactions to the primeval acts and qualities of this scene that are antithesis to our paradigm of understanding. What we are confronted with are challenges to the most intimate of acts: eating, sex, death. We are faced with raw meat, raw experience; its not clean, its not neat, but it is holy and sacred. The western culture has denied these elements since the creation of the bourgeois class which brought with it bourgeois manners. These acts are so intimate and so connected to the acts of living, but are largely sanitized or hidden by dominant culture. The scene is powerful for this reason. Manipulating these forces that touch all of our lives is the power that Eduardo wields.
Possibly more unpalatable to audiences is the homoeroticism in the act of tasting the blood of the duck neck. I asked Eduardo what was happening at this moment. The Orisha that was riding him conveyed that when it tasted the blood that was offered to it, then "I will prove I am here." The Orisha is accepting this offering and in doing so is saying to Alba, "I accept you." She is a daughter of Ochun now. The offering is made from the head since it is the seat of the orisha, where it resides. The head is offered blood and the Orisha that possesses Eduardo takes sustenance from this offering.
When I explained to him that many people comment that the neck looks like a penis, he laughed but did not comment further. In the course of my reading I found other references to behavior that could be interpreted as homoerotic, such as saints 'mounting' their devotees and Orishas becoming spouses of their followers (see Murphy 137, 140-142). Regardless of the reasons for the act itself, the homoerotic display seems to bother the audience. The man they are watching has been transformed into a beast taking pleasure in primeval acts of eating raw meat in a sexual manner. Sex, death, and the reality of food processing are what confront our audience, and since these acts are normally performed out of view, the graphic combination is shocking.
The story of Alba does not end with this ceremony. Perhaps, it can be seen as more of a beginning. Eduardo informed me that Alba did change her life and break free from the circle she was trapped in. I did not find out what happened to Johnny, but Alba has found a wonderful new gentleman, according to Eduardo. This new man works a lot and has 'much prosperity.' The two have bought a new house and Alba is actively participating in the Santeria tradition. Whether we as an audience accept the ceremony which was performed for Alba's benefit, Alba herself has found something to be gained from the spiritual tradition that Eduardo offers.
Drufovka, Ivan. 12/13/99 and 12/15/99. Phone Interview.
Murphy, Joseph M. 1988. Santeria: An African Religion in America. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nunez, Eduardo. 12/15/99. Phone Interview.
United States. 1991. Church of the Lukumi Babala Ave, Inc., and Ernesto Pichardo vs. City of Hialeah. Supreme Court Petitioner's Brief. No. 91-948.
Wippler, Migene Gonzalez. 1984. Santeria: African Magic in Latin America. New York: Original Products.
Yo Soy Hechicero. Videocassette. Ron Stanford and Ivan Drufovka. 1998. VHS. 48 min.