Camera Obscura 18.1 (2003) 129-155
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The Quick and the Dead:
Surrealism and the Found Ethnographic Footage Films of Bontoc Eulogy and Mother Dao:
Fatimah Tobing Rony
When he was on the other side of the bridge, the phantoms came to meet him.
—intertitle, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu
You are standing alone on an endless road. The sun is blinding hot. The only sound is that of the wind. All of a sudden your beloved grandmother appears, seemingly out of nowhere. She pulls you towards her.
"There you are! I've been looking all over for you. The bus is leaving."
You run with her to a huge bus that is just about to pull out. Your grandmother climbs the steps first as she yells to the bus driver, "See I told you I would find my grandchild." She turns around expectantly. [End Page 129]
You haven't boarded yet.
For some reason you can't move. Your feet are glued to the ground. It's not your time yet. You shake your head no. The eyes of all the other bus passengers burn holes into you.
Your grandmother cries out: "Stop dilly dallying. Look, the bus is leaving. Let's go!" She is so angry that she throws her shoe at you. You watch as the bus leaves and becomes smaller and smaller. Then all of a sudden it vanishes.
You are again alone on an endless road with no beginning and no end.
When you wake up, you remember that your grandmother is dead.
When the phantoms choose to cross the bridge, to paraphrase an intertitle from F. W. Murnau's silent film Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens [Nosferatu: A symphony of horror] (Germany, 1922), sometimes it is because they long for you. Watching the found ethnographic footage films Bontoc Eulogy (dir. Marlon Fuentes, US, 1995) and Moeder Dao: De schildpadgelijkende [Mother Dao: The turtlelike] (dir. Vincent Monnikendam, Netherlands, 1995) is akin to coming face-to-face with such phantoms. What quality do these contemporary found footage films have that allow us to come face-to-face with the quick and the dead? Many film historians point to Surrealist artist Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart (US, 1935), a blue-tinted meditation on a little-known actress, as the beginning of the genre of found footage film. However, although it was made by a Surrealist, neither Rose Hobartnor the dozens of short films made by Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel, Man Ray, and the like truly exploit to the fullest what many theorists have called the photographic principle of Surrealism. This principle contends that only photography embodies the Surrealist notions of the coupling of two realities—a principle noted by critics as diverse as Hal Foster, Susan Sontag, Phil Rosen, and André Bazin. I would like to examine the ways in which the faux documentary Bontoc Eulogy, a film about the narrator's search to solve the mystery of his Igorot grandfather, who performed at the 1904 St. Louis [End Page 130] World's Fair, and the fantastic dream voyage Mother Dao, made from documentary Dutch colonial archival footage of the country now known as Indonesia, actually transform the genre of found footage film and achieve cinema's truly surrealist potential. The disjunctions between the surrealist found footage film Rose Hobartand the ethnographic found footage films Bontoc Eulogy and Mother Dao call up two interrelated areas of inquiry: (1) What is Surrealism? How is it manifest differently across disparate media, specifically photography and cinema? How can film be surreal in ways that cannot be accounted for under the existing theoretical framework of Surrealism? (2) What is found footage film? What are the possibilities of restaging and reframing found footage? How do we know how to recognize found footage as such on the surface of projected images?
Before Joseph Cornell made Rose Hobartin 1935, the surrealists were already creating found footage films in their heads. André Breton writes about...