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Reviewed by:
  • Holy Hustlers, and: Counterpoint One, and: Counterpoint Botswana by Richard Werbner
  • Timothy R. Landry
Richard Werbner, director.Holy Hustlers. 2009. 53 minutes. English subtitles. United Kingdom. International Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. No price reported.
Richard Werbner, director. Counterpoint One. 2011. 37 minutes. United Kingdom. Royal Anthropological Institute. No price reported.
Richard Werbner, director. Counterpoint Botswana. 2011. 45 minutes. United Kingdom. International Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester. No price reported.

Holy Hustlers, a documentary film by Richard Werbner, opens with a young Apostolic prophet dancing himself into a rapid spin. As the prophet dances, his sacred robe fades into an almost mystical blur of red swirling color on the screen. Caught by the Holy Spirit, the congregants of Eloyi Church sing, clap, and pray in harmonious unison. Upon ending his dance, the dizzy prophet warns a fellow churchgoer that the “bullet” of witchcraft and misfortune has been hidden in one of their “dolls.” This opening vignette captures the purpose of the rest of the film perfectly. The viewer does not have to wait long to observe the prevailing power of those magically blurred boundaries that dominate Holy Hustlers. This theme is further strengthened in two companion films, Counterpoint One and Counterpoint Botswana, wherein Werbner opens himself and Holy Hustlers to criticism in a brilliant effort to dismantle the comfortable wall that often protects the ethnographic filmmaker from his or her viewers. In this review, I will draw on the theme of “blurring” to highlight the ways in which Richard Werbner uses film to underscore both the fluidity of religious well-being and ethnography more broadly.

From beginning to end, Holy Hustlers’ primary contribution is in challenging the imaginary boundaries that exist between self and other while encouraging the viewer to ask, how can one be both holy and a hustler? It is in this paradox, which Werbner calls the “certainty of uncertainty,” that Holy Hustlers and its companion films make their mark. We follow a segment of Bishop Boitshepelo’s life as he moves from empowering “streetwise, unemployed, young men” to be prophets in the Eloyi Apostolic faith-healing church, to being forced to resign from his family’s church, and to forming a new church focused on “busting” witches and riding their communities of demonic evils. As Boitshepelo struggles to find acceptance in his family, [End Page 311] we see how, as Birgit Meyer has argued, Christianity in Africa has the potential to challenge the family structure (Meyer 1999). In Holy Hustlers, Werbner shows his viewers how congregational families rally together in their desire to fight against witchcraft and are subsequently emboldened, just as are diviners and priests of autochthonous gods, by evidence of a prophet’s or ritual’s efficacy. Whereas a priest of the “old gods” might develop trust in a shrine that answers his or her wishes (Landry 2016), Boitshepelo’s prophets find confidence in their capacity to predict impending storms, illnesses, and misfortune. In the film’s final and most provocative scene, Boitshepelo and his followers descend upon a Botswana refreshment bar that has purportedly been infiltrated by evil witches. The prophets exhume “traditional charms” buried at the establishment’s gate; consecrate the “unholy” ground with sacrificial ashes; destroy a mattress in order to exorcise the presence of witchcraft hidden under the stitching; and even decapitate a venomous snake found in the bar to be sure their connection to witchcraft is severed and connection to God invigorated. As the prophets work themselves into a trance and focus on what they believe to be the evil of witchcraft, the viewer is repeatedly reminded of Christianity’s ability to localize and absorb the religious truths that have, for generations, permeated their social worlds. If these themes were all that Werbner uncovered in his films, they would have tremendous anthropological value for undergraduate students seeking to discover the complex religious lives of African peoples and for more seasoned researchers inspired by the films’ ethnographic nuance. Remarkably, drawing on decades of ethnographic research and engagement in anthropological discourse, Werbner is able to do so much more as he takes his viewer on a...


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pp. 311-315
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