DER Documentary

The Feast in Dream Village

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by Janet Hoskins and Laura Scheerer Whitney
color, 27 min, 1988

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The eastern Indonesian island of Sumba is the last island in the Malay archipelago where the majority of the people still follow their ancestral religion, called marapu. This film, shot in 1986, focuses on a challenge to the authority of the spirits and ancestors in a village ritual to restore fertility after a fire and famine.

Narrated by the priests who communicate with the spirits in prayers and sacrifices, it documents a week of offerings, dancing and oratory in "Dream Village" in the western Kodi district. The name comes from a dream of prosperity the village founder once had, and dreams are also the ways in which priests are called to serve the spirits.

In the film, the head priest - a charismatic but fiery older man - leads the prayers and directs the order of the ceremony, but his authority is challenged when the sponsor and singer agree to delay certain stages to wait for the arrival of guests (some of them part of the Christian minority, who will come to the feast after they have attended church services). The head priest explodes and threatens to leave the ceremony if his authority is not respected, arguing that the invisible audience of spirits is more important than the visible one of human beings. He is finally pacified and paid with his share of meat, but he boycotts the final stages of the ceremony, when the souls of the buffalo sacrificed are guided out of the village and led along a pathway traced by buffalo horns to the "heavenly corral" of the upper world.

The focus on a point of conflict about ritual protocol sheds light in the transformations of Sumbanese society in the 1980s, which would eventually lead to an increased number of conversions to Christianity by the dawn of the 21st century. This small-scale drama shows a pagan community feeling pressure from government efforts to restrict sacrifices (through a slaughter tax) and inter-generational tensions about ritual authority. A younger priest, training to replace his father and assume a leadership role in the traditional religion, offers the most complete explanations and commentaries.

A more complete analysis of the feast depicted in this film can be found in Chapter 8 of The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History and Exchange (University of California Press 1994), and in the 1993 American Ethnologist article "Violence, Sacrifice and Divination: Giving and Taking Life in Eastern Indonesia" 20 (1): 159-178.

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