DER Documentary

Horses of Life and Death

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by Janet Hoskins, Susan Hoskins, and Laura Scheerer Whitney
color, 26 min, 1991

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The Pasola, a traditional jousting battle with hundreds of horses and riders, is the Sumbanese New Year celebration, and also a ritual that anticipates the rice harvest. It is staged to welcome the annual swarming of sea worms on the western beaches, since the worms are seen as representing the spirit of the rice crop. The spirit of the fertility of the seas and the land comes from the body of a sacrificed girl, and her return each year is celebrated with a dramatic display of masculine virility, courage, and horsemanship.

The first part of the story is narrated by a boastful young rider, describing preparations for the event, and ways in which a rider's identity and name are tied to his favorite horse. After reciting ritual taunts to his opponents, the rider crosses the Pasola field with a bamboo lance and tries to knock others off their horses, as the sea worm priest watches to make sure that no rules are broken. The fierceness and violence of these hyper-masculine confrontations underscore the contrast with traditions that fertility and life ultimately come from female spirits.

The second part of the story is narrated by the widow of a man who died shortly after these festivities, and whose funeral involves his horse as the leader of the procession to the stone tomb. The widow explains that only women can mourn the dead, since only they can remove the pollution of death from the house and restore the balance between life and death. For four days, her husband's spirit is fed at every meal, and he does not realize that he is dead until a final ritual to determine the cause of his death and send his spirit away.

The contrast in narrators shows a gendered perspective on calendar rituals in Sumba, and also the close emotional ties between members of a family and the horses that they raise, which share the same destiny as their riders.

A more complete analysis of the ritual jousting and funeral depicted in this film can be found in Chapters 5 and 9 of The Play of Time: Kodi Perspectives on Calendars, History and Exchange (University of California Press, 1994) and in the American Ethnologist article "Predatory Voyeurs: Tourists and 'Tribal Violence' in Remote Indonesia" 2002 29(4) pp. 603-630.

“Precise, dramatic, and superbly visual, this film will prove valuable for courses in general anthropology, Indonesian studies, and comparative religion.” — Prof. Clifford Geertz, Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University

Related Resources
Anthropology Review Database's review of the film by Jack David Eller

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