Kibuki: Spirits in Zanzibar

Aug 4, 2014

Kibuki is an experimental documentary that explores trance-based spirit possession through a cross-cultural lens. The film uses rare footage of rituals, informal interviews, and experimental imagery to bring the viewer into the daily world of the magical healing business, and to mimic the intoxicating feeling of the possession trance. A traditional story arc structures the narrative as a memoir: an engrossing account of an experiment across cultural boundaries.

During a yearlong research and filming process, filmmaker Elizabeth Brooks became increasingly involved with the Kibuki cult until she was initiated as a member. The film is the story of her effort to understand the philosophy and practice of spirit possession, as her involvement deepened and her narration grew more subjective.

The Kibuki cult in Zanzibar is a female institution for psychological, psychosomatic, and social healing, though gay men also participate. The practice creates an outlet for disobedience in a strict Muslim society where rigid social mores govern public and private life. The Kibuki healer uses a hypnotic trance in conjunction with a series of ritual practices and herbal medicines to guide a suļ¬€ering client out of depression, trauma, or shame. The idea that a body can become "possessed" relies on the Swahili belief that the boundary between the self and its environment is permeable. The invisible world is like the microscopic world; spirits are like bacteria that move in and out of the body's ecosystem. An outside element that disagrees with the system and disrupts the body requires treatment.

Through the production process, Brooks worked with a small local crew, led by her filming partner and fixer, a young man whom she knew from previous visits to Zanzibar. Six months into the project, he was killed, suddenly, in a motorcycle accident. Because the crew had been filming secret rituals, some vocal members of the community blamed his death on angry spirits. The film project was caught in the controversy. The Kibuki group came forward in support of the project, and so did a community leader named Lutfiya Suleiman, who helped the crew to rebuild networks and to restructure the film to include the story of the tragedy and the surrounding gossip.

Brooks became more deeply involved in the Kibuki practice through this event, eventually using the ritualistic and meditative qualities of the trance to mediate her own grieving process. This story makes the narrative structure of the film and presents the viewer with an entry point into the practice, a lens through which to cross the boundary between our cultures.