"Loose Spirits" is a collection of ethnographic video recordings and photographs documenting the phenomena of trance and spirit possession in religious ceremony and in traditional healing arts.
These recordings began in 2002 and 2003 while traveling in South East Asia. My interest in the related phenomena of trance, spirit possession, altered states of consciousness, shamanism and folk religion went back to my teenage years when I began reading books about magic, witchcraft and voodoo. In my early thirties I found myself wandering SE Asia and decided to seize the opportunity to observe rich traditions of magic firsthand and document them.
The footage was shot in Myanmar, Thailand and Bali and captured the ceremonies of three different religions within different cultures that all shared the commonality of trance and spirit possession. In Myanmar I documented the ceremonies known as "Nat Pwe" that are devoted to worship of the animistic "Nat" spirits of Burmese folklore. In Thailand the subject was the infamous "Vegetarian Festival" that is a Taoist folk ceremony practiced in Phuket and elsewhere by the Chinese-Thai diaspora . In Bali I shot some of the classic trance dances of Bali Hinduism during a period of enormous societal distress following the "Bali Bombings" of 2002. There is a total of about 70 or 80 hours of footage.
At the time that I was doing this traveling and shooting my goal was to make a documentary film, however money ran dry and I returned to America temporarily, but efforts to raise funds for further production came to naught. I attempted to press on with inadequate equipment after returning to Bali where I made my home for nearly 5 years. Frustration with the documentary project gave way to shifting interests. Initially I turned to computer graphics with the purpose of illustrating some of the myths that informed the rituals, but as the possibility of producing a film became remote I was increasingly entranced myself by the study of 3D modeling and animation, and the documentary film project was abandoned.
Fast forward 10+ years and I have returned to my native San Francisco and have also returned to my original art form - painting. However, the pile of video tapes continues to haunt me. Film collector, Stephen Parr (Oddball Films), expressed his concern that the MiniDV tapes might be deteriorating, and urged me to take steps to save the footage before it is lost. Eventually I had them all transferred (successfully) to a hard drive.
This website is intended to be a repository of the footage as it is edited into coherent clips. The idea is to show a clip of a ceremony, and then write my impressions, memories, and insights into what I have captured on video. The standard here is informal: the video editing is relaxed, and the accompanying text is largely "off the cuff" and spontaneous. For now I feel that this is the best way to present this very special footage and I hope you enjoy it.
PS: I am also including still photographs that are of similar subject matter taken in Papua New Guinea, Java and elsewhere.
PPS: Hopefully I will make some new expeditions and record more ceremonies in other parts of the world. If so, they'll be added to this site also.
"Incense Eater" - Vegetarian Festival spirit medium at Jui-Tui Shrine in Phuket, Thailand.
Assembly of Tumbuwans (basket style dancing costumes), Middle Sepik, Papua New Guinea