“It was difficult to make such a personal film,” says Washington-area filmmaker Amy Flannery of her first full-length documentary, Return to Belaye: A Rite of Passage, a chronicle of her West African husband’s ceremonial initiation into manhood. “I had a knot in my stomach the whole time. It bothered me that there was this thing—this ritual—that we weren’t supposed to talk about. It kind of goes against the way I idealize relationships.”
Flannery first met her husband, Papis Goudiaby, in 1986, when she was serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Belaye, a small town in Senegal. In 1996, after living in the District and working for five years at Yellow Cat Productions, a local film and video production company, Flannery returned to Senegal on vacation. She became reacquainted with her old friend Goudiaby, the principal of an elementary school and the son of the village’s chief. Flannery and Goudiaby were married in D.C. in 1998; they went back to Belaye the next year so that Goudiaby could take part in the initiation, a momentous occasion taking place about once every 30 years.
The futampafu ceremony that confers manhood on the men of Belaye’s Jola tribe remains steeped in mystery. The elders in the village lead the uninitiated into the Sacred Forest, a patch of woods on the
outskirts of town, where only men may tread—and only on certain occasions.
After two weeks, the participants return, strictly prohibited from speaking of what transpired.
Flannery succeeded in creating a compelling film—without setting foot in the Sacred Forest—by documenting the week of events leading up to the ceremony and by conducting numerous interviews with townspeople as they prepared for the ritual. In the film, in displays of invincibility, initiated men dance in front of the camera, pretending to slit their throats with knives. Jola women mash vine for a hearty brew called boun kayab, and a Jola holy man prepares protective charms (called grisgris) for the initiates by writing out passages of the Koran and then sewing them into cloth pouches. But most of the movie focuses on Goudiaby as he struggles to fulfill his obligations to his village, his parents, his religion, and his wife.
The initiated men haze Goudiaby. They shave his head, feed him hallucinogenic roots, and challenge his stamina in marathon dance sessions. At one point, Goudiaby admits to the audience, “The initiation ritual is basically a physical, psychological, and emotional torture.”
Ultimately, Goudiaby triumphs in balancing the complex array of expectations of the overlapping cultures of which he is a part: his Muslim religion, his village traditions, his marriage vows to a liberal American filmmaker. He satisfies the demands of the ritual, takes time out from the ceremonies to visit the town mosque, and eases his wife’s constant apprehension with timely smiles.
By focusing on Goudiaby, Flannery offers a glimpse of how the tradition might survive in an increasingly multicultural West Africa. “It’s such a rare event,” says Flannery. “Who knows what it will be like the next time it happens—if it ever happens again.” —Felix Gillette
Return to Belaye: A Rite of Passage will screen at Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge at 7 and 9 p.m. Monday, April 30. For more information, visit www.yellowcat.com or www.visionsdc.com.