IDFA 2018: Stones Have Laws
15 November 2018
Artistic duo Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan's Stones Have Laws , pulls back the curtain on the Maroon communities living in the forests of Suriname, the former Dutch colony which today is South America's smallest independent country.
Formed by West African slaves who escaped Dutch plantations in the 17th and 18th centuries and fled into the jungle where they learned to survive alongside indigenous people, these Maroon forest communities remain notoriously secretive and wary of outsiders to this day. Stones Have Laws is a De Verbeelding project, supported by the Film Production Incentive.
Van Brummelen and de Haan have been working together since 2002 on exhibitions, installations and films, sharing tasks such as research, writing and camerawork, with credits including Episode of Sea , which screened in the IDFA's Framing Reality sidebar in 2014. Their initial desire to explore the history and culture of the Maroon people grew out of learning about the slave trade during research they conducted in Nigeria for their 2007 work Monument of Sugar, investigating the subsidised trade of sugar.
As was the case with many of their previous projects, the pair did extensive research in situ, meeting with key members of the Maroon communities, before embarking on the shoot. "We negotiated with different members what sort of collaboration could make sense for all involved. Our interest was to inform our fellow countrymen and women about the history [that] the Netherlands shares with Suriname, which we all still know too little about," they say.
The co-directors also wanted to explore the laws and beliefs shaping Maroon life, created out of a fusion of African and indigenous tradi tions, and in particular its system which grants rights to nonhuman entities such as stones and trees in the forest.
Finding members of the Maroon communities who were willing to cooperate on the project took time. "Our Maroon interlocutors were very clear. Their attitude was: ‘First you colonised us, and now we need to inform you? What is in it for us?'," recount the artists.
"Gradually it became clear that they would be interested in participating in a film that conveyed their ancestors' escape from slavery, the wars against the Whites, the alliance they made with the rainforest, and how their environment and way of life are nowadays threatened by largescale extractivism."
These discussions resulted in a special hybrid approach, combining re-enactments, or staged discussions, based on 40 interviews with members of two branches of the Maroon forest people - the Okanisi and Saamaka - which were then transcribed and re-written into a script. "We presented the script to community members with the proposal to re-enact the conversations and stories before the camera. Lengthy debates about proper phrasing and content of the scenes preceded each staging," they explain.
The pair highlight the important roles played by Maroon writer, poet and village chief, Dorus Vrede, and lawyer and politician Hugo Jabini, who mediated at the initial interviews, as well as local writer and theatre director Tolin Alexander, who helped direct the staged discussions. "Without Dorus and Hugo, we would not have been able to build trust... while Tolin co-directed the re-enactments with us," they say.
These discussions are inter-cut with beautiful and meditative shots of the rainforest landscape inhabited by the Maroons, in a visual exploration of what it means for inanimate objects to have rights. "Landscape has been an important character in our previous films too. But in this case, the point of departure was to present a world co-inhabited by stones, waters, animals and plants. They defined the audio-visual vocabulary of the film." Melanie Goodfellow
SEE NL Magazine #33 November 2018 / IDFA Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by EYE International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.