Some of the best stories are the ones that connect back to original tales and cultural rituals that are part of the human journey. Today, sometimes the universal meanings, archetypes and principles behind our modern stories are hidden because we are disconnected from those ancient tales and rituals. Think of, for example, Little Red Riding Hood, which can be interpreted as an initiation fairytale with the grandmother as the grand wise mother or crone figure and the wolf as an Anubis-like figure leading her onto a path of rebirth of herself.
Eliciana Nascimento captures that universal story of returning to one’s roots and the ancient continuing to live in the new in her Afro-Brazilian and Yoruba Orisha-inspired film, The Summer of Gods. Opening with a boat ride, a young girl, Lili, is traveling with her mother and brothers to visit her grandmother and right from the start, we see she has the ability to hear and see spirits around her. Lucumi priestess and professor of afrofuturism, Koko Zauditu-Selassie, said during the panel that this establishing scene of the family going across the water symbolizes fluidity of generational memory and listening to the past, and that despite being abducted and forced across the water during the transatlantic slave trade, it did not change us completely. Water is a theme throughout the film, including a honoring ritual at the waterfall in Brazil in the beginning of the film and the two water-related Orisha – Yemanja (whose is along with her Brazilian festival a main inspiration for the film) and Oshun (the Orisha of the life-giving rivers). The water represents for this young girl a return to her ancestral roots and traditions, but also a fertile creative place where her new life can begin.
The forest is also another fertile ground for the main character. With her grandmother’s home situated near the forest, the film has a similar connection to Little Red Riding Hood. The grandmother is this film who is a Yoruba priestess tells Lili traditional stories and nurtures her within these ancestral memories. In a search for herbs, much like bringing her grandmother goodies, Lili is pulled into the forest by the child-like, mischievous yet wise Orisha Eleggua, who is the path-opener for her and guides her to her destiny (and is also Nascimento’s guiding spirit or Ori). There, she becomes part of a dance ritual and initiation, seeing her guides Oshun and Yemanja. Through this initiation and learning of her traditions, Lili is able to keep her connection with her grandmother and her ancestors even beyond death because those traditions are reborn in her.
Based on Nascimento’s actual life story of herself who inspired Lili and her own initiation, and her mother who inspired the grandmother, the film gave rich and vibrant visuals to showcase Afro-diasporic tradition and culture, something that we do not get to see that often as Yoruba priestess Iya Oseye Mchawi said in the panel discussion. Shown together with the zombie film, Danger Word, Selassie noted the contrasts and also links between the two films; often Afro-diasporic based religions are demonized, stereotyped and misunderstood by the media, which lead the the spread of the lore of the zombie, and while Danger Word centered around death and disease, it’s overall message of “still here,” from the grandfather and having the spirit to remember and keep moving as well is much part of The Summer of Gods. In The Summer of Gods, the grandmother mentions the Palo god Zambi, which sounds similar to zombie, and that link highlights the strength of survival of our cultures in the face of death.
But as Selassie mentioned blackness is still considered scary and like in the film, The Night of the Living Dead, despite our survival, we and our cultures are still policed. Nascimento is planning to shoot her next film, The Holy War, about the religious conflict in Brazil between Evangelicals and Afro-diasporic religions, like Candomble. The confrontations are often violent and one priestess died from a heart attack because of the stress.
But here is a quotation from The Summer of the Gods that is important to remember in the face of persecution and anti-blackness: “We should never forget where we came from because it is in the past that we find strength to create our future.”