Funeral Season: a time to laugh and a time to mourn
October 10, 2012 | Suri Epstein - Correspondent
Matthew Lancit followed a girl who was working on her PhD all the way to Cameroon in 2009. When he arrived he found himself in a small village in the midst of numerous family celebrations. The multiple days of feasting, singing, and dancing were particularly fascinating to Lancit, an award-winning filmmaker, when he discovered the reason for these festivities – they were funerals.
“I had come with this small camera and I’m a filmmaker so I thought I’d do something but wasn't quite sure what,” Lancit said. “When you’re there during the dry season there are funerals every weekend; big huge lavish affairs, quite cinematic events.”
His fascination drove him to ask the villagers numerous questions about this tradition.
“People saw I was interested and kept inviting me to different funerals and the film just grew organically.”
The result of his eight-month stint in Cameroon is a feature-length documentary called Funeral Season. The film is an upbeat exploration of the celebratory funerals that distinguish the Bamileke tribe of western Africa.
These funerals are often held years after the death of loved ones. Sometimes this gap in time occurs because of a symbolic ‘queue.’
“You can’t have the funeral for your father before his father’s funeral,” Lancit said. “You first have to hold the funeral for your grandfather before you make one for your father.”
Unlike western funerals, these events mark the end of the mourning period as opposed to the start of it. Family members believe that holding a lavish party is a way of honouring the dead.
The cheerful film score is composed and performed by Klezmer musician Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch. The Klezmer soundtrack brings home the cultural divide between mourning traditions in Africa and Lancit's own Jewish experience.
“It was a very personal choice about the way I saw what was happening as a Jew from Canada,” Lancit said. “One of the things that occurred to me when I was there in the village was the Shtetl literature I had read, like Shalom Aleicheim and I.L. Peretz.”
Born and raised in Toronto, Lancit now splits his time between Paris and Toronto. The 300-plus hours of footage took years to edit. “I think often the films that grow organically end up being the lasting projects,” he said. “It’s part of your life.”
The film has been screened in more than 40 festivals, most recently at the Toronto Independent Film Festival. It will continue to show in international festivals but has also recently been picked up by the international distribution company, Documentary Educational Resources, which will be selling individual DVDs of the film.