Uncover the Truth about a Documentary

in 25th Ismailia Festival for Documentaries and Shorts

by Doha Elwardaney

God Is a Woman, a documentary directed by Swiss-Panamanian filmmaker Andrés Peyrot, effortlessly shatters the prevailing belief that documentary movies are created to portray the real-life experiences of real people with total honesty, compared to feature films which portray the story of fictional characters as proposed by the screenwriter.

Even documentaries are shaped by the vision, desire, and thoughts of the director, no matter how noble his goals are—especially if he is filming a documentary about a radically different culture spoken in a language he can’t understand. That’s why the unfamiliar director chooses to interpret the rituals and culture of these people as he thinks, not as they really are.

The movie was screened at the 25th Ismailia International Film Festival For Documentary and Short Films and awarded the FIPRESCI prize.

Who are Documentaries Really For?

Peyrot uncovered an unreleased documentary film directed by the French Oscar-winner Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau and returned it to the Panamanian people. Gaisseau shot the movie in 1975, but even though the film depicts the Panamanian people, they never had a chance to watch it. They spoke about it as a legend from one generation to another, until Peyrot turned the myth into reality through his film.

Peyrot documents his search for Gaisseau’s movie up to the point of uncovering it and showing it to the people of Panama. In God Is a Woman, we see the villagers talking about their thoughts, the movie’s credibility, and how Gaisseau filmed them.

Gaisseau traveled to Panama for a year with his wife Kyoko and daughter Akiko to shoot a film about the indigenous people, specifically the Kuna people. Still, after he contracted a disease, he was unable to complete the film and the production funds ran out, so the bank seized the filmed footage. That’s why the Panamanian people were banned from seeing the film until Peyrot found it.

After watching the old movie, Peyrot and the Panamanian people realize how Gaisseau refused to see Panamanian society. His vision of Panamanian society was different from what he actually found, and he refused to admit that the society was transforming and that people there were not dependent on agriculture for their livelihood as before. In one scene we see Gaisseau scolding women carrying plastic bottles and asking them to leave the frame, in order not spoil the authenticity of the movie with this modern element that damaged his beliefs about the tribal society.

Gaisseau did not ask himself the most important question: Who is he making this movie for? Was he making it to be a historical document about the Kuna people in Panama, or was he making it to confirm his simple and superficial vision of the indigenous peoples?

Link the Past with the Present

Gaisseau insisted on his Western concept even while filming the marriage rites, as he saw the tribal society as a matriarchal one; then finally he agreed to let the husband in the shots, which explains his simple vision of the Kuna beliefs. When Peyrot screened the movie to the people of Panama for the first time, the reactions were divided. The older people were happy to see their past, but the younger generation were disturbed by this vision and saw it as superficial, unreal, and even fake.

The different reactions between the two generations are brilliantly captured by Peyrot, through cinematography, color palettes, and the soundtrack. At the beginning of Peyrot’s movie, the music is traditionally derived, but after the screening of Gaisseau’s film, rap songs and modern dance begin to appear to express the rebelliousness of the younger generation. Peyrot even shoots an interview with a rapper who is annoyed by Gaisseau’s film because Gaisseau didn’t know Panama culture.

Peyrot succeeds in combining the archived scenes of the past within the old film with filming those who are still alive, through photos, sound archives, and interviews. In the end, you will think that the two films are from two completely different worlds, even though they are about the same place and even the same people.

Cinema Is a Woman

Peyrot’s film was born through Gaisseau’s film, and yes, it deserves to be named Cinema Is a Woman. Cinema can create a space of creativity that reaches the possibility of birthing a film from another one. Peyrot has made a real movie about Panama and not a movie that resembles a tourist propaganda film as we saw in Gaisseau’s film. Gaisseau used a narrator voice to explain the rituals of the people as he wanted, even if it went against what he saw with his eyes, as if his movie would fail if he showed the West a true picture of Panamanian people. And that is why Peyrot made this movie in response to Gaisseau’s film, as the new generation has the right to know the origin of their history as it is, and not the one the other film faked.

By watching God Is a Woman, you can easily realize that director Peyrot was not aiming to expose Gaisseau’s manipulation and cover the truth. He wasn’t aiming to defend the history of his people, his country, or protect the history of his land, he was just searching for the film hoping to find it; but after watching Gaisseau’s film, his goal changed, and turned into finding a way to uncover the truth of documentary: Making another documentary. 


Doha Elwardaney
Edited by Robert Horton