The anthropological film by Linda Connor, Patsy Asch and Timothy Asch called “Jero: A Balinese Trance Séance” is very interesting from the scientific point of view. Its purpose was to record a real ritual held by the medium and requested by the family that wanted to communicate with the spirits of their deceased relatives and to deities. According to the film, such practices are very common in the culture of Bali. The authenticity of such rituals has been argued about for generations. Mediums are not a local phenomenon.
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They exist all around the world, in every culture and every religion. The idea of communication with the spirits of the dead people, asking them questions, solving the mysteries connected to their death and its causes, listening to their prophesies is the practice that is tempting for millions of people living in the Western society.
The film about Jero, the Balinese medium, is designed to document her professional performance, catch the details of the ritual on tape and present it from the anthropological point of view, the filmmakers do not perform any analysis during the film, they do not comment of the ritual or the purpose behind it, their idea is to show this aspect of Balinese culture the way it originally is without applying any modern understanding to it.
The significant feature of the film is the way its directors treat the culture of Bali and its specific features. The scientists approach the religious beliefs and world perception of Balinese people with an open mind. The anthropologists comment on the ritual objectively, they do not analyze or judge, but they also present the background story of the issue that is being discussed between the medium and her customers. The scientists that worked on this film followed the principle of cultural relativism.
They do not analyze the practice of trance séance, its authenticity and the validity of information and advice communicated by the medium during the procedure. The scientists inform the viewer about the medical interpretation of the cause of death of the seven year old boy, whose spirit the family came to talk to. They also inform the audience about the history of Jero before she became a medium.
This is done in order to demonstrate the holistic approach towards the culture of Bali and the beliefs of its people. People’s religion and understanding of the world, the ways human body works, the causes of death and illnesses – all these aspects make the mediums and trance séances so popular there. This practice is shown as a small part of the general attitude of Balinese people towards nature and forces in the universe as well as their self-identification.
Even though the film objectively presents the Balinese way of living as natural and essential lifestyle, it does not employs ethnocentric approach. The scientists view the representatives of the Balinese society as very different individuals, which live according to the principles that may seem strange or old-fashioned to us. At the same time, the process of studying this culture may have created an impact on the researchers.
They participated in communication with Jero and her family, they learnt the Balinese language and culture, they spent some time among Balinese families, watched Jero go into the state of trance, speak with the voices of spirits, discussing the rituals of cremations, curses and offerings with the customers.
Initially, the communication with the representatives of a culture that is so different from the cultures western people are used to may cause a cultural shock, but the more a person experiences the peculiarities of the new culture, the more the person understands its customs and traditions, the more they start to adjust to these new beliefs, and accept them. Such influence may cause a shift in the scientific approach of the researchers, reduce their objectivity.
The film by Linda Connor, Patsy Asch and Timothy Asch raises the questions of authenticity of the rituals conducted by Jero and other mediums. It is obvious that the people of Bali trust the mediums and believe that they are talking to real spirits of the dead. At the same time, from the point of view of a modern observer that does not belong to a culture similar to Balinese this kind of practice seems very strange and ancient. Besides, many Western people would find a lot of antiscientific details in the approach demonstrated in the film.
The anthropologists do not discuss or debate if the medium is real and her skills are reliable, whether or not she truly is speaking for the deities and spirits. These questions are left unanswered. This approach worked well because the scientists left the choice to the audience. Each viewer of the film may decide for themselves whether they want to believe in the afterlife, spirits and mediums or they prefer to see this practice as a scam, or maybe they will percept it as an old-fashioned way to explain the unexplainable and to solve the emotional problems of the families that lost their members.
To my mind, the filmmakers could not make the film any more effective, because in that case they would have to apply their scientific methods to understand the new culture. They certainly could try to examine the materials the medium uses to achieve the state of trance and prove that they are toxic chemicals or drugs. They also could try to make an emphasis on the fact that the boy died because the family failed to bring him to the hospital in time, relying on old-fashioned healing methods.
The researchers could study the dialogue between the family and the medium speaking as herself and as the spirit and try to find inconsistencies or suspicious moments there, although this would be ethnocentric. Ethnocentrism assumes that there is such thing as “correct beliefs” or that some cultural approach is right and all the others are wrong (Schultz and Lavenda, 23).
The culture of Bali and the Balinese people are represented as innocent and kind people that care about their families and are very spiritual, this is why they come to mediums to ask the deities for advice and perform all the rituals correctly. We see ethical implications when Jero says that she used to be considered as a crazy person, but as soon as she became a medium her peculiarities started to be respected.
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Besides, it is interesting how crying is treated by the Balinese people, Jero was not ashamed to perform a séance and speak to spirits in front of a camera, yet when she saw that the researchers filmed her tears, she got a little bit ashamed. This demonstrated how deeply different our cultures are, but yet they both have rights to exist.
Schultz, Emily and Robert Lavenda. Cultural Anthropology: A Perspective on the Human Condition. 8th edn. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.