It’s all movies for me. And besides, when you say documentaries, in my case, in most of these cases, it means “feature film” in disguise. —Werner Herzog
You have to understand, my dears, that the shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. —Anthony de Mello
“Bulldozing a hole in the wall and scurrying out of the museum with a rhino head – it’s pretty dramatic.” It is dramatic and it sounds like a scene from a film. But what Cairo-based Irish filmmaker and artist Bryony May Dunne is describing is in fact a scene from real life, from a recent spate of rhino horn thefts that have taken place around the world. This includes the 2013 theft of five horns from the National Museum Archive in Dublin.
Bryony first came across the subject in a Guardian article about the last male Northern White Rhino, named Sudan. Sudan is kept in a compound in Kenya where he’s guarded 24 hours a day behind a formidable barricade of drones, dogs, trained armed guards, watchtowers and fences, with a microchip in his coveted horn. Reading the article, Bryony felt there was some sensationalising going on, or that part of the picture was being ignored.
“The way the article was written, it was almost kind of romanticised, nostalgic about a vanishing species. And I don’t believe the journalist actually left his desk, I don’t think he went to Kenya and spent time with the rhino’s carers.” In the age of churnalism, recycled press releases masquerading as original, journalistic reporting, she might well be right. But in the case of Sudan, why does it matter that the journalist did or did not visit the rhino in his compound? For Bryony, the real-life, emotional interaction with a subject is as important as learning the facts of the case.
Bryony felt that the Guardian article, and all other articles on the matter she’s read since, focused entirely on the most obvious “villains” of the tale – the poachers and the black market for rhino horns in Asia. But this is only a superficial treatment of a more complex picture. In a way, the nostalgic and romanticised treatment of Sudan in the Guardian article actually perpetuates the cause of the poaching in the first place.
“The article didn’t really go in depth into the whole mythology around the use of the horn, medicinally, or as a status symbol. It goes back to trophy hunting, all these heads and horns in big houses, it’s [about] status, it’s [about] power, to show that you were in East Africa hunting down animals and you brought back a horn – this is a symbol of power.”
It was this sense that the story was being represented in a skewed fashion in the mainstream media that prompted Bryony to conduct her own research into the subject, research that will form the basis of her first feature film, still in production, entitled Pembe! Pembe! (Swahili for “Horn! Horn!”). This research included looking into the earliest accounts of the rhino in Europe and the possibility that the lumbering beast was the source of the mythical unicorn. She came across a medieval tale called The Hunt of the Unicorn, which is represented on a series of tapestries that were up until recently owned by the Rockefeller family. The plot of the wealthy controlling the means of story-telling thickens in an unexpected way.
Bryony travelled to Kenya to visit Sudan in the conservancy after negotiating with the Northern White Rhino alliance for permission. She stayed in the park for a week, filming the rhino and his keepers. While there, she also filmed one of her guides reciting his Swahili interpretation of her own interpretation of The Hunt of the Unicorn; a refraction of events through language and recitation, the usual course of a story. She also spent time filming in the Natural History Museum in Dublin and speaking to Nigel Monaghan, the museum’s Director. They spoke about the 2013 theft (of horns that had ironically been removed from the museum and put in storage to avoid just such a theft). But she also raised the question of what a museum collection is or can be, in light of the sticky issue of colonial plunder.
This is the wider cultural context in which the theft of rhino horns from museum collections and from the animals themselves, in the wild or in captivity, happens. A context that is complex and threaded through with power struggles and structures and a patriarchal/colonial view of the world. “A lot of what the rhino horn is used for is its supposed aphrodisiac properties and again it’s this [theme of] male power dominance.” A sensitive aspect of the story is the theft of rhino horns and other museum items in England by a gang with connections to the Irish travelling community. It’s a tangled web involving plunder from one marginalised group in the past being plundered by another marginalised group in the present. “What keeps coming back is the theft of objects that were already stolen.”
But just as Bryony feels the mainstream media has represented the story in a one-dimensional light, she’s not approaching the issue in a traditional, documentarian format. Instead, she’s navigating what is a question of subjective values through a layering of subjective impressions and perspectives. “It’s more a portrait. Almost a meditation.” Bryony even goes so far as to stylise certain scenes, giving them a magical or surreal quality. It’s an echo of some of the more outlandish stories relating to rhino horn trafficking (like the man who was stopped at customs in Manchester with a rhino horn hidden inside the belly of a stuffed bird) as well as an echoing of the mythologising of the power of rhino horns and their connection to unicorn legends.
Why do it like this? The facts of the issue are very real (X number of horns were stolen from X museum by X group), so why treat them in a fictionalised way? Perhaps for two reasons. One is that Bryony considers documentary in the traditional sense, covering something thoroughly and objectively without applying a narrative to it, a near-impossibility anyway. “I think reality instantly changes when you’re there with the camera.” And another is the complex emotional bedrock underpinning the story, a historical psychology relating to male-female power structures. It’s the sort of thing that’s perhaps better treated intuitively, emotionally. When researching the unicorn mythology surrounding rhinos, Bryony came across one anthropologist’s interpretation of The Hunt of the Unicorn that viewed the quest of a bunch of men to capture a precious unicorn horn using a virgin woman as bait as an effort to recover their missing female qualities. It’s pretty far out, but maybe there’s something in it.
It’s an approach to documentary that questions the possibility of truth-telling, and one that, for Bryony, has developed organically. “I think it would be called docu-fiction.” When the artist found herself living in a cottage in a tiny village in the Sinai desert in 2012, she hadn’t expected it to be the beginning of a filmmaking odyssey. She was there as part of her Masters in UNESCO World Heritage Site Conservation when her meeting with a Bedouin women who tended a traditional orchard garden in the mountains prompted her first short film. The Orchard Keepers has since shown at over 20 film festivals around the world and won multiple awards.
All of Bryony’s films since have focused on unusual individuals who live unorthodox lives, with her subjects including a Serbian man living in the Wicklow countryside who bathes in a cast iron famine pot and a former member of the Dutch military who believes himself to be the reincarnation of Egyptian Pharaoh Rameses II. As with Pembe! Pembe!, the approach is to heighten the more peculiar aspects of their existences, distorting perceptions of what is myth and what is reality, while also creating something that is more emotive, or can make a more direct connection with the viewer.
Though it might initially seem an unlikely development, it makes sense that her early work, a series of short films subjectively documenting the subjective experiences of individuals, has led her to Pembe! Pembe!. It’s a widening of the interrogation of story-telling on an individual level to an interrogation of story-telling in the media. Stories are useful and effective and transmit information in an emotional context that makes it memorable. But the point is that when it’s a case of one human telling others humans something – even within the safeguards of good journalistic practice – it’s still all just stories.
See bryonymay.com for more information about Bryony’s films and photography.
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Images: Bryony May Dunne