From the Series: Rehavi (Timekeepers)
Juan Castrillón’s Rehavi (Timekeepers) (2016) is a compact object that tunnels through time and space to animate alternative temporalities: a talismanic film. It mingles documentary and fiction into fabulation, a fiction that may possess the force to become actual. It also shares Castrillón’s research on traditional Sufi music and calligraphy, and several beautiful compositions for ney (reed flute), and oud.
This magical narrative begins with Castrillón’s letter from Istanbul to his beloved María in Bogotá. The protests of Erdogan’s authoritarian government are dividing his respondents, and he is homesick. He compares his tears to the oysters spilled on the street by competing oyster vendors. On top of it all, he lost the watch given to him by his father.
In Istanbul, an elderly man finds an old, broken watch on the stone steps. Taking it home, he places it in book of magic. As he formulates a laborious talisman of numbers and Qur’anic verses, strange music stirs, as though the timepiece is absorbing the invocation. Later, he brings the watch to a repairman, who admires its beauty. A haunting music of grating strings and vibrating flute play as the watchmaker opens the watch and carefully removes the tiny screws that hold it together. In extreme close-up, we are in the world of the watch.
Shifting to soft black and white, Rehavi “tunnels” from fast-paced present-day Istanbul into a more deliberate kind of time. There, calligrapher Ahmed Kutluhan explains to us the temporality of paper: he prepares the paper twice with starch, waits six months, treats it with egg white, polishes it with agate, and waits one year. Only then is it ready to receive the ministry of letters. As the watchmaker continues his work (in color), we hear a Sufi chant. Cemil Baştürk explains the ney with its 26 segments. If we adjust it to the Western musical scale, he says, we lose the Turkish sounds, the inexact intervals. He plays a few notes and gauges them with a Cleartune instrument: the sounds hover around the A, F, G, without settling.
The watch repair continues. Asked about the relationship between music and time, musicologist Recep Uslu refers to old Ottoman manuscripts. From the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, he explains, there was a concept of music for different times of day; but this notion that music could support the elasticity of time waned. A distended, troubling music plays as the watch continues to undergo the watchmaker’s ministrations. At Mimar Sinan University, Hasan Uçarsu explains that since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, ideas about music have become more theoretical, more European; there is much poor imitation of earlier music. Few composers now truly revive the spirit of the old music, he says. The compositions we hear in Rehavi, including by Uçarsu himself and by Castrillón, sound alive, even to an untrained ear: shapes of traditional tunes are gently stretched, and we hear the delicate materiality of the ney’s breath and the oud’s responsive strings. In Istanbul, Uçarsu observes, the high streets are fast paced and cosmopolitan, while the neighborhoods by the water could be in the nineteenth century: life is slow and serene, families sit outside, voices calls from windows, musicians play oud and kanun. The city folds together the present and the past.
These moments have allowed us to understand that time is elastic and responsive to human and spiritual rhythms, and that the Sufi arts of music, calligraphy, and magic are able to harness the elasticity of time when practiced with devotion. Subtly Rehavi critiques the Turkish government’s “neo-Ottoman” ideology that presses traditional Sufi practices (magic excepted!) into nationalistic service, killing these arts in the process. All these understandings are fitted into the world of the watch. Like a talisman—instructions for which might have been pictured in the elder’s book of magic—Rehavi intervenes in the order of space-time, in a prayerful way (for this is not demonic magic), in order to bring about targeted changes in the contemporary world.
His work complete, the watchmaker presses its slim metal back in place. He quotes a verse of the Qur’an on patience.
The next day the elder returns the watch to where he found it. Left to its own device, the watch comes to life! In stop-motion animates, it rotates, like a compass finding its way, slides down the stone stairs—and reappears, half a world away, climbing a similar staircase. There’s a distorted reflection of the ornate clock in Philadelphia’s city hall, the “minarets” of Philadelphia’s postmodern architecture. The ney plays wistfully. But don’t worry—the magic watch finds its way onto the wrist of one who can hear it best.