Teaching the Possibility of Spirits: An Invitation

From the Series: The Possibility of Spirits

Photo by Alexandre Moura 1312, licensed under CC BY NC SA.

Constantin Stanislavski (1948) called it “the magic if.” In his method for actors, the question “what if” is the foundation of the connection between an actor and their character. By asking what if, the actor is drawn into the circumstances of their character’s existence. They are invited to suspend disbelief and connect to the possibilities within the story. Documentarian Mattijs Van de Port extends a similar invitation to viewers, but to engage with the possibility of spirits. Specifically, the orixás of the Brazilian Candomblé practitioners who have shared their experiences and stories with Van de Port for his film, The Possibility of Spirits.

I invite you to surrender yourself to the fact that you don’t know what it is that you are looking at—just as I don’t know what I am filming.
—Mattijs Van de Port

To support this invitation to explore the possibilities, Van de Port uses close up camera shots so that the viewer is always intimately involved in the scenes of possession. The experiences are a jumble of white fabrics, offerings, and faces rather than long shots of a full room as if one stood outside looking in. The editing, too, pieces people’s stories together around the moments of possession, drawing viewers back from the ritual to everyday life as Van de Port and his participants speak of their experiences with the possibility of spirits—from unwanted attention by orixás in the woods near St. Roche, to playing at Candomblé as children. The film is an essay which moves from small thread to small thread in order to create a larger fabric, but there is no central argument. No blanket statement on what is happening and why. Instead, the whole of the essay is an invitation based on if.

The question then, is how to teach such an invitation to undergraduates. One way would be to start with a firm foundation. Establish ahead of time the sociohistorical context of syncretism and Catholicism, of being of African descent and/or indigenous in the Americas. Introduce students to the cosmologies of Candomblé, Santería, and Vodun, and to some of the mechanics used by practitioners during rituals. But such a method subtracts from the impact of Van de Port’s if.

Instead, I invite you to open with his film. Let it introduce your students to the possibility of spirits before you move on to such foundational readings. By centering the film, students are part of that magic if. They can connect to the circumstances of the film more directly, without the filter of other, perhaps more familiar types of knowledge. Let students experience what Kathleen Stewart (1996, 191) termed the "subjunctive mode of as if" and be transported by "a logic of strange and unexpected associations." Then, as you engage your students in discussion, begin to add to this strange foundation.

The point of this endeavor is to decolonize, in a small way, the students’ point of view. To engage with their assumptions about the world around them and to encourage them to try their "hand at inventing forms of knowing otherwise" (Myers 2017, 3). To ask, what if?

I find myself busy, breaking down this totality into manageable bits. Creating familiar outlines, imposing patterns that will allow me to tell a tree from a spirit. I realize that moments when I found myself drawn to the possibility of spirits, were always moments when such patterns were disrupted, and alternative readings of the world made themselves available.
—Mattijs Van de Port

Of course, some students may come to class with that question in mind. The prevalence of pop cultural interest in the uncanny and supernatural is clear from the many successes of television shows, movies, and podcasts that engage in what if storytelling. Perhaps your students are already engaged with the possibilities of spirits to the extent that you find yourself, as their educator, feeling shifted. Out of place with them. Introducing the film first is also a way to engage these students—to ask what if together with them and invite them to explore the possibilities that the film introduced through further reading and discussion.

Suggested Readings

Baxstrom, Richard, and Todd Meyers. 2016. Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible. New York: Fordham University Press.

Beliso-De Jesús, Aisha. 2014. “Santería Copresence and the Making of African Diaspora Bodies.” Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 3: 503–26.

Glass-Coffin, Bonnie. 2010. “Anthropology, Shamanism, and Alternate Ways of Knowing–Being in the World: One Anthropologist's Journey of Discovery and Transformation.” Anthropology and Humanism 35, no. 2: 204–17.

Holbraad, Martin. 2008. “Definitive Evidence, from Cuban Gods.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, special issue no. 1: S93–S109.

Ochoa, Todd Ramón. 2007. “Versions of the Dead: Kalunga, Cuban-Kongo Materiality, and Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 22, no. 4: 473–500.

Palmié, Stephan 1995 “Against Syncretism: ‘Africanizing’ and ‘Cubanizing’ Discourses in North American Orisa Worship.” In Counterworks: Managing the Diversity of Knowledge, edited by Richard Fardon, 73–104. New York: Routledge.

Stoller, Paul, and Cheryl Olkes. 1987. In Sorcery’s Shadow: A Memoir of Apprenticeship among the Songhay of Niger. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, Edith, William Blodgett, Singleton Kahona, and Fideli Benwa. 1992. Experiencing Ritual: A New Interpretation of African Healing. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Wolf, Eric. 1958. “The Virgin of Guadalupe: A Mexican National Symbol.” Journal of American Folklore 71, no. 279: 34–39.

Discussion Questions

  • At the beginning of the film, Van de Port states that “you and I don’t know what spirits are.” Do you agree with this statement? Why or why not? Does Van de Port explain or define the spirits in his film?
  • How successful do you think Van de Port is in upholding his premise of keeping viewers open to the possibility of spirits? Are there specific moments in the film where he succeeded? Where he failed?
  • What roles does nature play in this film? In the experiences of the people in the film?
  • Why does Van de Port highlight his mistake in preferring to film the action of sacrificing an animal over listening to the song about Green Feather? How might this vignette fit with the overall themes of the film?
  • What are the “little interventions” of the orixá Obaluaê that Van de Port perceives in his life? What message do you think this leaves the viewer with?
  • Taking a step back, are there other ways to tell this story? Other patterns or disruptions that Van de Port excludes/neglects/silences through his close focus? What would you chose for the focus?
  • As a genre, what kind of possibilities does the film essay open and foreclose?


Myers, Natasha. 2017. "Ungrid-able Ecologies: Decolonizing the Ecological Sensorium in a 10,000 year-old NaturalCultural Happening." Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 3, no. 2: 1–24.

Stanislavski, Constantin. 1948. An Actor Prepares. Translated by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood. New York: Routledge.

Stewart, Kathleen. 1996. A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an "Other" America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.