Reviews Short Narrative

Journey of the Invader Spirit (2023) – 3 stars

Director: Mandy Morrison

Writer: Mandy Morrison

Cast: Jose Carlos Conceicao, Raimundo da Silva, Charles Silva, Dete Vieira & Mandy Morrison

Running time: 16mins

On the surface, Journey of the Invader Spirit does not work well – at least in terms of conventional cinema. Its visual styles clash, while its laborious narration struggles to hold your attention throughout its meandering story. But Mandy Morrison’s short film is by no means conventional cinema.

For a start, the cast list accompanying the project labels every person appearing on screen simply as “participant”, suggesting that there is an element of participatory filmmaking at play here.  Participatory filmmaking involves collaboration with people who conventional films might treat as ‘subjects’ – and sees directors work with them to generate new knowledge and perspectives about their lived or cultural histories.

When presenting such content to audiences used to normative, narrative-driven filmmaking popularised by the forces of capitalism and the imperial nations that dominate that economic system, that can bring difficulties. Particularly, people may have the experience I had in Journey of the Invader Spirit, where they feel the contributed elements of participants seem to be contradicting or struggling to align with each other. But that arguably doesn’t matter. Participatory cinema is about cultivating a space for communities marginalised by socio-economic norms to speak about their worldview, rather than appeasing the desires of consumers.

That seems particularly fitting in this case. Journey is built around an invented creation myth, cobbled together from various sources, which eventually bursts into the modern age to pass comment on the ceaseless cycle of destructive consumption that a large portion of human life now lusts for. In the early phases, where Morrison’s script sets out two rival ‘twin spirits’ – one which is driven by a desire to conquer everything, one which sees that they are already irrevocably connected to and part of ‘everything’ – with the narration accompanied by some pleasingly minimal animation from Tori Porter. The imagery adds some much-needed visual substance to a long, long opening segment – charting the birth of the universe, through millions of years to the creation of 21st century society. All the way through, the two spirits have warred with each other – a discussion raging about balancing the desire to improve your life, with the harmony of an interconnected world.

The film’s own harmony seems to suddenly fall out of whack, when we reach the modern day – and a third player is injected into the narrative: the Invader Spirit. Born of an “incestuous” alliance between the twins, the spirit covets material wealth, and endless consumption at all costs – but delivers hefty punishments from the natural world on those it seduces to its ways of waste. The embodiment of the human-made climate crisis is the first live-action presence in the film – a participant decked out in a shaggy pile of assorted garbage (imagine if Captain Caveman were made out of foil, plastic bags and J Cloth) – and it is never a presence that is anything but jarring. This is especially the case when the Invader Spirit is confronted by a number of human beings, who work in union to return the world to a state of balance.

The warriors include a chef, who begins wielding a very real-looking kitchen knife at the spirit, a team of industrial labourers who dump the spirit into a wheelbarrow, and some capoeira fighters who seem to symbolise a history of resistance in Bahia, Brazil – where the sequences were filmed. At times these sequences see the live figures keyed into fragments of the earlier animated sequences, at others they are simply surrounded by a hand-drawn halo. Neither tactic is particularly pleasing on the eye, or makes the live-action sequences feel any more aligned with the film’s first half.

Again, if this is a work of participative cinema, that might not matter to anyone involved. Who cares if a random critic in Amsterdam thinks there is a lack of stylistic cohesion? Getting the chance to make something in whatever form the team felt was best and develop their own distinct cinematic language is a more important end in its own right.

There are arguably still questions to answer on that end though. To what extent was this a participatory project if Mandy Morrison – credited as the only writer – constructed the whole narrative, around which all the other constituent elements are draped? According to the director’s statement, the film aims to consider “the biases of the Ethnographic film, both riffing on its form while undermining and overturning its colonial premise” – presumably by redeveloping stories she heard during her time in Bahia. But if they have all been parsed through her sensibilities to create the narrative as it stands, does that undermine the participative element of the film? And in that case, does it just end up serving up more of the thing it set out to lampoon? Curating someone else’s stories as an anthropological curiosity, or as a bit of a laugh?

I can’t convincingly answer any of these questions, or even guarantee they are of relevance to the film. But I have watched it blind, in a way someone at a film festival might well, and these are the things that came to mind in that process, before reverting to the minimal notes the creator provided about it. If things are still so uncertain in that case, it might well be the case that there are a lot of great ideas or sentiments at play in Journey – but that the ultimate author of the piece has not done enough to translate all of this into something that communicates effectively with the world beyond her team.

Journey of the Invader Spirit brings the phrase “too clever by half” to mind. Mandy Morrison clearly knows a lot about cinema, art, communication, culture and colonial history. But her film feels like by refusing to trim anything down, it has overreached itself – meaning the themes it was supposed to be geared toward feel undermined and under-served to external audiences.

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