Filming the Unseen (Kythe Heller)
How should scholars in the social sciences, humanities, and arts comprehend, apprehend, and represent the domain of the unseen? The unheard? The untouched? The untasted? The unscented? The unknown? The unknowable? These questions — charting a kind of inside-out, after-imaged anthropology of the senses — organize my inquiry into how media technologies are increasingly entangled with human sensoria, with effects for how the unseen may be visualized, apprehended, or may yet continue to resist representation.
My discussion will focus on the specific example of a film I recently made for a course at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard University. As a sensory exploration of the life and legacy of the Sri Lankan Sufi teacher, Dear Bawa Muhaiyaddeen asks the question “How can one film what cannot be seen?” by immersing the viewer in realities and narratives densely layered in sound, while oscillating visually between observational and subjective depictions of his community in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. Yet in lieu of telling a discursive story about Sufism in a community whose perspectives are nearly as diverse as its denizens, Dear Bawa Muhaiyaddeen investigates the extent to which one might transcribe in film technology the myriad registers of image/meaning that open as participatory, inter-relational, and porous—from the mythopoetic to the descriptive. It combines documentary, experimental, personal, and performative approaches to this subject to explore accidental forms of intimacy, mediation, cinematic time, and transnational space, engaging the formal possibilities of film to uncover a media archeology of religious presence.