Even though the title suggests a collision of communion and cross-dressing, the film “The Last Bissu: Sacred Transvestites of I La Galigo” is not a collaborative effort between St. Thomas More and the LGBT Co-op.
“Bissu” is an award-winning documentary directed by Rhoda Grauer that offers a glimpse into a dying Indonesian religion whose transvestite priests emulate the gender-ambiguous Bissu gods.
The film won the first prize at May 2005’s America-Asean/National Geography All Roads Film Festival and Grauer worked closely with famed theater director Robert Wilson to adapt the Bissu creation myth “La Galigo” into the full-fledged epic production “I La Galigo” at New York City’s Lincoln Center.
The director will visit the Yale School of Drama Sept. 30 to discuss her work on “Bissu” and its sister feature, “Rasinah: The Enchanted Mask,” which profiles one of the last performers of Topeng, a mystical West Javan mask dance.
“Bissu” and “Rasinah” are the first two films in Grauer’s eight-part series “Libraries on Fire: When an Elder Dies, a Book Burns,” which aims to capture the sights, sounds and history of exotic traditions whose existence is threatened by the encroaching power of globalization.
Grauer was inspired to document these traditions while touring the world and researching exotic dance. She found a common thread in these customs: an aging demographic of practitioners who struggled to keep their practices afloat by training a new generation of apprentices.
“Bissu” profiles Puang Matoa Saidi, one of the last high priests of the nearly extinct religion of Bissu. Recognizing the danger his sect faces, Saidi sets out to cultivate a new generation of priests and finds the perfect candidate in the teenage boy Ancik, who the community has classified as “different.” After Ancik’s parents entrust his care to Saidi, Ancik begins a rigorous training to prepare him to carry on the Bissu faith.
“Rasinah” follows an elderly West Javan woman of the same name who has become renowned in her community as one of the finest, albeit last, practitioners of the Topeng dance. Performed at circumcision and other traditional ceremonies, Topeng dancers like Rasinah channel the energy of ancestral spirits into a variety of masks, from the vengeful Kelana to Panji, the innocent face of an unborn child.
Like Saidi with Ancik in “Bissu,” Rasinah finds hope for the future of her tradition in Aerli, her granddaughter who she has taken under her wing as a Topeng apprentice.
Grauer chose Indonesia as the focus of these two films because she was attracted to the mysticism of the country’s indigenous traditions. She enlisted the help of scholars in the community in order to track down the elderly practitioners of Bissu and Topeng.
Grauer said she originally held a romantic view of cultural preservation. But her exposure to these many endangered traditions caused her to reevaluate how much of an actual impact her documentaries would have on the cultures they record. Still, Grauer believes indigenous culture can persist in spite of competing international forces and that recording these traditions is a worthwhile venture.
“This [tradition] may continue, or it may not,” Grauer said. “But it deserves a shot.”