Multimodal Anthropologies

Samuele Collu (McGill University)

At the cusp of a COVID-19 second wave in Montreal, Quebec, I had the opportunity to watch Mike Poltorak’s ethnographic film The Healer and the Psychiatrist (2019). The film takes us to the Kingdom of Tonga, located in the Southern Pacific, and explores the tensions, contradictions, and resonances between local healing rituals and psychiatric practices. In this short review, I highlight what seem to be the central themes of the film to ask how this film can offer us generative questions to address the predicaments of psychic life in the unfolding pandemic present. The film offers close-ups into the intimate life of therapeutic rituals and allows the viewer to experience the sounds, colors, and affects that compose and make possible healing practices at the thresholds of different cosmologies. I suggest that watching this visual ethnography can help us interrupt the imagistic continuum of our Zoomified condition, through an exposure to a different kind of images, ones that question a Euro-Western understanding of psychic life.

Through a sensibility that manages to avoid an excessively fetishistic depiction of Tongan healing practices, Poltorak’s visual ethnography invites us into the therapeutic life-worlds of Emeline Lolohea, a spirit healer in the island group of Vava’u, and Dr. Mapa Puloka, the only local psychiatrist living on the main island of Tongatapu. Emeline Lolohea and Mapa Puloka have never personally met. Yet they encounter each other indirectly in the film, where they engage in a refracted conversation about Tonga’s relationship with “European” medicine, Christian colonial legacies, and, more broadly, a conversation about the nature and treatment of psychic distress. For both practitioners, the “psychic” emerges as a spiritual and material space that is anchored in, and experienced through, the body.

Emeline is what we would call, rather problematically, a “traditional” healer. She offers her services to Tongan patients suffering from symptoms that can be reconducted to the psychic intrusion of a spirit that perturbs their embodied existence. Emeline performs ritual treatments of ’avanga, the local term for spirit possession, through a combination of diagnostic talk therapy, herbalism, and physical manipulation. I held my breath watching Emeline squeeze and push a liquid herbal concoction into the eyes of a patient. The patient in the scene is the possessed daughter of a Christian minister, which is important to note as we learn about the entanglements between the Christian colonial legacy and Tongan forms of life. Poltorak is able to bring us into the scene of this ritual without making his “ethnographic eye” excessively present. Hearing the patient’s laments, we become part of the community that gathers around Emeline and her patient. Watching these scenes, rather than reading about them, foregrounds the fundamentally therapeutic role of affective, nonverbal, and sensory elements in healing rituals.

The patient’s laments cut through the screen, challenging biomedical analgesic societies as much as Western fantasies about clinical spaces purified from pain and negative affects. As we have learned through a wide range of anthropological literatures on therapeutic rituals, cathartic ritual practices often involve the disorderly irruption of a liminal space that makes ordinary experience tremble and shake. Listening to the patient’s laments emerging from an acoustic landscape composed of singing birds and the murmurs of the people gathered around, these images remind us that spirits don’t leave the bodies of the possessed in analgesic silence.

On the main island, Dr. Mapa Puloka also addresses cases of ’avanga, but he operates in the cosmological and clinical frame of Western psychiatry. Dr. Puloka enfolds a deep attention to local ontologies within his practice, distinguishing between different types of ’avanga, which may belong to different cosmologies and may thus need to be treated differently. How can we distinguish psychotic speech from an episode of spirit possession? When is a treatment from a local healer more effective than a pharmaceutical intervention, and vice versa? Dr. Puloka is a culturally sensitive “good doctor”—with all the problems this figure entails—who works with different medical models but holds onto a pharmacological understanding of the psyche. Puloka leads collective Kava-drinking sessions where patients come together to talk, giving him the opportunity to develop a psychiatric diagnosis and decide about the possible treatment. In the film, we see Puloka’s patients singing together around the table, almost offering a vocal and visual counterpoint to the laments of Emeline’s patients. Poltorak’s voice is intermittently present in the film, providing the viewer with a narrative thread and occasionally having direct dialogues with Emeline and Puloka. While his presence somehow intensifies in the second part of the film, where he intervenes quite directly in a situation with Emeline’s husband, Poltorak is able to fade into the background, thus allowing his ethnographic images to acquire their own life.

Coming together in a counter-punctual catharsis, images from different therapeutic scenes prompt the viewer to experience the therapeutic role of collectively shared affects, sounds, and substances. These images ask the viewer to engage with core questions in medical anthropology—from the role of the collective, to the mobilization of trance and liminal experiences in the context of therapeutic rituals, to questions about therapeutic efficacy. What difference does it make to consider our psychic life as possessed by a spirit rather than affected by a chemical imbalance? How can we attend to the ontological reality of both perspectives at the same time?


From my perspective as a medical anthropologist, the COVID-19 global pandemic has confirmed the biopolitical hegemony of a mostly Western understanding of the irruption, propagation, diagnosis, and treatment of a viral disease. At the same time, the pandemic has magnified the presence of screens and digital devices in our Zoomified everyday life. The present moment has made evident the funneling of our psychic attention towards a collective digital unconscious, an imagistic continuum flickering across our screens and running through our veins. I do not hesitate to say that in this imagistic continuum, our psychic life is becoming available to be affected, possessed, and territorialized by all sorts of spirits that provoke a shared sense of exhaustion, biomedical anxiety, intersectional violence, and digital solitude. The imagistic spirits of our present are wearing us down.

In this historical atmosphere, the images of the film are a welcome reminder of the necessity of rethinking our relationship with screens, images, and the spirit world—at the thresholds of multiple cosmologies. How do we engage with cathartic rituals of dispossession from the spirits of our present? Might we reconceptualize Western psychiatry (without rejecting it all together) through rituals of spirit dispossession? Could we understand current waves of depression, anxiety, and violence in terms of spirit possession? While not providing answers to these somewhat unanswerable questions, The Healer and the Psychiatrist asks the viewer to reconsider psychic life as a porous surface of contact that hosts and mediates forces that travel across different realms and cosmologies.

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