Reading the Darkness

By James Rose

voice-of-the-moon-richard-stanley.jpgOn the road to Jalalabad, Voice of the Moon, 1990

Cult filmmaker Richard Stanley explores the relationship of Spirit and Matter within two of his documentary works, Voice of the Moon and The White Darkness

Throughout filmmaker Richard Stanley’s work there emerges a series of auteuristic concerns which have been built up and consolidated throughout his feature films and documentaries: a preoccupation with the Spaghetti Western and apocalyptic scenarios, the nomadic image of the Man with no Name, the mythical past and its rituals, the juxtaposition of the past within the present, reanimation and possession, strong women and horrific violence. All of this imagery is conceptually unified through one consistent idea: there may no longer be good and evil, only spirit and matter. As a concept, matter is usually signified by the present and its material objects whilst spirit is embodied in the past through ancient gods, rituals, personally symbolic events or possession, suggesting that matter is fixed in time and place whereas spirit is elusive and internalised by the individual. With such authorial concerns, it is not surprising that Stanley’s work in the field of documentary would lead him to examine the tangible manifestations of the mythical past, possession and, ultimately spirit.

Tired of shooting music promos and having not yet secured a feature film deal, Stanley decided that he wanted to do something “real” and so decided to self-fund a documentary concerning the then current situation in Afghanistan: during the Russian retreat, Stanley, cameraman Immo Horn and military advisor Carlos Mavroleon entered into the country as part of a UN food convoy that was distributing flour to the border areas east of Jalalabad. With most of Afghanistan being without electricity, Horn was shooting with 16mm hand cranked Bolex cameras without lip-synch sound, instead recording dialogue and ambience with a professional Walkman. Within two weeks the Walkman broke down, leaving the crew without any means of recording sound. Filming continued but it soon became apparent that they were not gaining access to the ‘unseen’ Afghanistan they felt needed documenting. In an effort to see and record these places, the crew enlisted with the Hezb-i-Islami under General Younis Khalis, eventually engaging in combat in Kunar and Nigrahar Province. Filming would come to an abrupt halt when, during the battle for Jalalabad, Mavroleon went missing and Horn was seriously injured. Abandoning backpacks and cameras, Stanley managed to get Horn the medical attention he needed and, eventually, both of them and the footage out of the country.

With such an experience, Stanley approached the editing of his first documentary, Voice of the Moon (1990) in an “oblique, poetic manner”, cutting the soundless footage into a thirty minute montage that is accompanied by a Simon Boswell score and voice over tracts from a Sufi poem. In narrative terms, the montage moves from gentle pastoral imagery to scenes depicting the preparation for war and the actual combat itself. Integrated into this linear narrative is a second, more abstract narrative: an image of the moon appears throughout the documentary, effectively breaking it down into distinct sections. The repeated use of the moon image suggests a narrative timeframe as each time the moon appears it is in the next stage of its cyclical phase. This image also, and somewhat obviously, correlates to the documentary’s title and so suggests that the spoken extracts of poetry come not from a human voice but from this celestial body, this solitary spirit that forever looks down upon the actions of man.


As indicated by the lunar cycle, a sense of time dominates the documentary, partly in its imagery – with Stanley consistently cutting back to an image of a flowing river, a spinning potter’s wheel, time lapse clouds over jagged mountain ranges and shadows creeping across walls - and in concept. Stanley has commented that the documentary took on a sense of exploration in that the “further you go [into the Hindu Kush] the further back in time one gets”. Stanley elaborates upon this by saying that he “was hoping if [I] went far enough into the mountains I could be someplace where the outside world never arrived.” This sense of exploration and integration into the lives of those being documented is perhaps not surprising given that Stanley’s great-grandfather was Sir Henry Stanley, the reporter and soldier of fortune made famous by his search and rescue into Africa to find David Livingstone.

Shortly after completing Voice, Stanley would direct two feature films, Hardware (1990) and Dust Devil (1992) and be sacked from his third, The Island of Doctor Moreau (John Frankenheimer, 1996) only days into the shoot. Whilst Hardware is a full on sci-fi horror adventure, Dust Devil is a more meditative film and borrows elements from Voice to help structure and contain the mythical creature of the title. As the serial killer narrative unfolds, shaman Joe Niemand (John Matshikiza), provides a mythical reading of events through voice over, suggesting that the Dust Devil is the wind that has taken on the form of a man. As in Voice, the spiritual dimensions of the film are on the edges of the frame, suggested by a spiritual person / being that is in harmony with both the matter of contemporary life and with the sustained esoteria of spirit.

After the difficult experiences of Dust Devil (shooting in the Namibia desert, incidents during production and then the production company going bankrupt), Stanley was commissioned by the BBC to document Voodoo rituals for the Benedict Allen-hosted series Last of the Medicine Men, spending three months in Haiti meeting priests, priestesses and the Loa (Spirits of the Dead). Upon his return, Stanley was given access to all the footage shot for him to make his own documentary, The White Darkness (2002). Given that this is Stanley’s cut, this opportunity allowed him directly to explore his preoccupation with spirit and matter through Voodoo’s mythical past and its historic rituals, its processes of possession and reanimation and the juxtaposition of its past within Haiti’s present. The religious, mythic and ritualistic aspects of Voodoo are positioned as an integral part of its community and religious structures. Against the backdrop of daily life, the sense of spirit is palpable, a situation which Abu Jah, Emperor of Soukri, is well aware of. “In the Western world the past remains the past but in our world the past is present.” He continues: “…the dead are all around us… we are still living in the past and we will continue to live it forever,” suggesting a collapse in the distinction between spirit and matter, leading to the singular condition of past and present living harmoniously together.


Like Voice, the eloquent pastoral imagery of The White Darkness (shot again by Horn) is set against a backdrop of military intervention. Within The White Darkness this takes the form of the US Military, who are first introduced during the documentary’s opening montage. A calm sequence of National Geographic-like imagery is abruptly cut short by a single image of eight military helicopters flying in formation over the sea. It is only there for the briefest of moments but it acts as a signifier of what is to come. Stanley repeats this strategy later, using the image of an amphibious landing craft, its ramp lowered down on the beach. In comparison to the cinematically charged image of the helicopters, this image is frankly bland but, like the quiet build up to conflict in Voice, it is the images’ suggestion that provides their strength – they are coming, by air and by sea.

Whilst Stanley found plenty of spirit manifestation within the Haitian people, he also found it within the US Military: in interview, Colonel Walton Walker, the commander of the Support Group, states that the military presence in Haiti is for humanitarian assistance and civic action and continues by saying that “…the hope of Haiti is Christianity. Once the Holy Spirit has really taken root here in Haiti, then it will have a chance.” Within Stanley’s constructs, Walker’s comments suggest that spirit is essential to the coherent establishment of matter - a stable society. Walker later suggests that spirit is clearly present within Haiti in the form of Christianity when he says, “We got attacked at the port by Haitians….we were convinced that day we were attacked spiritually, to derail our mission here and the Lord wouldn’t let that happen, so he came back stronger and here we are. We could not have done that without the help of Jesus Christ our Lord. He clearly was working in the group then. I think he’s continued to work in our group giving us success in our mission.”

With such comments from Walker and from Jah, The White Darkness suggests that Haiti is itself a site of spiritual presence, a space in which the past is clearly evident within the technological present. Whether the people that populate his films are fictional or real, Stanley’s work demonstrates humanity’s continued belief in the spirit, evidence of our continued need to use belief systems in our increasingly dangerous times. And, perhaps for Stanley, the continuation of Voodoo practice is confirmation of the spirit within matter and that the possibility of the wind assuming the form of a man is not just confined to the realms of horror cinema.

Between Death and the Devil: The Unofficial Richard Stanley website.

Interview with Richard Stanley by Donato Totaro.

Predominately concerned with interpretations of horror cinema and science fiction television, James Rose has written critical texts for a range of international publications including Offscreen, Senses of Cinema and Splice. His first book, Beyond Hammer, is due for publication late 2008.