Reservoirs of Embodied Memories in Ikwé: A Reflection on Ancestral Knowledge Coursing Through the Body

By Jacqueline Halloran Cooper | 13.11.2017

Ikwé . Dir. Caroline Monnet. 2009

Ikwé. Dir. Caroline Monnet. 2009

Caroline Monnet’s experimental film Ikwé (2009) portrays a young Indigenous woman reflecting on and being moved by her grandmother’s teachings. The film delves into the spiritual connection between women and water, but also brings to the surface the ways in which water serves as a visual conduit for accessing Indigenous traditions and the physical sensations of contemporary bicultural living. Monnet’s visual vocabulary saturates the film with images of water, which emphasize the fluidity of the woman’s multifarious identity. In my investigation of Ikwé, I will examine how the film’s imagery establishes relationships between water, movement, and the exterior and interior of the body. In doing so Ikwé visually captures the experience of the body and mind as a container that preserves and transforms the collective memory of one’s ancestors.

In Ikwé’s opening image, a projection of water is superimposed onto a woman’s naked body – an impressionable human canvas. As the woman lies still, nude, and curled up in a fetal-like position on the ground, she attentively listens for the sound of her grandmother’s message that washes over her. According to Houston Wood, shots of landscapes in Indigenous films often function not only as an establishing shot, but also as a way of retelling historical narratives that are inscribed on the surfaces of the earth (Wood 95-6). Therefore, by projecting images of water onto the body itself, the spiritual and historical significance of water is inscribed on the woman’s skin.

Although women inherit their ancestral connection to water from conception (the body is created in, filled with, and sustained by water), Monnet’s subject gains access to the spiritual value of water through actively reflecting on her heritage and her grandmother’s teachings. When the woman’s grasp on her grandmother’s message begins to strengthen, her movements are reconfigured to express a mental and physical novelty. As the woman’s formerly motionless body becomes progressively animated, the film demonstrates the process whereby she learns to inhabit the knowledge relayed to her in the opening shot. Her movements are fully realized by the end of the film, signifying her restored connection to her ancestral heritage.

Preceding the final shots of the woman’s body in its full range of motion, there are several shots of bodies of water. The first close-up of the water appears quite rough, as it aimlessly crashes against itself. By the third shot the water settles to become quiet and serene. The stillness of the lake enables the viewer to see into the body of water like glass, as it literally reflects the world that borders it. This sequence is an important transition as it foregrounds a connection between the water’s movement and the woman’s. Initially, her physical movements scatter haphazardly like the first image of the waves, but once her body settles, her actions reflect the clarity of her transformed perception. Gradually, the woman’s insight into her grandmother’s memory becomes as clear as the water itself. This understanding is expressed to the viewer through the great articulation and control that the woman realizes in her movements.

In a triumphant conclusion, the woman dances swiftly across the frame. Ikwé’s final sequence releases its subject to move beyond the limits of her own singular form, as her ‘real’ body is trailed by the unified specters of her ancestral collective memory. These sequential bodies in motion appear like the ripples that follow a skipping stone on a glass lake. This image of repetition relates to Wood’s assertion that in Indigenous storytelling traditions there is a “practice of maintaining multiple versions of oral tales” (98). Indeed, like each oral retelling of history, these rippling images of the woman dancing demonstrate how several expressions of her tradition may be contained within a single body. This final sequence presents the embodiment of the grandmother’s message as it is animated through the fluidity of the woman’s movements. Ikwé therefore depicts the experience of bodies, both old and new, which hold and protect Indigenous stories that will never dissolve so long as they are continually told and re-told. Although this film is specific to the experiences of Indigenous women who grew up within this particular tradition, Monnet’s artful contemporary approach opens up the inherent value of intergenerational reflection to its audiences. After watching the subject tap into her ancestral embodied memory—which she identifies as the “glue to [her] being”—one cannot help but feel compelled to consider what bodies have come before our own and make up the foundation of who we are.

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