Video trilogy by Uriel Orlow, Switzerland & South Africa, 2016/2017, OV /e
The video trilogy by Uriel Orlow investigates the ideological and commercial confrontation of two different yet interwinding medicinal traditions and their use of plants (The Crown Against Mafavuke), considers questions around indigenous copyright protection (Mafavuke’s Tribunal) and documents the continuing presence of herbal medicine in the postcolonial context (Muthi).
The Crown Against Mafavuke (18’)
The Crown Against Mafavuke is based on a South African trial from 1940.
Mafavuke Ngcobo was a traditional herbalist who was accused by the local white medical establishment of ‘untraditional behaviour’. The film explores the ideological and commercial confrontation between two different yet intertwining medicinal traditions and their uses of plants, with slippages across gender and race further questioning notions of purity and origination. The re-imagined court case is filmed at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where the Rivonia trial was held that sent Mandela and his fellow accused to Robben Island prison.
Muthi is the term for traditional medicine in Southern Africa. Before the establishment of cosmopolitan medicine, traditional medicine was the dominant medical system for millions of people in Southern Africa.
Europeans’ arrival was a turning for this ancient tradition. Muthi and African healers were perceived as unscientific and ineffective but their cultural dominance was considered a threat to British colonial rule and Christian missionary endeavours. Efforts were made to reduce their sphere of influence or eliminate them altogether. Yet colonialism and capitalism also helped medicinal plants to thrive. Urbanisation and the rise of consumer culture radically changed traditional healers’ practices and created a growing market for traditional herbal medicine which threatens sustainability and biodiversity. The pharmaceutical and food supplements industry has also joined in the trend and markets traditional plants to new consumers ignoring the cultural and spiritual contexts of the plants. Today around 200,000 indigenous traditional healers practice in South Africa compared to 25,000 Western-trained doctors and over 60% of South Africans consult these traditional healers. The film follows the enduring herbal practices at rural and urban sites in Johannesburg, the Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal. Muthi have curative, spiritual but also economic powers and are part of a larger system of knowledge, history and politics.
Imbizo Ka Mafavuke (Mafavuke’s Tribunal) (28’)
Imbizo Ka Mafavuke (Mafavuke’s Tribunal) is an experimental documentary set at the edge of a nature reserve in Johannesburg. A kind of Brechtian ‘Lehrstück’, the film shows the preparations for a people’s tribunal where traditional healers, activists and lawyers come together to discuss indigenous knowledge and bio-prospecting. The pharmaceutical industry has come to consider traditional medicine as a source for identification of new bioactive agents that can be used in the preparation of synthetic medicine. This raises new questions about intellectual copyright protection of indigenous knowledge. Imbizo Ka Mafavuke asks who benefits when plants become pharmaceuticals, given multiple claims to ownership, priority, locality and appropriation. The protagonists in the film slip into different roles and make use of real-world cases involving multinational pharmaceuticals scouting in indigenous communities for the next wonder drug. Ghosts of colonial explorers, botanists and judges observe the proceedings.