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Linda Ainouche is a researcher, anthropologist, writer, and director/producer. Her recently-released documentary Dreadlocks Story reveals the hidden spiritual links between Jamaican Rastas and Indian Sadhus. Salient caught up with Ainouche to talk about her film and the processes behind making a transcontinental documentary.
Ainouche is a woman of many talents. She teaches, she writes, she travels, and she makes films. What was the origin story behind such an adventurous spirit? “My parents are both from different cultures,” she explains. “I was exposed to cross-cultural connections from the way we lived and the way we travelled the world.” Ainouche is adamant that that becoming an anthropologist (her first love) was inevitable. “I was born into this field… it was almost like second nature, being surrounded by a mosaic of cultures all the time.”
I ask how she made the transition from writer to documentarian. Ainouche began in academia, and she says that communicating at a university level was “easy” but a little limiting. “Writing was approachable and accessible (you just need a computer and some brilliant ideas!)”, but the calling of film-making proved too strong to resist. “I found that the documentary genre allows me to ‘shoot’ the reality as it is,” she explains, before crediting the medium with giving her the “unique opportunity to break down barriers, which allows for a direct connection with people in their environment.”
When brainstorming topics for the project that would eventually become Dreadlocks Story, Ainouche found herself drawn back to Hindu and Rasta cultures. Ainouche spent several years in India, completing a PhD on Jainism—“one of the oldest and least-known religions in the world”—and travelling the country extensively. While on a trip to Jamaica, she was struck by the Indian influences in Rastafari culture, and even more struck that so few people had also made the link. That was her lightbulb moment. “Putting it all together, it became clear to me that I had to do a documentary on the links between Rastafari and Hinduism.” As an expert on both subjects, she felt a responsibility to use her know-how to expose the “ignorance on Indian enslavement to the Caribbean Basin,” and to shed light on the “misconceptions, injustices, and judgements” that continue to follow both Hindu and Rasta cultures.
Dreadlocks Story took a year to complete. It was shot in France, India, Jamaica and the US, and Ainouche used local crews in each location. Assembling the pieces sounds like a Herculean task, but Ainouche’s response was surprisingly relaxed. “I’m used to improvising and being spontaneous,” she said, explaining that her years of field work fostered an ability to “adapt to what I find, who I meet, where I go.” “It isn’t so much about being easy going,” she clarifies, “but being willing to adjust to different realities on the ground.”
When on the ground, Ainouche wanted to keep the aesthetic as natural as possible. Part of this was to honour the documentary’s topic—“part of the Sadhu and Rasta life is ‘living with nature’, without judgement, letting things ‘go with the flow’, not consuming or creating anything fake and not interfering with the way nature goes”—but Ainouche was also mindful of letting her subjects be themselves. “My goal was always to let people talk about themselves and what they wanted in front of the camera, in a very natural way,” she explains. “There are no good or wrong answers, it was more important to capture how people expressed themselves—some were singing, some laughed, some didn’t even answer the question asked but started telling a story!” For Ainouche, these natural touches only add to the authenticity of the film. “That’s what combines improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth, or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. It’s ‘direct’ cinema, without a narrator’s voice over.” To ensure that they felt autonomous, she also let them choose where they wanted to be filmed. “I figured out how I could make people comfortable… it’s not by forcing them answer exactly, like on a test or exam. It takes skill to tell a story from a variety of unexpected answers.” Aside from small challenges—like suffering a mosquito attack in the Jamaican Blue Mountains—the filmmaking process has been extremely rewarding. The highlights have been meeting a range of incredible people and presenting a finished piece of work. “The most rewarding thing was to go from having an idea, to making it, to getting support and getting great feedback.”
I ask about the title of the film—Dreadlocks—and bring up its trending status in popular culture.
From Vogue’s “Black hair” controversy to the Kylie Jenner/Amandla Stenberg exchange, to the Rachel Dolezal situation, to Giuliana Rancic’s shade on Zendaya (and her thoughtful response) and finally, Miley Cyrus’ VMA blonde locs, dreadlocks have been a driving force behind discussions of cultural appropriation in the 2015 media landscape. Afrocentric hairstyles have a rich history, but their anti-racist origin are still relevant today in terms of discrimination against Afro hair and other types of hair that are deemed “ethnic”. I asked Ainouche what role “hair” played in the film. “Dreadlocks are often misunderstood,” she begins. “The ‘main character’ is ‘dreadlocks’, and over the course of the film we do learn something about its history in Jamaica.” She points out their multi-faceted history—“they represent the tenacity against the worst atrocious systems (slavery and colonialism) that human beings had to face. If it was not for British Colonial rule, Hindu culture, and a myriad of other global factors, dreadlocks might have never existed and been worn by Rastas”—but articulates their uplifting quality. “From the unique, and often terrible, circumstances in Rastafari culture, a beautiful form of self-expression evolved.” Ainouche also emphasises that Dreadlocks Story covers a lot of different ground. “The film is really about the history of Indian culture in Jamaican society, and the influence of the different practical aspects of Hinduism on the emerging Rastafari movement.” I wanted to know if Ainouche had a particular goal in mind for the project. “My hope is that it’ll be seen by as many people as possible, so there can be a better global understanding of this history.”
Although filmmaking and academia are different beasts, they have one thing in common—entrenched sexism. Things are improving, and Ainouche is making an impact on the forefront of both fields. “The world is sexist!” she exclaims, “that’s a naturally depressing fact.” Yet she’s optimistic about the future, arguing that “women have and always will be hard workers, no matter how sidelined we are by these various industries. We will continue to be great contributors to culture wherever we are in the world.”
I ask what’s next on her radar and she assures me that she’s never idle. “I’m always thinking of new and exciting projects to work on, but I’m a ‘live in the moment person’ so I am currently focused on getting Dreadlocks Story out in the world and making sure people have the chance to see it!”