I recently saw Fabienne Kanor’s beautiful and unsettling film ‘Maris de nuit’ at the Atrium in Martinique. The film begins by looking at the culture of Dorlis in Martinique and in a turn which I was not expecting, travels to West Africa, to Burkina Faso, to record the experience of women there who are visited by spirits, or their ‘maris de nuit’ (‘night husbands’) as they refer to them, while they sleep.
The phenomenon of the dorlis is specific to Martinique. A spirit who visits women in the night, Glissant explains:
Il satisfait les désirs des femmes sans leur en laisser le souvenir (sinon la fatigue du corps), il peut se faufiler dans les trous de serrures ou sous les portes. Il est invisible pour les maris, il est stérile. Les femmes s’en protègent en portant des slips noirs pour dormir et en disposant des ciseaux ouverts sous leur lit. La croyance au dorlis est généralisée. Fantasme d’impunité de castration. On ne connait pas de dorlis homosexual (1981:300)
He satisfies women’s desires without leaving them with any recollection (apart from a tired body), he can squeeze through keyholes or under the door. He is invisible to husbands, he is sterile. Women protect against him by wearing black knickers to sleep in and by putting a pair of opened scissors under their bed. Belief in dorlis is wide-spread. A fantasy of impunity from castration. Homosexual dorlis are unheard of.
The work of this nocturnal creature as a ‘mari imaginaire’, with the capacity to satisfy certain desires and fantasies in areas where the parallel figure of the ‘mari-homme’ or ‘mari de jour’ fails is one reading of this phenomenon. What is striking in the film is how the character is also used to account for cases of sterility, rape and solitude in the daily life of the women who offer their stories. The women do not choose to have a ‘maris de nuit’ and many of those in the film consider it more of a hindrance than something gained.
Fabienne Kanor was present at the screening and it was great to have some context and framing to the film. She explained the difficulties of filming in Martinique, evident in the darkened lighting to mask the women’s identities in these scenes compared to the openness and willing shown by the Burkinabé women, who talk much more pragmatically about their experiences on camera. The author also spoke of the problems involved in filming in certain spaces, such as the intimacy of the women’s bedrooms from which the film crew could be hastily ejected at any moment, once the subjects had had enough. Or the insistence of those in front of the camera to be represented as ‘toujours belle’ in the film. As I was in the middle of writing about filming the Vodou lwa (spirits) in Haiti at the time, the myriad problems involved in attempting to capture the spirits on camera pricked my interest within the conversation. I particularly liked the idea that the film crew became a film in themselves, sleeping under the stars in a small African village to awake to the faces of the local children peering over them, awaiting their next move.
By the end of the screening and audience discussion I was left wondering about the possibility of the existence of men who are visited by dorlis and whether such a spirit is always necessarily male. After all, according to Martinican tradition, the dorlis has the capacity to transform and change appearance. Yet as Fabienne pointed out to me, in response to such questions, while such cases indeniably exist, persuading men to admit to having been controled or abused in their sleep, without their knowledge, is no easy task.