“Negus” is a conceptual feature length documentary directed by the Italian art duo Invernomuto staring Lee “Scratch” Perry . The film explores the convergence of history, myth and magic through the complex and competing legacies of Ethiopia’s last emperor Haile Selassie I.
In Italy during the fascist rule of Mussolini, Selassie was portrayed as a black devil, justifying Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia. During the same period the religion of Rastafarianism was emerging in Jamaica and claiming Selassie as their living God and the black Christ resurrected. “Negus” is powered from the void between these two irreconcilable realities.
The directors first came to the subject of Selassie through a nearly forgotten story told to them by a relative in their hometown of Vernasca, Italy. In 1936, while Italy led a gruesome occupation of Ethiopia, a wounded soldier returned from service to Vernasca. On the occasion of his return, the community organized a joyful and obscure ritual in the main square.
During the climax of the ritual the townspeople paraded and burned an effigy of Haile Selassie I. Knowing that many Rastafarians take Selassie to be a reincarnation of Christ on earth, Invernomuto realized that the Vernascan ritual could be read through Rasta ideology as a Satanic mass. Seeing an opportunity for intervention, Invernomuto brought Lee “Scratch” Perry to perform a ritual cleansing and resurrection of Haile Selassie I in the town square.
Lee “Scratch” Perry was born in Jamaica eighty years ago. He is a key figure in the history of contemporary music, he is the godfather of dub music and an architect of the foundational sounds of reggae. In the film his presence is double: as a spiritual ghost in the Black Ark, his recording studio in Kingston, Jamaica, which he burned to the ground in the 80’s – and, as a master of ceremony, in Vernasca, where he was invited by Invernomuto to re-invoke the spirit of the last Emperor of Ethiopia.
The colonial blaze in Vernasca and Perry’s performance and ritual response (initially shot by Invernomuto as a stand alone video piece) opened a portal to a new conceptual apparatus for the directors. Before they conceived of a feature length documentary, the “Negus” cosmology demanded from the artists a number of installations, individual art objects, performances and short film pieces. The film includes pieces of each of the previous works while simultaneously allowing for more complexity to emerge for the viewer.
At each opportunity to further explore the legacy of Selassie, the directors eschewed dominant existing narratives, instead choosing to let their lived experience of film making draw them to a mostly unheralded cast of characters and locations that highlighted unexpected subtexts and allowed for increasingly in-depth analysis.
“Negus” follows a circular structure and its locations (the vertexes of the triangle: Vernasca, Ethiopia and Jamaica) are mixed constantly, almost superimposed, demanding that the viewer loose the limitations of geographical orientation. The film lingers on the in-between spaces uniting the narrative in a sensual contemplative mood. The film proposes that the trajectories of peoples, ideologies and mythologies are never one way vectors, but always exist in the complexity of infinite feedback and recourse.
The overture of the film is focused on Italy. Vernasca, where a relative of one of the directors recalls their distant memory of the night Selassie’s effigy was burned. Rome, where Carmelo Crescenti (president of the Italian Rastafari Federation) recounts the history of the Dogali monument in Rome and some specific chilling moments of Italian colonial conquest in Ethiopia.
From here the film goes to Ethiopia, to a town called Shashamane, one the most ancient Rasta communities outside of Jamaica. Shashamane was founded on land granted by Selassie himself to diasporic Africans to return to the promised land (in support of the ‘back to Africa movement’).
The move to Jamaica is spontaneous and natural. Rastafarianism’s initial and continued repression in Jamaican society, and later, its global impact through reggae music and sound system culture. Bob Marley’s sound engineer explains the scientific and religious importance of bass frequencies for Jamaican music, and how they serve as a vehicle to reach a meditative and revolutionary state of consciousness.
Lee Perry’s spiritual practice is a Gnostic Rastafarianism that treats fire as a powerful meditative and magical force. His performance in Vernasca closes the film, an epiphany that combines the multiple routes of the project in one singular ritual of purification and resurrection.
— Taliesin Gilkes-Bower