Between valid and the invalid | Ethnographic film: I speak what I can speak



The worst we could do with someone who needs special care is to deny them their basic right to work. This became clear as I began to follow Kristina, a resident of Pahkla Camphill Village near Tallinn, Estonia. Pahkla offers the service of living in the community to adults with needs for special care through participation in the village activities.

All the villagers are busy rehearsing for the annual Christmas play which will be attended by their parents and friends of Pahkla. Kristina will not be performing in this years Christmas play.

About the film:

It was during the lectures by Susan Adahl, titled Anthropology of the Mind, that for the first time in my life I began to ponder deeply about what is normal and what is abnormal. Is there anything such as normal at all? I was brought up in a Hindu religious family where we are encouraged to listen to the voice within ourselves and follow it. During the lectures, I was surprised that a spiritual man could be a schizophrenic in a different culture. Some more research showed me that my favorite artists, philosophers and writers wrote explicitly about their accounts of listening to voices. Some of them are Mahatma Gandhi, Aristotle and Kahlil Gibran to name a few. The classes filled me with a lot of anxiety and I had to do something about it.

Some casual online research led me to Pahkla Camphill Village near Tallinn, Estonia. According to their website, Pahkla Camphill Village offers the service of living in the community to adults with needs for special care through participation in the village activities, giving them the opportunity to feel appreciated and valuable members of society. I found that Pahkla was part of a larger world movement of Camphill Villages around the world. Some of it’s founders were physicians and psychiatrists, including Dr. Karl König, who emphasised on providing holistic treatment to people with needs for special care.

I met Jaak Herodes, a retired Estonian psychiatrist, who helped in building up Pahkla. In his words,

“The mentally handicapped people were trying to find new ways of treatment and therefore we had to open up such a place. We visited the Norwegian Camphill Village and we were very impressed by it. We found that patients were not really improving with the medicines, they needed a life where they could be involved in activities such as gardening, animal farming and even painting. They needed a community to live in. It was important to allow such people to develop themselves.”

Today Pahkla Camphill Village is a home to 25 villagers which includes the Manager (Katarina) and 4 German volunteers who have taken an year off and have to come to contribute in this community. Out of the 20 villagers, some are suffering from down syndrome and some have had the history of other psychotic disorders.

Jack Herodes took me to Pahkla for the first time and introduced me to the village. We all sat down for lunch together, a tradition which is followed at Pahkla. The villagers couldn’t speak English but constantly kept asking Katarina about me. I became interested to know them as well but did not know where to start from. What kind of conversations can I take up with the villagers? As I ate, such were the thoughts. I stuck to answering questions than to put forth questions and hoped that with the flow answers will keep coming. What were these answers I was looking for anyway? I was not there to know what kind of experiences voice-hearers have had nor was I there to understand any other kind of mental illness. I was at Pahkla to remove my own fear of the abnormal. The anxiety that was produced in me during those lectures was a yearning of sorts, to expand my heart a little more by removing a few barriers.

The videos that I made illustrate primarily these encounters. Katarina, the manager, informed that all the villagers are busy in rehearsing for the Christmas play. Every year the villagers perform the event of the birth of baby Jesus. The environment at Pahkla then, as I understood, was in a mood of Christmas. We finished the lunch and the villagers returned back to their daily lives, which involved milking the cows, cleaning the shed, making cheese, baking and (these days) rehearsing for the play. Kristina, a villager, was very interested in communicating with me, it was probably because of her interest in Yoga. She was the only villager, other than the manager and the volunteers, who could speak in English. Kristina, as I was told, is the only villager who can decide things for herself. To follow any other villager in their daily lives at Pahkla, we need permission from their parents. While Katarina was telling me this, Kristina was also present and gave me a smile, which I returned back to her.

This ethnographic film is about Kristina. During the film she sings out loud in the kitchen “I am so interesting for you, I am so interesting for you”. She is so interesting for me. But why? The film is about finding an answer for this question. I had heard so much good about Pahkla that I wanted to know from Kristina how it was for her. I refer to the film as an ethnographic work because of it is a work of a short field trip, possibly the first of many future visits, where I develop relations with the villager. The relations that make each other feel comfortable when around. The relations that are not based on language but on feelings. As Jaak told me, “these villagers are very smart, they can see through you”. After spending a day, I was already sure that if I bring a friend to this village without informing about the nature of this village, it will be hard to figure out if there is anything abnormal. Their way of speaking can be gibberish to one’s ears, their actions can be thought of as uncivilised but they live in a community and work together to make each others lives comfortable. And there is a lot of work to do: making wax candles, cookies, rugs, milking cows, cheesemaking and daily cooking and cleaning.

During the lectures, we had read Tanya Luhrmann, who emphasised through her research that the worst we could do with someone who needs special care was to deny them their basic right to work. This became clear as I began to follow Kristina. Kristina loves her books and never gives them away. If you go to her room and touch her books, she will not spare you. While she is busy arranging her books in the shelves, she tells me that she will be going home after the play. She is happy to be visiting her parents but within a span of a few seconds of silence, she is reminded that she must return back. When I asked her the reason, she said, “When I am bored at home I will return back”. I wanted to know if she is ever bored here at Pahkla to which her only response was, “May be I should come back, Katarina needs me here. I must come back. I have to work. One has to work.”

Kristina loves her books and she represents the world, the same way I do. Each villager has a private room, which they decorate and arrange themselves. She told me thrice, when I was invited by her to be in her private room, that she cannot give her books away. “They are mine, I cannot give them away”. Kristina was communicating to me about her attachments. But what made her attach so much to her books, especially those ones which are old, have been read and are occupying spaces. It’s a problem because she cannot buy new books for the lack of space. The topic then jumped to her mother.

“My mother also collects books. She did it once. She gave all her books away, but I wont.”.

This ethnographic film is about such emotions which Kristina feels and conveys through such messages. She would like to return back home, but must also come back to Pahkla where she can work and be involved. She would like to buy new books but cannot give the old ones away. The film is about this middle space where she is currently. Finally, I wanted to know from her the reason she is not participating in the Christmas play this time. She has been participating for the last 10 years but this time she would like to watch rather. It made me feel that she would like to be an observer of the play this time and then think about it from the audience’s perspective. It made me feel that she would like to be a part of the audience this time. The audience, which mainly consists of parents and family members of the villagers, who are normal and leading normal lives working within the system that generates a collective gross domestic product.

This ethnographic film is also for Kristina. When she was alone in her room or baking a cake for everyone, the others were rehearsing in the hall upstairs. Kristina allowed me to film the final rehearsal. When I reached there, the villagers were in their angel, shepherds and kings costumes. There was a certain sense of performance going on, while they were still getting ready. They were already acting out their dialogues to each other and laughing about it. Katarina would remind them again, “Not like this!” and they would reply to her with a blank face. I imagined a speech balloon at that moment “Don’t you get it, we are just having fun”. I started to think if they were acting, even before the final rehearsal has started, because of me and my camera. The camera to them, was an instrument that would only film. What could happen with that film, how many people would watch this film, is something that doesn’t interest them. Marek, another villager, suffering from down sydrome, wanted to hold the camera. I told him to look in the view finder and watch. He kept doing it for about 20 minutes without coming out of the camera once. He was in a trance. The other villagers, meanwhile, were becoming more excited and asked each other if their parents are coming to watch the play. It made me feel that the parents were the real audience for them. The rest of the world doesn’t matter to them. It was the parents who brought them there. Nevertheless, the camera provoked (as I understood) certain actions in the villagers. Whenever I would face the camera towards Marek, he would do something mischievous. He would try desperately to kiss (trouble) a fellow women villager or sing like they sing in operas or even start to shoot with her wood stick. No one really minds anything. Such acts of randomly trying to kiss or do something very random, is also seen as an ordinary thing here at Pahkla. The angels had the star in their hands and the basket for the baby Jesus was ready. Marek was asked by Katarina to stop fooling around. And the play began.

The film, however, does not include the play. When the final day arrived, the parents and friends have started to arrive in the hall. Kristina has taken her seat and I must not film the audience, as I was told. At this time, I move into the dressing room. A very small room where all the villagers, dressed up, were cramped up together. They cannot speak loudly any more, which is what they keep reminding each other, while they wait for about 20 minutes. The excitement, anxiety and nervousness in that room is on the peak. One villager stands with her ear on the door trying to listen what is going on outside. She looks back excitedly and tells Marek that his parents have arrived, while Marek is planning on another kiss. The other villagers are standing quietly and sweating. Katarina comes in to tell everyone that all the seats have been occupied and the show will start in about 4 minutes. When the signal of music was received, the villager in the front, opens the door and everyone starts to sing, “Oh Lord, Bless our coming” and move out in a line.

This film is for Kristina because while I was filming in the dressing room, in her absence, I felt that I will show her the video I am making here, since she missed it this time. When I watched the video in the dressing room, I felt that the eye of the camera is Kristina’s eye. One that is observing, participating and self-reflecting. This film is primarily for her, for her parents, for her friends and for the world that she represents. Through the film, she makes us think about our own selves and about the society that we have designed for ourselves that excels in alienating people. Alienating the other. The other for us is abnormal. Through the film, my intention is to highlight the state in which Kristina finds herself, in the middle of two worlds. Home and Pahkla. Participating and Observing. In the middle of this, her private room at Pahkla, serves as that space where she finds her peace. The film is to thank her that she allowed me in that special space.


  1. haven’t even finished watching it yet, already so embarrassed. of myself. thanks for reminding me how lucky I am. big up!

    • we are very lucky.
      after my stay at pahkla, it was so strange to enter the tram, face the “citizens” and even talk about my experience at Pahkla. Thank you for your kindness, it took me a while to even decide whether to publish it or not.

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