Thoth is a forty-minute documentary directed by Sarah Kernochan that portrays the life of a bizarre street performer, S. K. Thoth. The film won the 2002 Oscar for Best Short Documentary, some thirty years after Kernochan’s acclaimed documentary, Marjoe, which also depicted an extravagantly extroverted character, child evangelist Marjoe Gortner. The main difference between the two films is that while Marjoe was essentially an expose of phony evangelical showmanship, Thoth presents the profile of a genuinely eccentric personality.
The narrative style of this film is in the US documentary tradition of “direct cinema”. There is an intention of showing “reality”, with the filmmaker’s voice and perspective hidden from the viewer. The voice-over we hear in the film is that of the film’s subject as he gives an account of his past and his present lifestyle. I personally prefer the European tradition, where the filmmaker’s own personal perspective is overtly identified, with its contextual background and prejudices acknowledged. The European approach gives proper recognition to the idea that “reality” is always contextual and offers more scope for presenting a specifically acknowledged philosophical slant on the subject. Nevertheless, Thoth portrays a fascinating subject that opens questions on several general topics.
S. K. Thoth was born Stephen Kaufman in New York in the late 1950s. His father was a Jewish intellectual and political activist, and his mother was an educated and musically talented black woman. This mixed-race family was frequently subjected to thuggish racial taunts and hostility that left marks on the sensitive boy as he grew up. The later breakup of his parents’ marriage when he was about 10 had a further daunting impact on the boy that apparently led to an intense crisis of self-identity and ultimately the strange journey to where he is today. What was once a sensitive teenage introvert became a wildly extravagant extrovert who separates himself from all social conventions. It led him on a strange journey to where he is today, a street musician in dreadlocks energetically dancing around, playing the violin, and singing strange hymns in an unknown language. The image he presents, indeed his own formulation of his identity, is that of a mysterious mixture of all cultures and races. He has invented a fantasy ethnic culture, "Festad", including legends, creatures, and its incomprehensible language. His appearance when he performs his “prayformances” is equally stunning: in heavy makeup and nearly naked in a gold lame loincloth studded with bells and chimes. The prayformances are wildly energetic and over the top, and he sings linguistically mystifying songs in multiple falsetto voices. He confesses to bisexuality, but he thinks of himself as hermaphroditic. He is unlike anyone you have seen before.
It’s pretty evident that this man is weird, but what makes the film interesting is not just the catalogue of his oddball characteristics and talents. It’s more a question of what made him what he is: what made his life's story follow this strange path? There are a couple of further questions that pique our curiosity but are left unanswered:
- Thoth is clearly articulate and well-educated. He is intelligently reflective about the strangeness of his own lifestyle. What made this shy introvert become his exact opposite? He doesn’t appear to be hiding behind a mask of outrageousness, but is instead openly unguarded. “Take me for what I am”, he seems to be saying. From one point of view, he is rejecting all cultural conventions, but he, in contrast, claims that he represents a unification of all cultures. From his own personal “New Age” perspective, he, alone, is the unguarded one, and everyone else is wearing a mask. But the events in his youth that are said to have marked him so deeply don’t seem to have been any more difficult or unusual than those of Barack Obama, one of the most normal people in public life. Is this all, then, a pose? Is S. K. Thoth authentic or fundamentally inauthentic?
- S. K.’s mother, who raised him in the latter stages of his youth as a single parent, is interviewed in the film, and her story is also fascinating, perhaps even more intriguing than that of her son. Coming from a a poor black family, she studied at New York’s special High School of Music & Art and became a gifted timpanist and the first black person to play for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In the film she is articulate, reasonable, and down-to-earth. Even in what must be her late sixties, she is still beautiful. We want to know more about her own path and her own views on what must have been a very interesting life. But we are given only a few minutes.