November 07, 2009

Indigenous filmmakers fight back

The tribes fight back with Native Spirit

Sick of being portrayed as helpless victims, indigenous peoples are now picking up the camera themselves. And the results, as seen in the Native Spirit film festival, are remarkable

By David Cox
Cinema's relationship with indigenous tribal peoples has not been a happy one. Native Americans helped get the movies up and running by providing handy resistance to the winning of the west--which proved dramatically invaluable in cowboy movies. In return, they were portrayed as feathered and painted savages, hungry for scalps and blind to the essential decency of the men who were stealing their land.

In these more enlightened times, things are different, but not much better. When indigenous people appear at all, it is usually as helpless victims of oppression, in thrall to quaint but silly customs. The recent La Terra degli Uomini Rossi, released here as Birdwatchers, painted the Guarani-Kaiow√° tribe of Brazil as hapless remnants of a lost people, making a futile stand against encroaching agribusinessmen. It ended with an appeal for support.

But many of the indigenous people of the Americas, and beyond, believe the white man's lens misrepresents them. They do not see themselves merely as supplicants for benefits or as combatants in an endless war for territory. Above all, they do not see their beliefs and way of life as fodder for anthropologists and tourists. Instead, they believe they have something important to say--not just to each other but to all their fellow human beings.

So they are seizing the cameras themselves. From Inuit fishermen in Canada to Endorois refugees in Kenya, from reindeer-herders in Lapland to Quechua salt-harvesters in Bolivia, they are grabbing whatever equipment they can find to make films of their own, devising lasting messages that can travel far and wide.
Common themes in these films:Watch enough of these films and you will come to appreciate that, on whatever continent indigenous people find themselves, they share a curiously similar outlook--not just core values, but recurring symbols and prophecies. There's an assumption that knowledge and wisdom must coexist, the first being useless without the second; that the point of life is not to acquire wealth, but simply to live; that the universe is a sacred, living system; that human beings are one element in a grand symbiosis they must not disrupt; that the past must be remembered, and the future respected.

Of course, we have heard such notions in this connection before, and perhaps dismissed them as facile or even irrelevant. But in these movies they inform behaviour in a way that is highly persuasive. The Gift of Pachamama shows how a 13-year-old boy comes of age by joining a llama caravan wending its chilly way through the Andes. He learns how to bear loss and find love, but also how Pachamama, the Earth Mother, can give his life meaning. In the Footsteps of Yellow Woman shows the enduring power of female wisdom through a dialogue between a Navajo girl and her gran, while The Voice of the Mapuche explains how identity and kinship with the environment can be strengthened by persecution.
Comment:  For more on indigenous film festivals, see 5th Indian Video Festival of Michoacan, Montreal's First Peoples' Festival, and Indigenous Arts in Origins Festival. For more on the subject in general, see Native Documentaries and News.

Below:  Q'ero--in Search of the Last Incas.

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