By David Cox,
The Guardian, 8 November 2009
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
Cinema's relationship with Indigenous 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-Kaiowá 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.
Three years ago, Freddy Treuquil, a videographer from Chile's Mapuche people, decided this phenomenon deserved its own annual showcase. He founded the Native Spirit film festival, which ran in London recently. The objective, Treuquil says, is to rescue the forgotten memory of respect for Mother Earth. This year's programme included The Tunguska Project, about Siberias Evenks; Tainá-Kan, which told how Brazils Karajá link the birth of agriculture to events in the cosmos; and President Evo, which showed what the Aymara make of the land redistribution programme unleashed by Bolivias first Indigenous leader.
I know what youre thinking. Stand by for some of the most balls-achingly boring experiences a cinema could host. That was certainly how I felt then I went along and saw the movies. Certainly, if you go looking for a racy tale with a twist at the end, youll be bored. The film-making approach is as far from Hollywood as it is from the avant garde. Explosions and CGI are absent, as are the drama and momentum that western audiences expect. Here, time tends to be circular rather than linear: an event from the past will be re-envisaged rather than dramatised, the idea being to keep the memory alive, rather than turn it into entertainment.
Films called Herdswoman, This Is Me, Canoe Pulling and The Whispering of the Trees pretty much do what they say on the tin, but they are generally the result of a collaboration, rather than one auteurs vision. And, instead of the escapism that has become the primary purpose of mainstream cinema, they express deeply felt attitudes and ideas. These films are looking for balance and harmony, says Agustin Bazzini, the festival co-ordinator. Thats something we dont have here. Weve lost our centre.
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. Theres 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.
Yet, for cinema-goers more used to multiplexes, the most engaging feature of these films may be their authenticity. We are used to searching for some sliver of originality in formulaic, derivative material; the Native Spirit festival simply offers the testimony of the unrobed human soul.
The message isn't just honest, it's also pertinent. Indigenous peoples are as aware as the rest of us about the prospect of environmental catastrophe. They know that the excesses of the developed world endanger them, too, yet they are not as resentful as you might expect. Human greed comes as no surprise to them, but rather than blaming us, they pity us; we're little brothers who lost our way when we stopped understanding the Earth.
All the same, there is no escaping the tidings: to survive, we are going to have to come together and find a life beyond consumerism. Spirits for Sale shows how such a life can be not just livable but rewarding. Annika Banfield, a Swedish business consultant, records a journey she took through North America in an effort to understand the wishes and feelings of its native peoples. "What I have learned," she told me, "is to be proud of who I am, where I come from, my land and my own traditions. It is a connection with everything living the contract to take care of the machinery called life."