January 31, 2007

Festival Focus: National Geographic All Roads Film Festival

Melitta Tchaicovsky and Pepe Ozan's <em>Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway </em>of the Gypsies. Courtesy of National Geographic All Roads Festival

A short strand of wooden camel carts moseys through a panorama of cracked, empty desert. The carts bear surprisingly light loads considering that they carry all the worldly possessions of their passengers, some of the last remaining gypsies of India's Thar Desert. As modernization finally proliferates into the outer reaches of the Thar, the gypsies find themselves searching farther and wider for a customer who hasn't already found a cheaper substitute for what they have to offer. These vibrant nomads remain faithful to their caste-based culture, living for the moment in the face of the increasing threat of cultural extinction.

Wandering much like these gypsies, whose way of life it beautifully introduces, the documentary Jaisalmer Ayo! Gateway to the Gypsies by filmmaking couple Melitta Tchaicovsky and Pepe Ozan expresses the definitive theme of National Geographic's third annual All Roads Film Festival: indigenous cultures in conflict with modernity.

For three days (September 28-October 1) at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, All Roads presented an enlightening array of primarily documentary films focusing on under-represented cultures. From the Thar to the Outback to Vietnam to South Africa to the Middle East to the Amazon to Oaxaca to the Kumeyaay Nation, all the way up into the Arctic and over to Rapanui, the festival's admirable program gathered a global constellation of cultures vying for survival in an increasingly globalized world.

Initiated by National Geographic's Mark Bauman, the All Roads Film Project (www.nationalgeographic.com/allroads), directed by Francene Blythe, is comprised of the All Roads Film Festival; the Seed Grant Project, which provides funding for narratives, documentaries, shorts and music videos representing the filmmaker's own culture; the Photography Program, from which winning photographs are chosen for exhibition as part of the festival; International Film Nights held in Washington, DC in conjunction with various embassies, and the traveling version of the festival, All Roads on the Road. There is also now All Roads Ohana, an online network described as a "collaborative 'community of practice' tool" for indigenous and under-represented filmmakers, artists and photographers.

The Project has grown beyond expectations and remains true to its original mission, which Blythe describes as getting "the works of indigenous and under-represented minority culture storytellers in film and photography presented to mass audiences."

Indeed, All Roads seems to be joining the forefront of an emerging indigenous filmmaking movement that includes the Sundance Institute's Native Initiative and the Smithsonian Institute's Native Networks. The movement aims to utilize modern tools to proliferate awareness about some of our planet's most enduring ways of living--as expression, as document, as celebration, but also, in some cases, as last-second flare.

The origins of the movement could be traced back perhaps to the practice known as "salvage ethnography" that began around the turn of the 20th century in the United States. The primary objective of salvage ethnography was to record as much as possible of a culture before its eminent extinction. While it became a widespread trend throughout anthropology over the course of the first half of the last century, it also became increasingly controversial. The heart of that controversy remains a valid one: Ethnographers were typically born of the same dominant, colonialist societies that were driving the indigenous cultures being documented toward extinction.

The indigenous filmmakers movement aims to turn the tides by eliminating the ethnographic middleman and placing the power of filmmaking in the hands of the indigenous filmmaker. While not all of the All Roads films were by indigenous filmmakers, they all shared a deep respect for their subjects that overshadowed any concerns about ethnographic techniques. The filmmakers of All Roads seemed to be denouncing ethnography once and for all in favor of deeper respect and appreciation for their subject.

Taking the movement a step further, a few of the non-indigenous filmmakers in the festival have begun workshops that seek to provide indigenous communities with the resources to tell their stories their way. These workshops encourage filmmakers to find their own narrative techniques without relying on conventional methods established by more dominant mainstream cultures.

The most powerful film in the festival, Dulce Convivencia (Sweet Gatherings), by Filoteo Gomez Martinez, was produced through Mirada Bionica, a Oaxacan workshop run by Bruno Varela. This 18-minute short film demonstrates how a straightforward subject (making panela, or unrefined sugar) can be treated with such understated reverence as to become a visionary experience. Martinez seems to be discovering his own style as we discover his Oaxacan culture. He guides us confidently, at his own pace, and the rewards abound.

Before we know it, we find ourselves viscerally immersed in a poetic social testament. A recurring tune whistled by Martinez's father becomes the film's dreamlike theme, eventually overcome by the awesome creaking sound of sugar cane being crushed between the wheels of a massive wooden press turned by burros. This sound too is recurring and the cumulative effect is transcendental. Every element of the film is essential and a reflection of the community, making Dulce Convivencia a minor masterpiece.

The films of All Roads almost unanimously exhibited a kind of calm defiance, and in many cases a casual indifference to the ways of the modern world (aside from the rubber tires on the camel carts). The Lore of Love by Beck Cole and 5 Seasons by Steve McGregor, are both concerned with the perseverance of aboriginal Australian culture. The Lore f Love presents a poignant look at its subject as a teenage girl travels to the desert with her two grandmothers who were married to the same man. Visually rapturous 5 Seasons tours us through the five seasons of a year in the aboriginal life. Our guide Moses hunts in much the same way as his people always have, but updated with running shoes, rifles, Toyotas and motorboats.

Sa-ah (Over There), by promising young filmmaker Sarah Del Seronde, turns a trip to the medicine man into a compelling meditation on how the Dine Native Americans "walk in beauty," a philosophy that is central to their way of life.

My First Contact, by Mari Correa and Kumare Txicao, provides an intimate view of community memory, and the indigenous history of the Ikpeng people. Ikpeng elders recount their first encounters with white men in 1965 and the undying resonance of the unavoidable, and largely problematic, fallout from this contact.

The Journey of Vaan Nguyen, by Duki Dror, follows the teenage Vietnamese girl of its title as she journeys back to Vietnam after being born and raised in Israel. Her parents were among a stranded boatload of political refugees welcomed by Israel in a much publicized gesture of assimilation. Decades later, her parents still long for home and Vaan remains an outcast. This elegantly constructed emotional journey from Israel to Vietnam captures subtleties of interaction and solitude so astutely as to make the viewer wonder if the film is in fact a documentary.

From Duki Dror's <em>The Journey of Vaan Nguyen</em>. Courtesy of National Geographic All Roads Festival

In all of these documentaries, dulce convivencia can be tasted in one form or anothersometimes as a yearning, sometimes as a memory, but always there, even in the Thar, where the Bhopa storytellers mosey along in their camel carts, scouring the desert for their next appreciative audience.

 

Taylor Segrest is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.

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