Monday, November 10, 2008

Reconnecting With The Earth

In a famous scene from the 1983 movie WarGames, a computer learns that the only way to win a game entitled "global thermonuclear war" is not to play it.  That scene (featuring Matthew Broderick, Ally Sheedy, and John Wood) serves as an eerie precursor to the war we have been waging against the earth's environment:

As increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere have triggered polar ice melts, rising tides, and increasingly furious hurricanes and tropical storms, environmentalists around the world have struggled to frame an "Ecology First" message which can be embraced by people of all cultures.  In an age of increasing globalization, they have run into stiff resistance from the military-industrial complex and its greedy co-conspirators in the corporate world.

If one person can bang a drum in order to get the attention of others, then cinema and the arts are providing the educational tools with which to inspire millions to take a more ecologically sound approach to preserving the earth's atmosphere.  From Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai to Al Gore's award-winning An Inconvenient Truth, documentaries are becoming the dominant form of media that illustrate the environmental crisis we face and educate millions about what they can do to help.

Although there are plenty of real-life villains to blame for the damage done to the environment, in an age of "corporate personhood" it is often difficult to put a face on the greed which lusts after money and power in such a way that it can effectively be translated into theatrical terms.  That challenge was recently addressed by playwright Gary Graves, who adapted much of the information contained in Paul Hawken's Blessed Unrest for an intense, two-character drama for Berkeley's Central Works Theatre Ensemble. Here's Hawken speaking about his vision of what is happening in the world today:

In trying to find a framework for Blessed Unrest: We Interrupt This Empire, Graves chose to use a natural/spiritual hostage situation as an excuse to lecture a corporate bureaucrat about the evil he was perpetrating on the environment and the one simple step he could take to change the course of history.  With Catherine Castellanos as the mysterious Maria de Arroyo (who claims to be from Mexico but may actually be a spiritual archetype known as "the skeleton woman") and Marvin Greene as Simon Primo (an international trade negotiator working out of his home office in the countryside around Geneva, Switzerland), CWTE staged a maddeningly intimate, fiercely relevant, and surprisingly theatrical dance of death.  

This is the first time I've seen this innovative East Bay company (which performs in a tiny theater with arena seating) use multimedia as part of their staging.  The film work, however, was most effective in adding a mystical element to the proceedings as the ghostly Maria guided Simon on a  time traveling expedition to Tierra del Fuego at the time of its discovery by Spanish explorers as well as to the violent protests against the World Trade Organization during its Ministerial Conference in Seattle in November 1999.

Structured as a series of blackout scenes taking place during a fierce storm which has cut off electricity to Primo's home and phones, the ongoing confrontation with Maria educates Simon, forces him to see the emptiness of his life, and converts him to an activist who is willing to take responsible action by ditching the treaty he has worked on for the past seven years of his life. Part angry lecture, part surreal theatre, Blessed Unrest: We Interrupt This Empire is an effective piece of environmental agitprop theater, deftly staged by the playwright.  The show runs through November 23rd at the Berkeley City Club and you can order tickets here.

Part of the conflict in Blessed Unrest: We Interrupt This Empire rests in the way industry, having upset nature's equilibrium, has enraged the spirit worlds that look over the indigenous peoples who are scattered around the globe.  Thus, Sunday's performance in Berkeley offered the perfect setup to my experience the following two days as I sat through a series of documentaries at the 33rd Annual American Indian Film Festival.

Among the many reasons I enjoy this festival are the wealth of documentaries about Native American Indian culture: its art, music and history, as well as its concern about the earth, tribal ancestors, the spirits of nature, and man's role as a caretaker or guardian of the land.  In Mato Paha: Rally To Protect Bear Butte, the 30 Indian tribes near Sturgiss, South Dakota have been locked in legal battles to prevent inappropriate use of land which is sacred to their people. 

"What part of the word sacred don't they understand?" asks one Indian, whose community has been fighting the presence of a notorious biker bar (and its yearly rally) on land bordering the sacred grounds of the Kiowa, Lakota and Cheyenne around Bear Butte.  The film documents various community meetings as well as tribal concerns about their ancestors and the religious significance of the land for an indigenous people.  

The ultimate irony?  After managing to have the liquor license for the biker bar revoked, the land is acquired by a private company which plans to use it as a military training ground for mercenaries hired by the Blackwater Corporation to fight in Iraq. 

A more generous spirit of cooperation from the military can be seen in Gathering Devah: An Ancient Pine Nut Harvest Tradition.  This poignant documentary shows how the management of Nellis Air Force base in southwestern Nevada has been working with local tribes so that they can make limited site-specific harvests of pine nuts for the first time in 65 years on what has become the Nevada Test and Training Range.  

A restricted area since 1941, the land surrounding the Kawich Mountain was originally acquired by the government for test pilot training and has been strictly off-limits ever since.  With the help of 99th Civil Engineer Squadron Environmental Management Flight Cultural Resources Program senior archaeologist Keith Myhrer, the Air Force has managed to partner with local Indian families to show them that their sacred grounds have not been bombed during training tests. The Air Force has simultaneously helped to gain archaeological insight into the traditional use of the land and its resources by indigenous tribes of the American Southwest.

Magic On The Water offered a series of vignettes about the Okanagan first peoples of the Okanagan valley.  As they revive ancient traditions of carving "low rider" canoes and learning to use and respect the waters surrounding them, the Okanagans pass on traditional wisdom to a new generation of Native American children

Finally, Native Wind offers a preview of how Native American tribes in the Plains States can lead the green revolution by taking advantage of the high winds which cross the plains in order to generate clean energy.  Using techniques which respect the land and the spirits (as opposed to mining coal and other carbon-based fuels which rape the land and pollute the atmosphere), this public service message shows how Indians can use green technology to become more self sufficient as they lead the fight against global warming.

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