Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Nature Calls

The news that Google StreetView recently started to film a 30-mile segment of the Rio Negro's tributary is a mixed blessing.  On one hand, Google's popular new technology will allow millions of armchair travelers to witness the natural beauty and native culture of the Amazon basin -- from Manaus to Terra Preta -- without ruining it with excessive tourism. On the other hand, one more area of unspoiled land comes into closer contact with the creeping force of civilization.

Think about how the following impact local environments:

With our planet's surface being ravaged for profit, three new films examine the toll civilization has taken on topography. Whether in documentary format or as a narrative based on a true story, each has its special appeal.

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General Orders No. 9 is one of those films which defies categorization. Recently screened at the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival, it is a documentary that often seems to be posing as a nostalgic meditation. Written, directed, and produced by Robert Persons, it has been described by the filmmaker as "one last trip down the rabbit hole before it’s paved over."

Poster art for General Orders No. 9

Persons grew up in the American South when much of it was still rural (people still refer to Atlanta and "the rest of Georgia"). Using a combination of historical maps and poetry, he shows how what was once a deer trail became an Indian trail and eventually evolved into a county road that invited further civilization. As he explores the historical transformation of Georgia with computer generated graphics, he notes the symmetry of land development, stating that:
"The county's at the center of the state. The town's at the center of the county. The courthouse is at the center of the town. The weather vane is the center of it all."

Filmed throughout Georgia with a beautiful original musical score by Chris Hoke, many moments in General Orders No. 9 evoke memories of Godfrey Reggio's 1982 documentary/tone poem entitled Koyaanisqatsi. As one revels in the film's stunning shots of antiques, landscapes, highways, and architecture, one understands the filmmaker's genuine sense of grieving for the way progress has taken over and transformed the area's natural landscape with congested cities and urban blight ("The Interstate does not serve. It possesses").


Having never gone to film school, Persons took a very different approach to creating General Orders No. 9.  As he explains:
"Cosmology is an image of the world that exhibits a pattern of meaning, and has a center. It’s a primitive, Old World way of looking at things. Now we know there is no center. We don’t even know where the center of the universe is. So I started studying this kind of map called a Mappa mundi, which is a very old style of map that had all the topographic features of a map but also included the elements of the cosmology. These mapmakers were trying to create an accurate map on geographical terms, but they also imposed their metaphysical or spiritual beliefs on it too. These people were unclear about where was heaven, where was hell, where was the Holy Land? They would also include what the mapmaker himself was preoccupied by.
Sometimes when you’re excited about something you can exude a degree of charisma. I was trying to present a cosmology. I wrote this essay that pitched the vision of what I wanted and talked about the various influences that inspired it. I just stood there and talked off the top of my head.  I was mostly working with people who did a lot of commercial work, both in video and motion graphics. They were excited to work on something that was purely creative. They were excited to work on an art project."

Persons spent more than 11 years collecting and editing images for General Orders No. 9.  Bittersweet images of  lost chapters in American history fill the screen as the film's narrator intones "You are not a witness to the ruin, you are the ruin to be witnessed."  At 72 minutes in length, General Orders No. 9 is such a visually rich and spiritually fulfilling documentary that viewers may find themselves wishing for more. Here's the trailer:


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In 2003, a superb Canadian documentary named The Corporation was based on a simple finding: the behavior of many corporations matches the character traits attributed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to a psychopath. In fact, during its filming the documentary's screenwriter, attorney Joel Bakan, wrote a book entitled The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.

Participants in Occupy Wall Street protests would be well advised to revisit The Corporation. Why? Since the United States Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, environmentalists and conservationists have a new perspective with which to examine corporate behavior by oil companies such as:
Unfortunately, oil companies are not the only culprits in environmental disasters. Following 2010's Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, the negligence of Massey Energy was identified as a major contributing cause.

In 2010, the San Francisco Documentary Festival screened Dreamland, a horrifying film about how Iceland's population got sold down the river when Alcoa's success at corrupting Icelandic officials led to the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant and the destruction of Iceland's formerly healthy economy. This year, the 10th San Francisco Documentary Festival screened another documentary about a multinational corporation intent on building five huge dams in Chile that will have a huge (and potentially disastrous) impact on that nation's environment.

The yearly runoff from the northern Patagonian ice sheet makes its way to the Pacific Ocean via the Baker and Pascua rivers. Not only would the proposed dams across these rivers have a critical impact on the land and the people who live in Patagonia, the reasoning for the dams is a bit lopsided.

Lake Colonia lies at the foot of the Colonia Glacier in Patagonia

Endesa, a Spanish corporation, wants to generate hydroelectric power from these dams which can be used to supply the demands of Santiago, the nation's capital 1,200 miles to the north. This electricity would be transmitted over high-tension lines built by a Canadian company.

One of the Chileans who is interviewed in Patagonia Rising stresses that there is a much simpler alternative which will not ruin the land: use solar panels to capture the sun's rays as they reach Santiago. Between the smart use of wind turbines and solar energy, there should be sufficient power generated to service the region's energy needs. As filmmaker Brian Lilla explains:
"Fifteen years ago, I was in Patagonia and the place blew my mind. When I was approached to direct a documentary that could potentially impact the decision to not build the dams, I
immediately jumped on board. If we were living in prehistoric times, I would be the caveman who would volunteer to carve on walls after a hunt rather than skinning the beast. How I went from making Super-8 skate films to getting caught up in an international controversy over water and power still has me baffled. Before filmmaking much of my life was focused on having a good adventure. Directing Patagonia Rising allowed me to keep that adventure alive. Through the process of making the documentary, I learned so much in regard to the human relationship to rivers. My greatest hope is that this experience transcends to audiences and makes a positive impact on the choices we make regarding water and power."
Llamas grazing in Patagonia

Patagonia Rising is filled with beautiful footage of the Patagonian alps as well as bucolic scenes of Chile's gauchos, farmers, and ranchers who would become the victims of Endesa's huge power grab. Needless to say, Lilla's provocative film also has plenty of talking heads. Here's the trailer:


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Think, for a moment, of some classic lines from movies that have become a common part of our culture:
Now, clap your hands and stamp your feet -- there's a new entry: "We're systematizing our pygmies." Granted, it doesn't have quite the same lilt as Butterfly McQueen's hysterical "I don't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies," but I like it. I like it a lot.

Poster art for Oka!

I also like the movie it comes from: Lavinia Currier's African adventure entitled Oka!  Based on the real-life experiences of Louis Sarno (who recorded the native music of the Bayaka Pygmy clan in the Central African Republic (CAR) while living there during the 1980s and published a book with accompanying CDs entitled Bayaka: The Extraordinary Music of the BaBenzi Pygmies), Oka! is a visual treat. It also captures on film a style of music that Sarno believes is older than the pyramids and “one of the hidden glories of humanity.”

Sarno, whose first memoir was entitled Song From the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies (and whose second memoir is entitled Last Thoughts Before Vanishing From The Face of the Earth) is convinced that the intricacy of the music of the Bayaka Pygmies -- and its emotional content -- represents one of the world’s most significant cultural traditions. In the film, Kris Marshall portrays Larry, a tall redheaded ethnomusicologist from New Jersey whose liver is in failing health. Nevertheless, Larry defies his American physician by returning to Africa to live with his friends, the Bayaka Pygmies of Yamdombe.

Kris Marshall as Larry in Oka!

When it becomes obvious that a lumber operation is bringing jobs to the village (while decimating the nearby forest), the tribal shaman Sataka (Mapumba) comes to Larry in a nighttime vision to lure the American into the forest.

Knowing that a white man can't take care of himself, the villagers follow their redheaded friend  away from the corrupt local Bantu mayor (Isaach de Bankolé) and Mr. Yi (Will Yun Lee), the Chinese businessman who hopes to kill an elephant for sport. In the ensuing confusion, Larry finally learns the secret of the molimo (a mysterious instrument that duplicates the mating call of an elephant).

Bayaka Pygmies crossing a river in Oka!

Currier was initially researching a film about Ota Benga, a Congolese Mbuti pygmy who was captured and displayed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri (he was subsequently displayed in the Bronx Zoo's "human zoo" exhibit).  However, she was persuaded by Sarno and his friends to abandon that project. As the filmmaker recalls:
"I first met Louis Sarno 12 years ago. His self-effacing humor and his experience with the Bayaka for 27 years made him the perfect antihero to take an audience into the forest and experience the magic world of the Bayaka. While I was in Yandombe (the Pygmy village) with Louis as my translator, a Bayaka asked why I was doing that story. I explained that it was instructive for us to learn from our mistake, so that kind of racism doesn’t happen again. But he told me that in Pygmy culture, they like to forget sad things and remember happy things, so I started to rethink that story from another perspective. Louis shared real stories about the life of the Bayaka, like the couple who lived deep in the forest, who were almost feral, sleeping in trees. People would bring them supplies and the couple would come out and greet them, but then vanish (they didn’t want to be involved in any of the village’s activities). This became the character of Sataka, who is not quite of the village. 
I wanted to make a film which celebrated a people who are perfectly adapted to their natural environment, and who, despite the extreme remoteness and dangers of their forest home in Central Africa, always find opportunities to express their humor, joyfulness and musical genius. Bayaka Pygmy culture is anarchistic and nonmaterialist, almost opposite to ours, and yet the experience of hunter-gatherers still resonates with us, having been human’s way of life for most of our history. All of the characters in Oka! were based on real people that Louis had known, or composites of people. In fact, Mayor Bassoun is based on the local area’s previous mayor -- who clearly recognized himself in the role played by Isaach de Bankolé, and was not happy about it."
Not only do viewers get a chance to witness African forest elephants in the wild, they also get close views of the black mamba (the longest venomous snake in Africa), the forest cobra, the Bongo (the largest and heaviest forest antelope) and the Western lowland gorilla. Uptight Christians and other prudes who recoil from the sight of bare-breasted women should definitely avoid Oka!

Oka! is hardly your typical "white man goes to Africa" movie. It is engrossing, entertaining, endlessly fascinating, and unique. It's well worth your while. Here's the trailer:

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