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Film series grounds itself in sacred lands

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OCTOBER 10, 2013

Many massive private and public industrial projects threaten to destroy lands that are considered sacred by indigenous groups. With the world rapidly changing through globalization, industrialization and consumerism, there is a price to be paid from the increased commodification of our earth’s resources.

“Standing on Sacred Ground” is a four-part documentary project that focuses on the stories of eight unique indigenous cultures resisting external threats to their lands. Director Christopher (Toby) McLeod emphasized the direction of the narrative of the films. In an interview with The Daily Californian, he said, “We look for a nonlinear cultural story — something that is poetic and told in a different narrative voice that is more mythological or metaphorical.”

McLeod, who has been critical of other documentaries covering topics surrounding indigenous people, also avoids framing the film from a white male perspective. “There have been a lot of films about indigenous people where you have this National Geographic narrator talking right over the ritual and shaman,” he said.

The first episode, “Pilgrims and Tourists,” follows the indigenous people of the Republic of Altai and the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Northern California, which are both confronting government projects that attempt to build over their consecrated areas, such as ancient burial sites and natural springs. The film is beautifully shot with extreme long shots of the stunning and untouched mountains of Uch-Enmek nature park. Altaian activist Danil Mamyev embarks on a lone pilgrimage and explains in the film, “Sacred places are not dead places where humans are forbidden to tread. Instead, sacred places require human visitation — or pilgrimage.”

Although human visitation is integral to the Altaians’ sacred land, the increased tourism brings a lot of sightseers who disrespect the land and customs. The film shows stark close-ups of the ecosystem that has remained intact for thousands of years, which can be attributed to the safeguarding practices of the Altaians. However, the energy corporation Gazprom plans to run a pipeline through the Ukok Plateau. Along with socially irresponsible tourism, the Altaians are dealing with frequent hardships and trying to reach out to other indigenous communities for support.

 The second part of the episode shows the first meeting between two different indigenous groups. Although the two communities have differing sets of cultural values and rituals, they share similar values in their connection to nature and land and face similar threats from industrial projects. The Winnemem tribe, erased from the federal list of recognized tribes, attempts to save its site from the government’s expansion of the Shasta Dam, which would submerge the land. Together, the Altaians and the Winnemem tribe establish a network of indigenous groups working to protect their land and culture.

Scientists have discovered a significantly higher percentage of biodiversity in sacred areas partially as a result of the indigenous groups’ efforts. McLeod notes that “if you can show scientifically that sacred places preserve biodiversity, you have a scientific argument on why sacred places have value to the modern world.” Indigenous practices and rituals are often dismissed as superstitious from a Western point of view, but the techniques they use for preserving their lands can be utilized to help protect other ecosystems around the world.

The second episode, “Profit and Loss,” depicts the Chinese nickel mine company causing environmental problems in Papua New Guinea as well as the tar sand mining in Canada. The decades of mining in Canada have caused deformities among fish, harsh contaminations in the water and cancer and birth defects among the inhabitants. Witnessing these tragic events is a reminder of the ethical quandary surrounding our nation’s dependence on petroleum oil.

The series incorporates powerful cinema verite, illustrated in the third episode, as the Ethiopian indigenous group and Christian evangelicalist group during the New Year’s ceremony have a dispute over land rights. The Christian group attempts to build a church on the indigenous group’s sacred land, much to the displeasure of the native community, culminating in a violent altercation. According to McLeod, attacks from Christian fundamentalist groups against traditional people are a common story that no one talks about in the media.

The second episode, also following the cinema verite tradition, has a long take of a New Guinea native fiercely arguing with a Chinese mining company representative over the harmful mining waste being dumped in the sea. Neither party comes to any sort of agreement as the dispute intensifies. The lack of communication and understanding between the groups in these dialectical shots illustrates the conflicting ideologies that are unable to be reconciled between the indigenous groups and the governments and corporations.

“Standing on Sacred Ground” is a series of documentaries that challenges preconceptions of primitivism and unflinchingly shows the devastation of lands that affect the livelihoods of the indigenous communities. The film, earnest in its ethnographic portrayals of the historically underrepresented and marginalized indigenous groups, presents an urgent message without being overly didactic.

The wondrous shots of the mountainous regions of Altai evoke the exotic and transcendent power of nature, while the shots of the tar sands in Canada show the deadly and pathological consequences of unregulated industrialization. The film is not easy to watch and may cause epistemological rifts but is crucial for understanding the value of indigenous communities in sustaining the future of our environment.

Contact Fan Huang at [email protected].

Contact Fan Huang at 


OCTOBER 10, 2013

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