Local Documentarians Portray A World Stressed by Human Activity
The works of several Santa Barbarans were on view the first weekend of the Santa Barbara Film Festival. None of them are filmmakers by profession, which makes their achievements even more noteworthy.
Three environmental wake-up calls were screened as a trio on Friday, January 26, at Center Stage Theatre. UCSB lecturer Gail Osherenko — a lawyer with research specialties in marine science who also serves the board of the Environmental Defense Center — filmed Arctic Expedition during her most recent trip to the Arctic Circle to demonstrate the effects of global warming on polar ice and the indigenous animal populations of the far north. Rick Weston Smith traveled to South Africa with two friends from high school to create Desperate Measures, which illustrates the dilemmas of animal population control in Kruger National Park. And Sea People of the Honduras, directed by Rick Rosenthal, explores the effects of tourism and global climate change on the coral reefs and marine-subsistent populations on the coast of Central America. (These three films play one last time, today, Wednesday, January 31, at 4 p.m. at the Marjorie Luke Theatre.)
And on Sunday, a crowd at the Marjore Luke saw Natalie Sanderson‘s Lost Souls, which documents the effects of rampant theft of Nepalese sacred idols and images. Fest programmer Jeremy Platt also declared that Lost Souls was the first locally made film in festival history to be entered in the main competition. (The film’s last scheduled screening was yesterday.)
All four documentaries, each of varying lengths and varying levels of expertise, yielded pearls. Arctic Expeditions, the most professionally produced and most seamlessly edited and balanced of the group, masterfully displayed the Arctic environment in stunning panoramas and perfectly framed close-ups. The quality of the film was superb: magnificent polar bears, walruses, sea birds, and whales gracefully going about their business, and equally magnificent sweeps of sea, sky, and looming ice walls, were exquisitely real — you could reach out and touch them. Osherenko’s clear, measured tones and quietly poetic observations made this the best-narrated of Friday’s environmental trio. One wished its brief 16-minute scope were greater — this is a terrain we want to see and learn more about.
Desperate Measures, focusing on the pressures of exponentially increasing elephant populations on the limited confines of a managed reserve, fairly presented all the possible alternatives (culling, sterilization, translocation) in footage of uneven quality. The film successfully shows, however, that the issues transcend this particular arena. When asked if they originally had a particular point of view on the subject and if it changed after the filming, the three young directors admitted they¹d begun undecided but were swayed by a radical, anti-culling conservationist they¹d interviewed for the film. Though his extremism called for far more challenging solutions than all others presented, his effect on the filmmakers demonstrates the power of sheer passion. This was, however, the closest the film came to asking the bigger, more important question: not how we solve a particular problem within an already artificial context, but how we prevent the artificial context in the first place — in effect, how can we return the planet, and all of its indigenous ecosystems, to its natural state and original balance.
This point was just below the surface as well in Sea People of the Honduras. As with Desperate Measures, eliminating several repetitive points and scenes would have strengthened the film, and the narrator sounded dismayingly canned. The movie tried to cover too much ground, which resulted in confusing its main message. However, it did a good job of portraying life in Honduras for its varied populations, and served up utterly spectacular aerial and underwater footage of ocean, reefs, corals, mangrove roots, and mesmerizing sea life so entrancingly that this alone deserves a prize. Viewers may be immediately inspired to go to Honduras to experience its extraordinary beauty first-hand — but this is precisely the unfortunate by-product of bringing a delicate world to the eyes of many. Increased tourism and real estate development create huge stressors to the very environment that draws people in the first place.
Lost Souls portrays the loss of sacred treasures, not the loss of natural ecosystems, but are the two are really so far apart? What happens when you deracinate something from its native environment, even if under the pretext of preservation? Whether an endangered animal or a sacred object infused with the beliefs and traditions of thousands of years, both the removed object and its bereft environment suffer equally. This very well-made film by two Oxford graduate students documents the illegal removal of over 75 percent of Nepal’s sacred idols and images for display in museums or purchase in private collections.
This virtual rape over the past 30 years of a country’s sacred heritage raises intellectual, cultural, and spiritual questions. Are these idols sacred objects or exquisite works of art — and, in either case, how should they be treated? Are the Nepalese — who keep and physically worship and care for their gods and goddesses in corners, in fields, on street corners, in markets, indeed, anywhere where people pass or gather — able to properly maintain and conserve them? What happens to the spirit of a god or goddess when its head is stolen, or its entire body is removed from its temple — and what happens to the faith and traditions of its worshippers?
The two filmmakers have done an excellent job of framing and illustrating the problem, and bringing the country alive to viewers at the same time. Keeping themselves out of the way, they provided intimate, natural observations of the Nepalese performing their daily ‘pujas,’ as well as the festivals and traditions the Nepalese live by, and effective interviews with a wide range of experts, devotees, and simple citizens. Some of the most striking footage was of an illicit dealer and his network of thieves, arranging to show and sell sacred scrolls over 600 years old to one of the filmmakers, who posed as a foreign art collector.
It’s also worth noting that the filmmakers were apparently asked by the film festival directors to increase by 13 minutes their original cut of 47 minutes, which is unfortunate — the extra footage added nothing appreciable to the narrative, and two or three of the editing transitions are noticeably abrupt. But this, and the occasionally difficult-to-read white subtitles, are details that can be easily fixed.
All of these non-professional filmmakers deserve major kudos for their splendid and heartfelt efforts, and we hope each of these pieces reaches a wider audience. Collectively and individually, their take-home message is that each environment, whether organic, cultural, or spiritual, has its own particular ecosystem — and human intrusion, development, and covetousness have almost irremediably displaced, weakened, or eviscerated many of them. It is time to reverse that tide.