Our Eyes on the World

Local Documentarians Portray A World Stressed by Human
Activity

By
Alexandra Halsey

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. desperate%20measures.jpg 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. sea%20people.jpg 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? nepalese%20art.JPEG 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.

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