The 2011 All Roads Film Festival arrives at National Geographic headquarters today and continues through the weekend, celebrating indigenous cultures with film screenings, directors’ discussions and photo exhibits. Here’s a glimpse of what’s around the bend, courtesy of NGM staffers and interns who got a sneak peek:
1. NAME OF FILM: Benda Bilili!
WHEN TO SEE IT: Wednesday, September 14 at 7 p.m.
THE STORY: Set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film follows a band of homeless, mostly paraplegic men, who rehearse at the Zoo and on street corners. They battle setbacks to record and release an album that may eventually change their lives. On the eve of the band’s departure to play in a French music festival, the mother of the teenage soloist, Roger, recalls his first day of school. He had sold his uniform and school supplies, saying “School won’t get me to Europe.” What would get him there, Roger had told her, was his satonge–a simple instrument made from a milk tin, a stick and a guitar string.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Filmmakers Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye discovered the band, financed their first album and have been documenting their progress for seven years.
THE ROAD LEADS TO: France–and fame. Band members leave behind the streets of Kinshasa, where they slept on cardboard mats, for the cities of Europe, where they perform before cheering crowds.
2. NAME OF FILM: Matariki
WHEN TO SEE IT: Thursday, September 15 at 7 p.m.
THE STORY: An assault during Matariki–the Maori new year celebrated during the appearance of the Pleiades–affects unrelated characters from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. All are forced to re-assess their lives and discover ways of moving forward. Sort of a Crash with Kiwi accents.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Maori director Michael Bennett’s tale of loosely intertwined lives was inspired by a play he saw about an Auckland car thief with family roots in New Zealand’s Tokelau islands. “My original impulse was to pursue it as a single story,” he told the New Zealand Herald, “but I felt it wasn’t going to quite fill out to the edges for a feature. So I thought about expanding the theme–the theme being transformation and renewal. Matariki fitted into that well. It’s a time when you say goodbye to those who have passed on but also to that part of your life where you need to close doors and open new doors and move through them.”
THE ROAD LEADS TO: Catharsis and new beginnings.
2. NAME OF FILM: Kawa
WHEN TO SEE IT: Friday, September 16 at 9 p.m.
THE STORY: Kawa, a strapping Maori dad, has moved out of the family home, leaving behind a loving (and puzzled) white wife and two kids, a sweet seven-year-old daughter and an insolent teenage son. Eventually the reason for Kawa’s departure is revealed: He has known that he was gay since he was a boy of 12 and now he feels he can no longer mask his sexual identity.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Director Katie Wolfe adapted the novel Nights in the Garden of Spain, and decided to make the lead character Maori instead of European. That adds a cross-cultural layer to the story, although Wolfe has stated that the movie is not about Maori attitudes toward homosexuality but rather the story of one family.
THE ROAD LEADS TO: Beautiful New Zealand scenery, family tensions, a near tragedy, and, ultimately, a surprising resolution.
3. NAME OF FILM: God is a Liar: Tradition and Change in Turkana
WHEN TO SEE IT: Saturday, September 17 at 1:30 p.m. (52 min, followed by directors’ discussion)
THE STORY: God is a Liar looks at three different groups of Turkana, a pastoralist tribe in northern Kenya, as they struggle to cope with a drought. The Turkana have proud communities with traditions that are passed through generations, but we see them on the cusp of change, as they begin to accept that God and nature are not providing them with what they need anymore. Stories like theirs are a reminder of the link between environmental and cultural preservation.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Frederic Courbet and Eugenie Reidy directed the film. It gives the Turkana people an opportunity to share their concerns about how climate change and the expanding modern world affect their faith, routines and livelihood—concerns that are fundamentally the same for many other people around the world.
THE ROAD LEADS TO: Adaptation. The Turkana people face the challenge of modifying traditions that have benefited them for many years. They must also learn to interact with the outside world, as they come to realize that people from other places, not God, are the ones bringing aid and resources. As with all change, it can be scary and tough, but their strong sense of community will take them far.
4. NAME OF FILM:Sky Dancer
WHEN TO SEE IT: Saturday, September 17 at 4 p.m.
THE STORY: Celebrates one of history’s few female Buddhist masters, Khandroma Kunzang Wangmo, and her quest to preserve the traditions of her Tibetan ancestry, care for the people around her in rapidly changing times, and advance the teachings of Buddhism all over the world. While those goals may seem lofty and unattainable (especially in the 45 minutes of the film), Khandroma’s quiet persistence, peaceful smile, and strong personality show no bounds to what she can accomplish. From establishing and constructing monastic colleges, to building bridges between Tibet and China through her teachings and travels, to convincing local boys to quit smoking, Khandroma’s daily life is compelling.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Jody Kremmer made this film to introduce the world to a culture and community on the brink of drastic change, with one stalwart defender at the focus. Since her first visit to the region Kremmer has been working to raise awareness and support for the community, specifically through the cause of women’s empowerment.
THE ROAD LEADS TO: Enlightenment, both personal–in the following of her Buddhist teachings–and also for the community, in following her lead for increased communication, education, health, and equality.
5. NAME OF FILM: Papa Mau: The Wayfinder
WHEN TO SEE IT: Sunday, September 18 at 4 p.m.
THE STORY: Papa Mau commemorates the work of Mau Piailug, a master navigator whose influence helped resurrect Polynesian culture in Hawaii. It follows the story of a few young men in the 1970s, a time when the islands’ indigenous traditions had nearly disappeared. They construct a traditional voyaging canoe named Hokule’a, and seek out Piailug to teach them the long-lost art of navigating using solely the stars, wind, and ocean. Reintroducing this knowledge to the islands unifies the Hawaiian people in a way not seen for generations. The story illustrates how each culture must strike a balance, adapting to change without losing its identity.
WHO MADE IT AND WHY: Hawaiian film director Na’alehu Anthony documents Hawaiian stories so that outsiders might understand their importance. He has been a crewmember on Hokule’a since 1995 and was recently made captain.
THE ROAD LEADS TO: Reconnection. The Hawaiians recaptured traditions that were almost completely lost. But it takes more than building voyaging canoes and reading the stars. As Piailug pointed out to the crewmembers, they must also have a deep spiritual understanding and pride in the Polynesian culture in order for it to survive.
Tickets to screenings are $10 each ($8 for National Geographic members). A pass for all 9 films in the series is $100 ($80 members) and includes admission to the Global Groove Dance Party on Saturday night.