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Wild at heart

A select guide to the International Cultural Film Festival



This weekend, the International Wildlife Media Center will screen some three dozen films for Missoula’s first-ever (and hopefully annual) International Cultural Film Festival. Where the yearly International Wildlife Film Festival focuses on the natural world, the films being screened this weekend, generally speaking, concentrate on human interaction with the natural world. The following is a quickie guide to festival films I managed to watch over the past weekend—during which time, as you might surmise, I had very little interaction with the natural world. A complete schedule can be viewed at

Burma’s Forbidden Islands
The Moken are the last of the true “sea gypsies,” a clan of boat-dwellers who rely on the sea’s bounty for almost all their basic needs, gathering only one day’s supply of fish and shellfish at a time. They inhabit an archipelago off the western coast of Myanmar (formerly Burma), keeping as low a profile as possible to avoid being forcibly settled elsewhere by the repressive government. The makers of Forbidden Islands won the trust of one Moken clan group, whose story grows more complicated and tragic as this film unfolds. And, after everything that happens to them, the Moken still have to haggle with the spirits of their ancestors over the clan’s choice of food offering—an astounding scene in an amazing movie. If you can only see one film in the festival series, make it this one.

The Honeymen of Ethiopia
Documentaries can sometimes put the viewer’s own enlightened values at odds with those held by others with whom we would like to empathize. For example, you want to root for Miango, who works hard, and at great risk to life and limb, to build beehives in the western Ethiopian highlands. But on the other hand, he’s just doing it to accumulate more honey, which translates to more wealth and, ultimately, more wives. And to hear the wives he’s already got tell it, Miango’s kind of a cad. The first one ran away, claiming Miango beat her.

Perhaps compelling us to reexamine our various values and hypocrisies—if only by thrusting us into tricky moral and ethical dilemmas—is one of the more valuable services rendered by documentaries. Why does it seem culturally “authentic” to us when Moken sea gypsy women moan and wail and lay on hands to exorcise demons from a fellow clanswoman, but ignorant and pathetic to our same cultural sensibilities when Americans do it in church?

Relive the Past: The Story of the Orme Dam Victory
As though being corralled onto a reservation weren’t enough, the Yavapai on Arizona’s Fort McDowell reservation had to suffer the additional injustice of being told by the government that they had to leave their adopted home to make way for a dam. Seems some Phoenix commuters were whining about how badly their driving was being impacted by occasional floods. And all those golf courses aren’t going to water themselves, now, are they?

Well, they’re going to have to get the water from someplace else this time. Relive the Past describes the 10-year history of the Yavapai’s fight to block the proposed dam, culminating in a three-day “Trail of Tears” march and a successful petition to scrap the project. Right on, man.

The Return of Navajo Boy
Hollywood has never shown much regard for ethnicity or the dignity of the native peoples it entangles in its various productions. I can give you at least three examples of movies featuring Chinese characters played by Swedes.

A Navajo family in Monument Valley, the Clys, waited nearly 50 years to see Navajo Boy, shot in 1952 with Cly family members as the principle actors, before the son of the filmmaker came calling with a copy of the silent film, which his father had always narrated during screenings. The return of the film to its Navajo participants had some unexpected results for the family, including renewed contact with an adopted child who had been taken away by white social workers decades earlier.

This documentary has the requisite tragic undertones—many Navajo worked in area uranium mines, conveniently uninformed of the attendant health risks by corporate owners—but it’s also quite uplifting for the reunion between the Cly family and its long-lost brother and uncle. His name is John Wayne Cly—christened for the star of the most famous movie ever filmed in the area, The Searchers.

Sahyadris: Mountains of the Monsoon
A beautiful view of a surprise paradise: the Western Ghats, a largely unspoiled region of mountains, rainforests, pristine rivers and incredible biodiversity a proverbial stone’s throw from some of the most populous regions of the Indian subcontinent. Rain falls here by the tens of meters annually, making it an important watershed that feeds most of the country’s southern rivers. Not the India you thought you knew, and one that few visitors have explored. Actual snippet of narration/perfect title for a stoner-rock record: “The realm of the cloud-goat.”

Gardeners of EdenWater for the Cities
One of three short documentaries from the “Thirsty Planet” series to be screened for the festival, Water for the Cities draws timely attention to the biggest problems facing residents of teeming megalopoli like Jakarta, Mexico City and Lagos: access to potable water and the efficient removal of waste. Things look pretty grim: In Lagos, a city with a take-your-best-guess population of between seven and 20 million, less than a quarter of the inhabitants are serviced by city water. Not that city water is any great shakes, since even the stuff from the tap is unfit to drink and there isn’t a single working treatment facility in the area. In Mexico City, the demand for water has encroached on sources in every direction, and as much as a third of what does end up running through the city’s antiquated pipe system is lost to seepage and broken mains—as many as 300 a day. The city itself is also sinking because the water table on which it rests has been sucked dry.

Water for Profit
In Jakarta, as in many other overcrowded cities in the developing world, hopes for clean water rest largely upon privatization. Yet privatization efforts so far have been disastrous, and in any event Indonesians should be careful what they wish for: In Cochabomba, Bolivia, efforts to corner the market on potable water by an American corporation—a deal brokered by the Bolivian government—resulted in civil disobedience. Now the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation is suing the Bolivians to recoup projected profits on water they never got. On the other hand, privatization of water and sewage in Berlin has apparently worked out just fine, and the city retains controlling interest. Then again, they’re Germans. Germans are hell at efficient systems.

3 Feet Under
“Dig a duck, dig a duck, dig a geoduck, dig a duck, dig a geoduck, dig a duck a day!” Panopea abrupta, the world largest burrowing bivalve, found only in the Pacific Northwest, gets its own documentary—and catchy theme song—in this fun film dedicated to the homely geoduck and the people who love it. Pronounced “gooey-duck” (one of those regional shibboleths that separate the locals from the greenhorns), the geoduck is a clam that can’t quite fit in its shell. But it can live for nearly 200 years in the same spot in Puget Sound, filtering hundreds of gallons of water a day through its phallic three-foot siphon. A delicacy to some, a butt-ugly cow tongue poking out of the tidal flats to others.

Living Waters: Aquatic Preserves of Florida
Who knew there was so much Florida still unsullied by strip malls and condos, thanks in large part to 40-odd natural preserves encompassing mangrove swamps, estuaries, wetlands, lagoons and freshwater limestone springs? Living Waters, hosted by large-format photographer Clyde Butcher and filmed by Elam Stoltzfus, exerts a hypnotic effect with its marvelous cinematography: shot after shot of swamps at sunset, hypersaturated foliage greens, sparkling waters and wooded islands. Host Butcher essentially takes viewers around the horn from the panhandle to the Atlantic coast, skipping the tatty beachfront developments and paying visits instead to small towns with active community groups dedicated to protecting their treasures through wise stewardship and the development of eco-friendly tourism. The most encouraging thing to come out of “America’s wang” in a long time.

People of the Sea
This Canadian documentary boasts a rather intimate “we” tone—“we” being the Newfoundlanders on whose behalf the narrator speaks—and an impressive number of eye-popping images: seagulls attacking puffins, osprey carrying off their quarry three to a talon, ghostlike gannets diving underwater in search of same. Presented with such an apparent wealth of fauna, it’s hard to imagine that Newfoundland used to be many times richer in birds, fish and everything else, and sobering to learn the remaining ecosystem is in trouble. It pretty much comes down to the health of one kind of fish—and not codfish, either, as you might expect.

Islands without Frontiers
The title itself sounds like a paradox—if it’s an island, aren’t the frontiers pretty well defined?—but it actually refers to a partnership between France and Italy established to protect wildlife on a small clump of granite islands between Corsica and Sardinia. The islands themselves are a tourist haven in the summer months, when resident populations of seabirds hide out well away from the crowded beaches, but revert to nearly animals-only status for the rest of the year. There’s also an abundance of snakes, and a population of albino donkeys that have taken up residence in a former prison where some 5,000 Austro-Hungarian prisoners died of cholera during WWI. Beach-bunnies beware: “The next dive could land a well-aimed bomb of excrement.”

Heiltsuk: Search for Wolves
The title pretty much says it all. Harvey Humchitt, hereditary chief of the Heiltsuk north of Vancouver Island, is searching for the coastal wolves of the Great Bear Rainforest, which play a key role in the ecosystem and figure prominently in the culture and mythology of his people. All in 23 minutes.

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