How development and climate change are impacting lifestyles, cultural diversity: Five films that tell the story

·9-min read

As the climate movement demands awareness, several filmmakers have turned to narrative documentaries to tell these stories, following an individual or community through their journey of tackling the climate crisis. "In the system we are living in in the western world, the connection with nature has been broken," says Aner Etxebarria, co-director of Bayandalai: Lord of the Taiga. "If we can get people to spend their time thinking about this [then we've succeeded as filmmakers]."

This separation stands in stark contrast to the tribal way of life. While we can see the effects of climate change around us and work to rectify them by becoming protectors of nature, tribal communities don't 'other' the natural world. Nature is something "they have more familial ties with," observes Pratik Basu whose Palace of Colours focuses on the Santhal tribe, adding that this is his perspective as a filmmaker from the city and acknowledging the distance that comes with it. His film, without exoticising the tribal people and through making the hill the central focus, manages to intimately capture the festival of Sohrai despite this distance.

Janis Steele, co-producer of Immuto (Change), is also conscious of her position as a white filmmaker from the Global North. "We [filmmakers] kept at the forefront of our effort the awareness that in the attempt to represent these stories of crisis in a film one enters a politically charged field of who gets to say what and for whom," she says. The documentary successfully shows the struggle of life during the climate crisis through the eyes of the people interviewed in the film.

Besides honestly portraying the prevalent situation, such films also work to challenge the mainstream view of tribal people as either helpless victims or as a homogenous group that's uneducated and undeveloped. As they are given voices, one focuses instead on the passion with which they fight for the environment and their rights, and the knowledge they possess, which reminds that instead of being side-lined, indigenous people should in fact be leading the environmental movement.

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As indigenous activist Lilla Watson says in the opening of Immuto (Change), "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

On World Environment Day 2021, we're taking a closer look at five of these films.

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In Pratik Basu's film Palace of Colours, the Santhal tribe is celebrating the annual festival Sohrai. They source colours from the nearby colourful chalk stone hill to mend cracks in their houses, sing and dance, and celebrate. The mending however is at the crux of the celebration. "One of the women said that the way a tree grows, even a house grows, so it expands and it cracks. They see the cracks of the house as signs of growth and prosperity," says Basu in an interview with Firstpost.

Colourful chalk stone hill
Colourful chalk stone hill

Colourful chalk stone hill

This festival, like much of their life, is feeling the impacts of development, with some paintings using artificial pigments instead of the natural pigments so integral to the process. "I tried to have this discourse with them. But for them it's not a big shift or loss," says Basu. "It's our urban, privileged gaze toward their loss of culture," he adds as warning about not romanticising the tribal way of life. Even as, at the time of shooting, they continued fighting for their rights as part of the Pathalgadi movement, at least as far as using artificial pigments goes, it's a sign of changing culture, not a loss of culture.

Houses painted during Sohrai
Houses painted during Sohrai

Houses painted during Sohrai

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"The [biggest] effect of development is education," says Millo Tako, co-creator of the film Logdrum of Pessao, and a member of Ziro's Apatani tribe. Before, every member would stay in Ziro and do farming, the most common livelihood. As a result of being educated, he's observed, people go outside for jobs and not many people remain in Ziro. The land where farming used to happen is now being used to build houses upon. "Last year, we tried [to say] that whoever builds houses on fields will have to pay fines. The community tried. But it didn't have any effect. 'It's my own land and I can do whatever I want on it', was the response."

During the course of the 25-year-old's life, he's also observed changes in the way Ziro looks. There used to be snowfall before, which doesn't happen anymore. "I see construction everywhere." A lot of housing has been built on the mountain, the lake is a small stream with almost no water, and roads where even bikes couldn't pass now accommodate cars, he informs. While the environment deteriorates, he points to the older generations who still believe that Ziro is "evergreen" and "hunt too much." Even as they notice different species disappearing, the hunting continues. It's because the hunting was excessive that the government noticed it in the first place, eventually turning part of the forest into a protected area and limiting access to it. "The education that conservation is necessary hasn't reached here." Education is very important, we need awareness."

Education and awareness, he believes, are integral to maintaining a balance in the face of this increasing development and excessive pressure on the environment. "Development isn't a bad thing but it should be limited," adds Tako, who's also thinking of making a film on why the forest is necessary, "because right now in Ziro everyone knows why development is necessary."

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"We are native to the wilderness," says Bayandalai, an elder of the Dukha tribe, in the film Bayandalai: Lord of the Taiga, co-directed by Aner Etxebarria and Pablo Vidal and shot in Mongolia's Tengis Shishged National Park. The tribe were traditionally reindeer herders, and the animal is central to their way of life. Reindeers are almost part of the family for the Dukha people, providing food like milk and cheese, acting as transport, and being a medium offering a spiritual connection with Mother Nature. Taiga was, they believe, given to them as their home, making it their duty to protect it, along with its trees and animals.

Bayandalai
Bayandalai

Bayandalai

"The Mongolian government is trying to save the forest. For this reason, they've created a national park. So they've taken out the Dukha people, and a nomadic lifestyle isn't possible," says Vidal. "With such reservations, you're not preserving their culture, you're taking away their freedom." With a loss of their home and way of life, the Dukha culture has started to change, the Tuvan language is at risk of being lost, and the knowledge they've passed down for generations is being dismissed. While Bayandalai still lives in a yurt inside the forest, others of the tribe have had to give up their nomadic lifestyle and settle around the park, selling knick-knacks and photographs with reindeers for a living.

Bayandalai is the last reindeer herder of the tribe, heralding the end of a millennia-old way of life. "Bayandalai told us that 'I don't think our future is going to be very bright' because he knows that the future is not going hand in hand with his way of life. He knows the problem has no solution," says Etxebarria. Bayandalai, though recognising the loss in his tribe's future after him, understands the importance of keeping with the times and responding to 'mainstream' society, not wishing a different future for his grandson. "Gantulga, my grandson. I want him to become a reputable and skilled herder. But in the future, I think he will head to the big city," he says in the film.

Bayandalai with his grandson Gantulga
Bayandalai with his grandson Gantulga

Bayandalai with his grandson Gantulga

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While in some cases development is welcomed or at least accepted, it can also be harmful when under the guise of development, a rampant exploitation of lands and its occupants takes place, as is the case in Fouta Djallon in Guinea, West Africa, documented in the film Cries of Our Ancestors.

Here, humans and chimpanzees have lived side by side for centuries, co-creating a culture. Chimpanzees brush past the children without ever hurting anyone, their paintings can be found on huts, part of farm produce is put aside for the animals, and they are generally seen as friends. Each generation passes down the knowledge that chimpanzees are to be embraced. "There are also traditional beliefs like [the idea that] killing a chimpanzee leads to personal trouble like a mental disorder or the loss of friend or family member," says co-producer Diallo Mamadou Saliou, also founder of the NGO Guinea Ecologie.

Chimpanzee in Guinea, West Africa
Chimpanzee in Guinea, West Africa

Chimpanzee in Guinea, West Africa

But with bauxite mining, the nearby water bodies are poisoned, and this way of life is instantly destroyed. Animals are being forced to migrate or dying, humans are suffering and immunity is weakening over generations. "A lot of mining companies are actually operating in different parts of the country," says Saliou. "There's no way to stop the mining as Guinea is the reserve of over 50 percent of the world's bauxite and an important reserve of iron ore. So the government [recognises] mining as a driver of the country's development."

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In Morocco, as the film Immuto (Change) shows, the green on land cover has dramatically reduced, there's lesser rain, and water scarcity has been a challenge since the 1960s. For desert nomads like Fezna Ouled Jellal's Bachir El Jakani, finding water for family and animals has become the biggest problem. As rivers have run dry, he has to travel by motorcycle to mountains to source water. They used to rely on a 2,000-year-old irrigation system, Khettara, which carries water from the mountain to communities through an underground canal system. While a few are still active, the one Jakani shows has run dry. "What will your animals or children do? That's not a life for us. A nomad cannot live in the town," he says in the film. Within a few decades, as a result of climate change, a millennia-old water system is ending and nomadic way of life is facing increasing challenges as they try to carry on.

Similar destruction has been happening all over the world as cultures and systems that have existed for millennia are finished over the course of a few decades. As irresponsible development and climate change make themselves felt, the world is quickly losing cultural diversity and several different ways of life are ending.

The films mentioned in this feature were part of the All Living Things Environmental Film Festival (ALTEFF)

€" All photos are screenshots from YouTube

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