Backstory: Toto, we're not in Cannes-sas anymore!

Jungle film fest - under the stars, but not about them.

You know this is not going to be your average film festival when a film director, moments before the show, strolls down to a nearby river and makes an offering to call rain to his people in the Arizona desert.

There are other signs as well. The fact that there is no theater, for example. Nor were there any brake pads on the truck that drove us in. The screen is a large piece of paper held up by two broom sticks. The endeavor to keep it flat isn't entirely successful - creases add a dimension to the images, giving them a curvature redolent of Salvador Dali. The projection system is a remarkable blend of 21st century-DVD technology and a Gordian knot of wires that have to be held up by the projectionist just so, or the video signal goes out. ("A little more to the left. A little higher. Higher ... there! Don't move!" And the projectionist holds the wires right there for the next 42 minutes.)

Welcome to the Eighth International Indigenous Film and Video Festival. As Dorothy might have said, "Toto, we're not in Cannes-sas anymore." We are, in fact, in a small village in the rain forest of southern Mexico - as far from the glitz-ebrity of Al Gore, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Paris Hilton as you can get.

The indigenous film fest is sponsored by a group of Latin American film organizations with an acronym that there was no point in providing until the web made everything Google-able - CLACPI. The hub for this year's festival running through June 9, is the city of Oaxaca, a stunningly beautiful Spanish colonial site with enough bright colors to make a jungle look institutional. But that doesn't mean the films are actually shown in the city, not at first anyway. The truly extraordinary thing about this film festival is that it started with screenings in villages all around the state.

This complicates things considerably because the state of Oaxaca resembles Maine in one (and probably only one) key aspect - no matter where you are, you can't get there from here. Oaxaca is what would happen if you took a few segments of the Rockies and jammed them next to each other, then threw a couple in crosswise for good measure. This is why, despite the fact that the state is scarcely 200 miles wide, it takes six to eight hours to get anywhere on roads that seem to have nothing but disdain for the laws of physics. But it is these mountains - Mother Nature's beefy fences - that have created, and preserved, so many different cultures in Oaxaca.

There are 16 languages spoken in the state in addition to - sometimes instead of - Spanish. But that only begins to reflect the diversity, where highland Zapotecans, for example, can't understand Pacific coast Zapotecans, and neither can understand the Zapotecans who live near the Atlantic Coast.

All of this makes Oaxaca a natural host for the indigenous film festival. What makes the film fest indigenous, however, is not where films are shown, but who made them. Not surprisingly, the creators would be indigenous - this year including people from Canada, India, and Finland (where, indeed, not everyone is blond and blue-eyed).


I traveled here last weekend with two of the filmmakers - Victor Masayesva, a Hopi Indian from the US, and Ana Vilacama, a Quechuan from Bolivia. Both are soft-spoken, with remarkable disinclination to engage in the kind of self-promotion as natural as breathing at most film festivals.

Mr. Masayesva showed a work in progress called "Paatuwaqatsi." It chronicles a group of Hopi runners who ran 2,000 miles from Arizona to Mexico City, for the World Water Forum. They have a clever T-shirt emblazoned with the word H2OPI, but that's as commercial as they get. The essence of the film is that water is much more than a resource - it's sacred. And, at risk of doing injustice to a sophisticated worldview, it is an expression of the living thing we call Earth.

Ms. Vilacama's film is about two Quechuan women in Bolivia, who strive to capture the histories of their people in beautiful embroidery and weaving. In a world with little written tradition, this act of recording has enormous power, particularly for women. As a result, both women rise to roles of leadership that are equally artistic and political.

After a two-hour drive down a road paved for the first time a few months ago, we arrive in the village of Soledad de Juarez. A few hundred people live here - they're Chinantecs, one of the 16 indigenous groups of Oaxaca. There is no mail delivery here, no cellphone coverage, and no Internet access. The modern world pokes its grubby fingers in from time to time, but tradition and the notion of community retain a very strong hold.

Volunteers from CLACPI initially set up the projection system outside. But this being the rain forest, rain is threatening, so the whole thing moves inside the community house.

It is now that Masayesva announces he's going down to the Cajonos river, to make an offering to bring rain to the Hopi. Given that the Hopi have traditionally depended on crops grown in the Arizona desert, this is no casual offering. While he quietly performs a ritual by the water's edge, winds of the oncoming storm whip around his face, and bolts of lightning flash over the surrounding hills.

"If only one person comes away with an understanding of how important water is, then I will be satisfied," he says.

The small, bare community room is full - adults in plastic chairs, the children on the concrete floor. Vilacama's film begins first. The audience watches, spellbound.

I notice one woman smiling - and she continues smiling right into the credits. Her name is Amalia Santiago, and what she really liked, she tells me when the film is over, was the beautiful sewing, the cloth, the colors.

"There was one other film here once," she says, "but it was about birds."

"This is the first film about people and their stories," Melesio Felipe, the village's president of communal resources, later adds. "People who come from outside, but look like us."

Masayesv's film then collides with technical problems that result in the projectionist having to hold the wires in the air just so. The screening begins as the storm finally arrives. Throughout the Hopi film about water, a gentle rain patters on the tin roof above.

At the end, it seems there is a new understanding of water. "We thank God that there is enough here," says Mr. Felipe.

"Sometimes too much," says Ms. Santiago, who recalls last year's hurricane.


On the way back to town, both filmmakers are visibly tired. No limousine awaits, just a long trip in the rain, the occasional frog caught in the headlights as it jumps across the road.

But both seem satisfied, a dialogue has begun. Their films have gone where they never expected, and they will flow, like water, to places that Paris Hilton could never imagine.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Backstory: Toto, we're not in Cannes-sas anymore!
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today