The Power of Storytelling

Sacred Land Film Project

photo of a man sitting near petroglyphsphoto Christopher McLeodStanding on Sacred Ground profiles the efforts of Australian Aborigines to protect areas that are essential to their culture.

Lying awake one night during the editing of the Standing on Sacred Ground series, I tossed and turned and worried about the challenges of telling eight long, complex stories in a society with an ever-shrinking attention span. I asked myself, “Who is going to watch four hours of documentary film?” The answer came within seconds: “Indigenous people, that’s who.” So, when my friend Cynthia Ong, executive director of LEAP: Land / Empowerment / Animals / People offered to take a set of four DVDs of the finished films to Malaysia to screen for community leaders from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Borneo, I was more than happy to deliver her our new boxed set.

Shortly afterward I got this email from Cynthia, along with some photos:

Hi Toby,

Sharing pics of the first screening on May 27 @ the opening of Harvest Festival celebrations, at the heart of indigenous leadership in Sabah. About 50 leaders and community organizers, including elders and shamans. There was deep appreciation and emotion as we moved through all eight stories (in one sitting, with short pee breaks between episodes!). There will be more screenings tomorrow and the day after at another location – CREATE: Centre of Renewable and Appropriate Technology – hosted by the indigenous renewable energy movement with support from the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia. Thank you for your beautiful and powerful story-telling, already deeply appreciated and felt here. —Cynthia

A few days later I received an email from our friend, Rosa Koian, at Bismark Ramu Group in Papua New Guinea:

Hi Toby,

Can’t wait to share the experience of screening Profit and Loss this afternoon. People were emotional, screaming and shouting – and a lot of tears. The Al Jazeera section was the highlight as people screamed angrily at our former prime minister. Talked with some people in the group about a film festival in PNG. Reps from France are interested as well. UNESCO people were so happy (Smile). Anyway, I am so over the moon this evening. Best regards, Rosa

Hearing this news from Papua New Guinea was literally a dream come true. I felt a rush of vertigo when I saw the photos of Altain leader Danil Mamyev being projected on a screen in Malaysia – a wintry Central Asian pilgrimage against a proposed gas pipeline shared with tropical rainforest dwellers fighting dams and palm oil plantations. It is deeply satisfying to know that, like my kids, the films have a life of their own.

Check out scenes from each of the eight stories at Educational distrubution of the documentary series is being handled by Bullfrog Films:

The four films that make up Standing on Sacred Ground tell compelling stories of ancient wisdom and modern courage in eight threatened Indigenous groups in North America, Hawai‘i, Russia’s Altai Republic, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Ethiopia, and Australia, each fighting to protect sites of spiritual, cultural, and environmental significance.

Places of spiritual significance to Indigenous people are the meeting ground of cultural and biological diversity. They are also arenas of conflict with the modern world. When a sacred mountain is strip-mined, both cultural and environmental impacts are extreme. Mineral extraction, development schemes, ecotourism, and even creation of nature parks by conservation groups can hasten the extinction of species and cultures. A common problem is lack of understanding or respect for spiritual connection to land.

Standing On Sacred Ground explores how the health of our global environment can be sustained through a respectful understanding of the sacred lands and traditions of native peoples. The documentary series also seeks to connect Indigenous groups fighting to save their lands in different parts of the world so that they can be emboldened by the knowledge that they aren’t alone in their struggle.

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