Seeing Through Indigenous Lenses: Filmmakers Reimagine a Collective Climate-Sound Future

A group of people dressed in regalia stand against a blue sky

In the film “We Are Guardians,” Indigenous activists gather in Brasília, Brazil’s capital, to protest the government giving their lands to loggers. Courtesy of Through The Smoke, LLC

 

Guajajara was one of 26 filmmakers selected to share their work at the Indigenous Imaginarium, a first of its kind fellowship program aimed at connecting Indigenous creatives to the Hollywood film industry and reimagining a climate-sound future. The week-long event was organized by the U.S.- based nonprofit If Not Us Then Who? (INUTW), which promotes Indigenous-led climate action and storytelling through professional development and training.

Paul Redman, a filmmaker from South Africa, founded INUTW in 2014 after he had spent more than a decade shooting and producing films about the illegal wildlife and timber trades for other organizations, including the Environmental Investigation Agency, Amnesty International and the European Forest Institute. He grew tired of stories he felt portrayed Indigenous peoples as mere victims of the climate crisis. Instead, he wanted to ignite a new narrative of “environmental heroism” and climate solutions headed by Indigenous community leaders, activists and artists as well as promote their diverse, unique ideas for how to coexist with nature.

“If we can support those stories to come out, that really opens up a whole new way of being on this Earth,” said Redman. “We’re supporting the natural world and its voice at a time when it’s being exploited, downtrodden, cut down and polluted.”

Today INUTW equips Indigenous storytellers with the technical skills and resources needed to produce films and share them with climate decision makers at influential organizations such as the United Nations. Many of the filmmakers are from remote regions in Latin America, where access to cameras and other expensive equipment is limited or not available. 

Such barriers have historically prevented many Indigenous peoples from telling their own stories, according to David Hernández Palmar, a filmmaker who is a member of the Indigenous Wayuu people from Venezuela and Colombia as well as the coordinator of INUTW’s mentorship programs for emerging filmmakers. As a result, Palmar said, non-Indigenous peoples have continued to produce narratives about Native peoples and their lands that perpetuate stereotypes and other damaging tropes. 

“Media always puts us in an apocalypse,” he said. “But our stories always tell us that if you take care of the Earth, you’ll be okay.”

In 2021, INUTW launched the Emerging Filmmakers Professional Development Programme, a multiyear mentorship opportunity for Indigenous storytellers who have made at least one film and want to advance their craft. Mentees in the program attend monthly master classes online with esteemed filmmakers from around the world, many of whom are Indigenous. These workshops are facilitated in English, Spanish and Portuguese and cover photography, video editing, scriptwriting, collecting and creating compelling sound, and adjusting colors to affect the tone of images and scenes. As the program progresses, each student works one-on-one with mentors such as Palmar to produce a polished film of their choice.

INUTW also helps participants secure funding to produce their projects and promote them at international film festivals and other events hosted by the organization during major climate events. These have included Climate Week NYC and the annual United Nations Conference of the Parties, where representatives from U.N. member states convene to evaluate efforts to address the global climate crisis.

During the past few years, 46 filmmakers have participated in INUTW’s mentorship program. Following are three to keep your eye out for on the big screen.

 

The Director

Edivan Guajajara in front of the US Capitol

Edivan Guajajara. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Greene

 

Right before Guajajara learned about INUTW’s emerging filmmakers’ program from an Instagram post in 2021, he thought he might give up on filmmaking. He thought he had reached his peak, he said. By then he had fulfilled some of his childhood dreams of learning to film after participating in a local audiovisual communications training program sponsored by Sônia Guajajara, Brazil’s first minister of Indigenous peoples. Then, he joined several friends in founding a successful investigative news network, Mídia Indígena, which curates content produced by more than 300 Indigenous contributors. He had even been hired as an extra cameraman by environmental filmmakers Chelsea Greene and Rob Grobman, who he would eventually join in co-directing “We Are Guardians.”

As soon as he joined the program, Guajajara said he quickly realized how much he still wanted to learn. “There’s this whole world!” he remembers thinking. “Of course, I want to keep doing this! It pushed me forward.”

The program gave him the confidence to step into a director’s role when Greene and Grobman had to leave Brazil during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. He spent months following Indigenous Guajajara activists Marçal Guajajara and Puyr Tembé of the Tembé people as they fended off illegal loggers and land-grabbers. While filming, he tried to implement what he learned in the INUTW mentorship program, such as shooting from different perspectives and capturing captivating sequences. He would remind his subjects, “Don’t look at the camera. Pretend I’m not here.” He was determined to authentically capture how they were protecting their communities from incessant deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, he said, “not just for themselves, but for the world.”  In the process, he said, “I became a professional.”  

Puyr Tembé stands in a forestI
Puyr Tembé, the Secretary of Indigenous Peoples for the Brazilian State of Pará and an advocate for Tembé people’s forested lands, is featured in “We Are Guardians." Courtesy of Through The Smoke, LLC

 

A group of warriors dressed in black stand in a forest

Puyr Tembé with her team of Forest Guardians, who are striving to protect Brazil's Amazon forests from illegal logging. Photo by Fernanda Luna

 

The Activist

Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta holds a video camera

Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta. Photo courtesy of Diego Perez/Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental

 

In 2020, Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta was elected by his Indigenous Esa Eja community in Peru’s Amazon basin to participate in a yearlong virtual filmmaking program offered by INUTW.  This was hosted in collaboration with the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Affluents (Federación Nativa del Río Madre de Dios y Afluentes), the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law (Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental) and the Tenure Facility, which supports Indigenous peoples in advancing community land rights. 

That year, Shanocua Chaeta began filming his first documentary about his plight to oust illegal gold miners who began invading his community of 600 people in 2019. “This is a very personal story,” he said in Spanish at a screening of his film at the Helen Mills Event Space and Theater in Manhattan, New York.

His 3-minute film is titled “Sha’à,” which means “arms of the caiman” in Esa Eja. It is also the name of his grandmother who raised him. “Thanks to my grandmother, I am who I am,” he said.

The film was shot mostly on an Android smartphone, which INUTW sent him in the mail. Sometimes he used a flashlight to illuminate nighttime scenes of him confronting the miners, who began threatening him for exposing them on camera. At one point they kidnapped and beat Shanocua Chaeta for several hours before he managed to escape. He thought he might never film again out of fear for his life. 

But after he spent some time recuperating with his family, he decided to finish his film so that the world might know what was happening in his community and many others throughout the Amazon basin. “Our stories are the ones that tell us that biodiversity needs to be protected,” he said. “That includes all animals, our ancestors, the spirits of the forests.” 

Since Shanocua Chaeta finished his film in 2022, “Sha’à” has been screened at film festivals around the world, including the 2022 Jackson Wild Summit in Austria. He is now working on his first feature length documentary, which will focus on the devastating impacts of gold mining on his community.

 

The Amazon basin

Shanocua Chaeta’s short documentary, “Sha’a,” is about his efforts to combat illegal gold mining in his Indigenous Esa Eja community in Peru’s Amazon basin. Courtesy of Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta

 

Overhead view of a man's head and neck partly submerged in shallow water

After Chaeta filmed the miners, they kidnapped and beat him. So he took time to heal with his family and decide whether or not he should finish his film. Courtesy of Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta

 

A group of people carving wood outdoors while being filmed by a filmmaker

Ultimately, Chaeta did finish his film, which included members of his community. Courtesy of Peregrino Shanocua Chaeta

 

The Artist 

A person stands in front of a waterfall, carrying filmmaking equipment

Tirza Yanira Ixmucané Saloj Oroxom. Photo by David Alinan

 

For years Tirza Yanira Ixmucané Saloj Oroxom dreamed of making a film about Lake Atitlán, the deepest lake in Central America. According to Ixmucané, her Mayan K’iche’ and Kaqchikel ancestors in Guatemala considered the body of water to be a living being. She said,“The lake is the grandmother that feels, that breathes, that perceives—just like us.”  

She wanted to convey her ancestors’ memories of the lake with few spoken words in the film. “It’s hard for me to think in words,” said Ixmucané in Spanish from her home in the village of Chaquiya in Sololá, Guatemala. “I think of things in images, in textures, colors.”  

So she painted her vision of the lake on canvas, with a heart at its center and its arteries branching out into trees, one of which grows into one of three volcanoes that border the lake. Then she began sharing her idea in local filmmaking workshops. Her colleagues in Guatemala were skeptical, however. “They would say ‘No, this doesn’t work. Without dialogue it will be confusing,’” she said. “This made me feel blocked.”  

When she entered the INUTW emerging filmmakers mentorship program, the response to her idea was completely different. She was encouraged to paint, draw and film however she imagined. Repeatedly, she said, her mentors reminded her, “It’s your narrative.” 

This message is at the heart of INUTW’s programs, which Redman said aim to challenge the status quo of many other filmmaking schools that train artists to replicate popular narrative structures based on what Hollywood produces. “Supporting Indigenous cinematic sovereignty is about enabling a space for Indigenous creatives to do something new. Give yourself time to create a language that’s all your own,” he tells program participants.  

As part of the mentorship program, Ixmucané fulfilled her dream of creating a 17-minute film of few words in honor of Lake Atitlán. The film is titled “ATI’T,” which means “grandmother” in the Kaqchikel language. Through vivid imagery, sound and colorful animation, Ixmucané tells the story of water in her community. From raindrops to rivers and waterfalls, she captures the lake’s origins and all those dependent on it, from caterpillars and moths to birds and humans. Her film also depicts the lake’s evolution as it is contaminated by human waste, a local landfill and plastic garbage. It culminates with a woman giving thanks to Grandmother Lake as hummingbirds visit her. The Mayan community believes the birds are guardians of the lake.  

“ATI’T” is the first of four short films Ixmucané plans to produce in honor of the four natural elements and her people’s spiritual and cultural connections to each, which she said have been largely forgotten. Such artful rekindling of cultural memories and relationships to nature through film is a powerful tool in addressing the climate crisis, according to Jaye Renold, an environmental filmmaker from the United Kingdom who also coordinates INUTW mentorship programs. “If we want to have strong, protected forests, which is vital to fighting the climate crisis, then resilient territories and resilient cultures play a vital role in ensuring this,” she said. 

According to Palmar, who has also worked with Ixmucané in the program, she has a unique artistic vision and style. “I’m totally sure she’s going to be well-known in the cinema world,” he said.

 

A woman kneels at a lakeshore with her arms raised; animated hummingbirds in the air around her

In “ATI’T,” a woman gives thanks to Lake Atitlán— known to her people as “grandmother” —as animated hummingbirds encircle her. Courtesy of Tirza Yanira Ixmucané Saloj Oroxom 

 

Ixmucané is already on her way. Last spring, she attended the Indigenous Imaginarium event in Los Angeles along with Guajajara and Shanocua Chaeta. It was the first time they met in person. Together, along with other Indigenous storytellers from throughout Latin America, Canada and Indonesia, they also met with notable filmmakers such as director James Cameron, actor Bill Pullman and Loren Waters, a member of the Cherokee Nation who helped cast several seasons of the television show “Reservation Dogs” and the film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” They presented samples of their films and shared their visions for producing new stories that inspire humanity to imagine and create a healthier, more sustainable future. 

Since the Imaginarium event, Ixmucané started working on her second film in her natural elements series, called “Q’aq,” which explores the cultural and spiritual significance of fire in her community. Shanocua Chaeta has joined INUTW’s first advanced filmmaking residency program, which recently launched with a weeklong training in Cali, Colombia. He will spend the next year producing his feature documentary with the support of INUTW mentors.

Guajajara continues to screen “We Are Guardians” around the world as he begins working on a follow-up documentary about one of the principal subjects of the film, Indigenous activist Puyr Tembé, and her work to reforest lands destroyed by gold mining in Brazil. He has also received several invitations to direct other films and wants the world to know he and his Indigenous colleagues are ready to keep going. He said, “We have the capacity to make films and be part of every stage of the process. A lot of times all we need is the opportunity.”