Who has the right to tell "our" stories?

Who has the right to tell "our" stories?

Shawna Begay is currently studying for her PhD in Educational Technology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She also works as a Graduate Assistant.

Date Posted: 
2012-06-20 00:00

Blog Series:


I watched a filmed called Sip'ohi- El Lugar Del Mansdure directed by Sebastian Lingiardi. It was a film about the Wichi Tribe in Argentina. The opening of the film we see a close up of someone trying to create a fire. It goes into this great creation story, oral traditions in the tribe. The main character is, Gustavo, a member of the tribe who has left the city life to go back home, or as we Natives in the US would say, “going back to the rez.” What drew me into the film within the first few frames was the language. It was a cross between Spanish and Navajo. It was weird. There were very similar glottal stops and intonation that the Navajo language has, but I couldn’t figure out any of the words and it sounded like Spanish at the same time, but it wasn’t Spanish (I know because I asked some Spanish speaking audience members.)

As the film went on, I was “duped” into thinking that the filmmaker was Gustavo. I didn’t find out until the Q&A session that the filmmaker was not from the Wichi tribe and is simply (or not simply) a documentary filmmaker. I wasn’t sure how to feel about the filmmaker and the very traditional content that he captured within the Wichi Tribe. I mean, this has been done for decades! Outsiders, coming into Native Communities, filming them and galavanting off with a film they call their own letting people watch it all over the world. This could be seen as an objectification and exploitation of Indigenous people. But I wanted to keep an open mind, so I kept listening to the questions and answers between the audience and the director.
As people talked and asked questions, it was revealed that Sebastian worked closely in collaboration with Gustavo to make the film. He also provided some training and guidance for people of the Wichi Tribe to develop their own media. In fact the Wichi Tribe did produce a film that has been seen in different venues (I need to find out more about this so stay tuned). Once I heard this, I felt that Sebastian was perhaps doing something good and that I could unclench my fists for the moment.
I rose my hand to speak and commended Sebastian and reminded all filmmakers that if they are going to go into someone else’s space, they must not just take. As in a lot of Native cultures, you must give an offering or give something in exchange if you take something from someone or something. I reminded the filmmakers that Indigenous people have stories to tell that identify us and they are important, sacred stories, not ones to be objectified and used as “art.” I liked the fact that Sebastian respected the people of the Wichi tribe enough to empower them with the technology and skills to start telling their own stories with their own voice using media.
I reminded the filmmakers that you must have respect for your content. A few people actually came up to me after the session and thanked me for reminding them about giving back and thanked me for saying what I did. But does that make it okay for others to go into Indigenous communities and film? I would argue that it is up to the responsibility of the filmmaker, but not all filmmakers are responsible. And it was very evident at a screening the next day.
So the next day we watch a film called, The Creation as we Saw It directed by Ben Rivers as a work in progress. It was the first showing of the morning, then we saw Moana directed by Robert and Frances Flaherty which was presented by their great grandson, Sami van Ingen (he has some interesting stories on the Flaherty family and seminar which was awesome to hear about over lunch....) Anyway, I watched Ben River’s film and then went to the question and answer session. Now maybe it was the gruelling schedule we have been on, taking in up to 9-15 films a day that I didn’t catch this until later, but something was very disturbing about this film.  
The film is a documentary style story with the Indigenous people of The Vanuatu Republic. It is scenery of the tribe and the people with a voice over of their oral legends and creation stories about how humans and pigs came to be what and who they are. It reminded me of Navajo creation stories of how certain animals came to be. It was a well made film, very beautiful cinematography. I went to the question and answer session and someone asked the Ben (born in Somerset, England) why he made the film. His answer was, “We won free plane tickets and decided to go to The Vanuatu Republic.” My 5 hour delayed response to this was, “WTH?” Not to mention the title of the film is not empowering to the Indigenous people at all, “The Creation as We Saw it.” REALLY!?!?  
I wish I would have responded to his disregard and objectivity of the Native people of The Vanuatu Republic. I would expect more of an explanation of an “artist” about his work. Indigenous people’s lives are not “art” to be shown on screen that outsiders can take credit for. The stories that the Vanuatu people were telling are a part of who they are, a part of their culture and traditions and to see a filmmaker blatantly take their stories and show it as an experimental, art, documentary or work in progress made me feel quite sad. He did mention that the Indigenous people were collaborative and the chief worked with him for the creation film, but does that make it okay if he’s showing their stories as his own story all over the world after he won plane tickets? I didn’t get a sense of any kind of interest or emotional connection between the filmmaker and the content other than, this is my art, take it or leave it. This could be an assumption. If I get the chance to speak to the director of this film this is something I will surely ask him about, but right now I think I would be too emotional to carry on a logical and decent conversation about this film with him.

I know there are people out there who have great intentions when filming other cultures but the important thing to remember is RESPECT. You can’t take a story from another culture and call it your own or call it art in the objective, disrepectful sense. Filmmakers have a certain obligation and responsibility when it comes to media. Media is influential. You can make a person laugh, cry, get angry, get happy all with a story on screen. But a filmmaker must also realize that there are stories out there that are not for you to tell.

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