Independent Films as an Anthropological Resource

Herbert J. Paine
President, Paine Consulting Services

The intrinsic value of anthropology is in its ability to understand community dynamics and, in turn, to inform and enhance the development of actionable solutions to such salient issues as environmental degradation and climate change.

To this end, I propose that independent film documentaries can augment the pure research of anthropology by providing unique insights into the cultural values that either unite or divide us. The field of anthropology may discover that film making is an invaluable portal to understanding cultural determination and illuminating strategies to address the existential threats to human and planetary survival.

Cases in point: The dramatic visuals and narratives of the following two documentaries provide compelling insights into the balances that forge and define communities. At their core is the tension between communities of shared interests and the corporate and governmental forces that compromise long-established connections between people and their environment. 

In their 2018 documentary, FOREVER WILD, Sedona Arizona filmmakers Bryan Reinhart and Ronald Melmon chronicle the years-long struggle of the Telluride Colorado community to preserve the Valley Floor as open space.

The Valley Floor is a marvel of nature ~ 560 acres of wetlands, spruce forests, and wildlife where elk herds roam freely and coexist peacefully with hikers and nature enthusiasts. Instead of massive developments with limited access for the privileged few, these quiet and pristine spaces are available to all.

The film focuses on the dedicated efforts of a community intent on accomplishing the seemingly impossible ~ overcoming the disproportionate power and resources of big developers. 0n June 25th, 2002, the residents of the town of Telluride celebrated a spectacular success. Town Ordinance No. 1174 authorized the acquisition of the Floor "to protect its scenic, open space, public recreation and wildlife habitat values" in perpetuity.

The film is a perfect case study of the elements that are essential in forging a community of shared values. It blends history (the region's evolution from a mining community to an eco-destination) with the profiles of local change agents and the measures required for the Davids of community and environmental preservation to beat the Goliaths of corporate development.

What was a mining area that "tore up the land" became a destination for a colorful array of nonconformists whose attachment to the area intensified as the threats to its preservation increased. When the mine closed in 1978, it came under the ownership of the San Miguel Valley Corporation, whose principal owner was billionaire Neal Blue, the CEO of General Atomics Corporation. In 1993, thanks to its activist community, the Telluride Town Council decided that 20% of all town revenues would be set aside for open space. That same year, SMVC's plans to develop the area as a high-end upscale community were accidentally leaked.

In 2002, town voters by popular initiative adopted an ordinance to "condemn" the 572 acres of the Valley Floor and authorize the use of $20 million in revenue bonds to purchase the property. The landowner challenged the decision and, due to an unfortunate change of venue, a jury in Delta Colorado established the value of SMVC's land at $50 million. The citizens of Telluride then faced the monumental challenge of raising that amount in three months…and they succeeded.

Halfway across the world, a parallel challenge was underway, as chronicled in Alastair Evans's epic documentary, A CRACK IN THE MOUNTAIN.  

The film, five years in the making, zooms in on the grandeur of Hang Sơn Đoòng, reputed to be "the world's largest cave." Located in Vietnam's Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, this magnificent geological wonder is a complex of spectacular formations, soaring stalagmites, cave pearls, phytokarst, waterfalls, and underground rainforests.

Evans captures its full majesty and brilliance ~ notwithstanding the subterranean conditions and dim lighting of the area ~ with the benefit of remarkable advancements in digital camera technology.

However, in the 33rd minute of the film, Evans makes a profound shift in the focus of the film.

The camera turns to the bustling metropolis and man-made skyscrapers of Ho Chi Minh City where Hương Nguyễn Thiên Lê, the co-founder of Save Son Đoòng, speaks to the vulnerability of such treasures in the face of encroaching development. (Her initiative was spurred by the proposal in 2014 to build a cable car into Sơn Đoòng ~ now, deferred to 2030!)

The film is, an incisive exploration of a community's effort to balance the economic benefits of development against the imperative of environmental preservation. For a people who have suffered the ravages of war, disease, and poverty, the promises of economic development and employment opportunities are seductive.

The film does not blink at the dilemma. It goes lens-wide-open in exposing the potential threats to the sanctity of this pristine environment.

In one poignant interview after another, the dilemma is revealed. The voices of respondents are conflicted. Some sense that the monuments to nature's grace will likely be overtaken by development, regardless of the social and environmental costs. The experience of similar locations in other parts of the world, as one astute and skeptical observer notes, is that natures gems get "pretty well trampled" by the conglomerates and their governmental accomplices.

Many hope that community engagement and local entrepreneurship will provide a pathway to economic freedom; that leveraging ecotourism and striving for eco-friendly and sustainable development ~ accompanied by employment opportunities ~ will soften the blow and be seen by the government as apolitical and good for the country.

Still others fear that progress may be stemmed by the nation's governing body, the Communist Party of Vietnam, if progressive initiatives are perceived as threats to their authority. Ample evidence is provided of the government's repressive tactics. The government's ownership of the land has spawned a parallel land rights movement.

The tensions between possibility and reality are palpable in this film. There is a people's will for change, their aspirations lately blunted by floods, the pandemic, and governmental restrictions. What investments they have made in self-empowerment and what loan obligations they have are at risk. Yet, there remains the aspirations and dreams of a historically resilient people.

A CRACK IN THE MOUNTAIN, like FOREVER WILD, is a portal to understanding the balances to be negotiated in a dynamic and ever-changing world. It is an experience that enables the viewer to become a fellow-traveler to an edenic world, all the while appreciating what is at risk and what obligations we have to protect, preserve and sustain it. As Bill Stone, CEO of Stone Aerospace, observes, this, what lies under ground, is "the last terrestrial frontier." Let's treat it with reverence.

©Society for Applied Anthropology 

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