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SIFF 2024 #6: Saving culture in a changing world

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I noticed a recurring theme in several of the films I saw at SIFF: the preservation of art, culture, and ideas in a rapidly changing world. Whether inspiring, thought-provoking, or heartbreaking, these stories all reverberated with a deep cultural pride.

Bring Them Home (6/8)
The North American buffalo was systematically hunted to near extinction during the Euro-American encroachment on the West in the 1800s. But to the Blackfeet tribe of the territory that is now Montana and Alberta, the buffalo were known as iinnii, one of their relations in the natural world. The quest to obliterate the buffalo was directly related to wiping out the indigenous people whose lives directly depended on the herds. But starting in the 1970s, as tribes began reclaiming their heritage, there was a growing movement to also try to revitalize the buffalo on the reservations by “bringing them home”. This fascinating (and gorgeously photographed) documentary carefully acknowledges that the reintroduction of a wild herd of buffalo has been difficult (there were at least three tries to do so in the last few decades), and the idea even met resistance from many Blackfeet ranchers whose property was being encroached on by the various wild herds. Narrated by Oscar-nominee Lily Gladstone, Bring Them Home presents this sensitive and sometimes controversial topic in a balanced way, showing that even ideas with the best intentions may be more complicated than they seem.

The Etilaat Roz (6/8)
The Etilaat RozIn the ten years between the occupation of Afghanistan by US forces and the takeover of the country by the Taliban in August 2021, Kabul’s most widely-read daily newspaper The Etilaat Roz was a source of trustworthy, transparent news about politics and society. Everything changed literally overnight. A day after the country’s president made a strangely patriotic speech, gunfire is heard in the streets and people are racing with their families to the airport to be airlifted out of the country by the retreating American forces. At the center of the crippled newsroom (the Taliban crack down hard on journalists), is Editor Zaki Daryabi, who is in the worst sort of paralyzing conundrum: keeping his staff safe from the new government’s violent crackdowns (and helping them leave the country by whatever means) and worrying about the newspaper’s readers suddenly losing access to real news and information. Even as the Etilaat Roz’s office dwindles to a few remaining staff members, Daryabi steadfastly holds down the fort like a hero making his last stand. His passion is a heartbreaking testament to freedom, truth, and information. (One note about the film itself: the subtitles and captions are tiny and sometimes even overlapand I was watching a big screen! I hope this will be corrected as the film hopefully gains a wider audience.)

The Tundra Within Me (5/8)
The Tundra Within MeLike many folks stifled by their small-town family expectations, Lena left for the big city to become an artist. Upon her return, she’s ignored by her peers and treated with disdain by her mom for leaving. But what makes this well-worn take different is that Lena’s family are Sámi from northern Norway and are from a long line of reindeer herders, a traditional occupation as unique as it is a dying art. I loved the Arctic setting, where folks scoot on sleds to the store, herd their reindeer with snowmobiles, and sing “joik” tributes to friends and loved ones at the local bar. What works a little less well is Lena falling for sweet, struggling herder Máhtte (they don’t have a lot of chemistry), a guy who is both loyal to his traditions as he is restless at being stuck. He is her way back to her roots, while she may be his way out of a potentially dying occupation. Still, it’s cute to see him frantically strip off about 20 layers of Sámi clothing to fall into bed with Lena… layers which include endlessly unwrapping the traditional bands from his ankles and pulling off multiple sweaters from under his reindeer-hide cloak.

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