Learning from Telluride Mountainfilm 2014
A lone vulture circles, catching the uplift in a high valley of Tibet. The monks tend to the corpse and the lone vulture, attracted from afar, seemingly knows that this sky burial is about to take place. Sometimes only a few vultures come but occasionally there is over a hundred. Maybe it is karma muses a monk, his voice disguised by re recording in Lhasa so as not to reveal his identity to the Chinese government. The body is unwrapped and the monks ritually offer up the physical remains of one of their own to the vultures as a Chinese tourist scrambles to get the best photograph. A stern young monk seems more concerned with the pack of tourists, bussed here from the train that brought them to Tibet, bringing the profanity of cultural tourism, a strategy for assimilation, to the mountains. This is a sacred place, this is a sacred act and here the candy floss colored rainwear coated Chinese are more horrible than the scene at the sky burial. Something sad is happening here.
A line of hundreds of climbers, ranging in skill from novice to expert and from fit to eight oxygen bottles of unpreparedness, string down the north face of Everest. The Sherpas had laid out a line earlier in the morning so that these tourists can reach the top of the world. They have paid up to forty thousand dollars each for the privilege. Uli Steck, the Swiss Machine, determined to not only do one his world famous rapid ascents of Everest but to then also ascend a nearby peak before returning to Basecamp Two, runs across the Sherpas who are alarmed by his presence. The mountain is supposed to be free of climbers so they can do their lowly paid essential work. A fracas ensues and Everest erupts into a conflict between the ego of the colonizers and the sensitivities of the indigenous people. “To us the mountain is sacred, it will look after itself, it will decide our fate” intones a young Sherpa to the camera. A few months later an avalanche will sweep sixteen Sherpas to their deaths leaving sixteen families destitute in the high valleys of Nepal and closing Everest to further tourism. Other Nepalese are shipping out to the Middle East to work as construction workers in Doha, building stadia for the World Cup. It is estimated that hundreds will die. Like the dead that made the Cathedrals of Europe and the Pyramids of Egypt, it is the lowest of the low who go unremembered as the rich try to reach god.
Pete Yarrow trembles as he assembles the three mike stands he needs for he and his daughter to sing and play. His is a eulogy to a life of activism and the power of folk music to send the message down the ages. He offers a powerful commentary on the life of Pete Seeger, recently deceased, and sings “Where have all the flowers gone?” with and for an audience with tears streaming down their faces. The fracking continues, the land is not sacred it seems, even if this land is our land. The climbers in the panel discussing Everest echo the same thought: “Whose Mountain is it? The skilled climber or the novice tourist?” Who are the Sherpas giving their life for? The spirit of Mallory is invoked, referring to Sherpas as coolies and hoping to have one at his country mansion back in bucolic imperial England. What has really changed? Maybe it is no-ones mountain? The Sherpas in the audience sit quietly, humbly, as these conversations skip across their profoundly respectful culture.
The Salmon will outlive us as they have survived volcanoes, earthquakes and the tectonic contortions of a planet in constant upheaval. Upon the destruction of an old obsolete and useless Dam nature regains its control in a single year. The salmon return to spawn. In the film Dam Nation the futility of damming the rivers is revealed, the short sighted and temporary nature of our belief in the power of humankind to dominate nature is documented. In Song of the Cicadas a voice from the past intones his will to segregate insects into the “good ones and the ones we must destroy”. The Cicadas are as patient as the planet, waiting seventeen years underground before crawling out, flying for forty eight hours, mating and dying in their thousands, blanketing the ground with their corpses, fertilizer.
This is Mountainfilm, David Holbrook’s paean to the power of nature and cry for sanity in a modern world that has fallen into a technology induced euphoria that precludes sensible appraisal of our impact on the very planet that sustains us. It is African blood that pays for the rare elements that make your iPhone. It is indigenous culture that is being eradicated by imperialists and capitalists as they suck the world dry to feed the desires of the urban rich. And yet there is an unspoken theme that runs through Mountainfilm this year, a realization that the power of the natural world endures. Nature acts in geologic time even as we act in quarterly shareholder results time. Not only are young activists the world over seeing clearly the horror of exploitation and destruction being carried out by the amoral corporations that dominate the world and the greedy governments with which they collude, but they see the sheer power of the natural world and seek to draw our attention to it. The Salmon have the power to sustain us. The sky burial, along with many other ancient sacred rituals enable us to face our own mortality with dignity and happiness. Technology enables us to do terrible things, as we pump poison into the aquifers to line the pockets of the oil barons that run amok through our so called democracies. But it is also connecting us into a network of witness. Witness to the importance of the indigenous people who have been marginalized by the hegemony enabled by the interbreeding of Thomas Moore and ExxonMobil. The moral center is shifting, the ancient knowledge, wrapped up in myth and mysticism, enacted out in ritual and sent down the ages by song and prayer, is emerging as a powerful truth. What is sacred in this world? What do we regard as worthy of respect and reverence? Will we ever learn to live in harmony with the powers of the natural world?
The films, music and conversation presented at Mountainfilm gave us a peek into this new reality. Change has a habit of being discontinuous. Pressure builds, knowledge grows and we humans suddenly adapt to the new reality. This may be happening now as a new generation is confronted by the horror and self destructive nature of our techno-industrial oligarchies and have the power, through new media technologies, of not only reacting but cohering across time and space to rebel. It was Thomas Jefferson who claimed that rebellion was the act of a patriot. It may be that the next great rebellion is global and will usher in a new epoch, one in which humanity shifts from exploitation to coexistence after a few hundred misspent years. This means that consumer capitalism is being evolved to something new, a capitalism of coexistence maybe? A cultural capitalism within which we exist not simply to consume but to co-create. Every market research company in the world is monitoring a shift of values among the young. They continue to frame it within the current economic construct when in fact it is the global economy itself that will shift. Unless we, the business community, engage in this shift we will be obsolete within a generation. Americans lead the way in producing mountains of useless stuff that barely lasts and means almost nothing. In a culture of co-creation, durability and meaning take on a new importance. It is the opposite of built in obsolescence and an attack on pollution for profit. Here at Mountainfilm you can feel the change, down to the lack of plastic bottles and paper cups. Holbrook sweeps around Telluride on an EBike that is cooler than a Maserati. Friendships are made on gondolas and the old inspire the young. It could be an allegory: a small hint at what is to come, out of the ashes of Detroit and the fires of Kuwait, a world where artists are as powerful as scientists and we share the narrative of coexistence that we need to survive. Get with this program or fade away.