25 years ago an isolated Colombian tribe emerged to share a warning about humanity’s future, captured in a film about them that had a far-reaching global impact. But now the tribe has surfaced again to give us a powerful new message
Shibulata is a Kogi Mama: an enlightened leader of one of the world’s last, lost tribes. In 2008, he and other members of the 18,000 Kogi people living in the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of Colombia, came out of centuries of fiercely defended isolation, for only the second time in their existence. They refer to themselves as the ‘elder brothers’ of humanity, the guardians of the Earth, and wanted to send us, their ‘younger brothers’, a message. That message is captured in Aluna – a groundbreaking documentary premiering at Raindance Film Festival in London this month. But the story begins much earlier.
In 1988, Alan Ereira, a filmmaker for the BBC, was in Columbia tracking down a lost city, deep in the jungle, when he learned of a nearby tribe who had existed in almost complete isolation for at least the last 500 years. In fact, the Kogi are thought to be the only civilisation to have survived culturally intact since the time of the Incas and Aztecs. They have no wheel, no written word, no language any outsider can speak, but nonetheless possess a wealth of indigenous knowledge lost from the modern world entirely. Ereira sent a message: did they have anything to say to the outside world? Six months later a response came back: come to our village, we are waiting.
But entering Kogi lands is no easy feat. Surrounded on all sides by almost impassable jungle and the terrors of armed guerillas, tomb robbers and cocaine traffickers, the Kogi have remained isolated precisely because it is almost impossible to reach them. When Ereira finally arrived at their settlement – a small mountain village of circular thatch homes and terraced farmlands – he was placed before a council of Kogi Mamas. “I felt completely transparent to them,” he says, “as if they knew my thoughts just by looking at me.” He told them how a camera works, the Mamas deliberated, and by the morning he had a commission.
That film, From the Heart of the World: the Elder Brother’s Warning, was released in 1990. In it, the Kogi warn humanity that we are damaging the Earth, and dramatically predict the end of the world if we do not change our ways. The film became one of the most celebrated documentaries about an indigenous people ever made. The president of Colombia asked for their blessing before his inauguration. The King and Queen of Spain came to visit. The Rio Summit took notice. And the Kogi, satisfied that their message was delivered, returned to their mountain and asked never to be contacted again. But we did not listen.
In 2008 Ereira received a message, asking him to return to the Kogi village. They wanted to know why their warning wasn’t heeded, why we kept damaging the Earth. They wanted to try to communicate again with us, but this time – realising that we understand more with our eyes than our ears – they promised to show us the evidence behind their message and take us on a journey that would alter our very understanding of reality itself.
The resulting film is a beautifully shot, and poignant, revelation of one of the world’s last uncorrupted indigenous civilisations. But what makes the film so special is that it isn’t a documentary about the Kogi; it’s a documentary by the Kogi about us.
We follow Mama Shibulata, his daughter Francesca, and other Kogi Mamas from his and neighbouring tribes as they physically lay a 400km line of golden thread between important ecological sites near their mountain home – the tallest coastal peak in the world, filled with layers of distinct climatic ecosystems and recognised, because of that, as a microcosm for the planet as a whole. As we follow their journey we encounter dried up river estuaries, polluted beaches, and disappearing forests – a landscape utterly devastated by industry. “It was like moving through a war zone,” Ereira says.
But the Kogi are not just highlighting the damage we’ve done, they’re trying to show us the delicate interconnections between the natural world: how what happens in one place has a specific, and direct, consequence on what happens in another. The Kogi want to show us that the golden thread is real.
“One of the most striking bits of the film,” Ereira says, “is the way they talk about how rivers function – they are absolutely adamant that the source of the river is affected by what you do at the estuary. That’s not the way we look at it – we don’t have that information, but that view is now beginning to be accepted by many river scientists.”
The Kogi have a profound ecological knowledge and this is attested to throughout the film by conservationists, environmental scientists and even one, startled, astronomer. Nonetheless, there are occasions when their warning appears to be based in something more closely resembling belief, than hard fact. That they can divine the future by reading bubbles from water is something most viewers will find hard to accept.
But to let our different systems of knowledge and communication dilute their message would be to miss the larger point. For woven between the symbolism of their language, another, more ambitious, message is embedded too. The Kogi don’t want to just show us how we’re damaging the planet, they want to change the way we think about the planet entirely. They want to show us Aluna.
Shibulata, like all Mamas, spent his entire youth mastering a unique form of concentrated thought that the Kogi believe connects them to a kind of cosmic consciousness that underpins the material world and is the basis of reality itself. This is Aluna. For the Kogi, the planet is embedded in pure thought; we exist in a conscious universe. Through this connection, the Kogi believe they are able to commune with the planet as a living entity, enabling them to protect its natural balance, and all living things within it.
“One way to understand Aluna,” Ereira explains, “is that the world has life and awareness. It is absolutely mysterious to the Kogi that we do not think the Earth experiences what we do to it.”
This metaphysical plane, they believe, intersects with the physical world along identifiable geographic lines that are spread out across the Earth. The journey of the golden thread in the film, therefore, in mirroring one of these lines, is an attempt to give visual expression to this underlying reality. The Kogi want to show us the blood and breath of a thinking, feeling Earth.
If we begin to understand the planet in this way, as a living entity, Ereira believes there are logical consequences for environmental policy around the world, one of the Kogi’s fervent hopes for the film. “They feel we need to give our care of the Earth a basis in law, rather than emotion,” he says. “We need to criminalise ecocide and make it illegal to kill an ecosystem.”
Another of the project’s ambitions is that the modern world will begin to utilise indigenous knowledge more effectively. “The Kogi would like to give advice to large scale developments,” Ereira says. “Similarly, they have offered to work with scientists to help protect the Earth.” Indeed, Professor Jonathan Baillie of the Zoological Society of London has expressed interest in the Kogi helping him to locate key refuge areas of certain species – places that they return to in times of ecological disaster, which must be preserved in order to protect against that species’ extinction. That work has yet to begin, but perhaps the most significant breakthrough of all is the acknowledgement that indigenous people have a unique insight into their environment, and a valuable ecological expertise, that comes from living so close to the land; knowledge that we in the developed world have lost and may still need if we are to survive.
Mama Shibulata and his tribe have now returned to their mountain. But despite all the challenges humanity faces, they still have hope. “You do not need to abandon your lives,” they tell us at the end of the film. Perhaps instead, at least to begin with, all we need to do is change the way we understand the Earth: from a collection of disparate habitats to a complex of interdependent systems, from an inanimate object to a living entity. Perhaps then we, the younger brothers, will finally grow up.
Aluna will premiere at Raindance Film Festival on Saturday the 28th September 2013 at London’s Apollo Cinema, Piccadilly, and is currently being scheduled for international distribution. More information: www.alunathemovie.com
Eradicating Ecocide campaign: eradicatingecocide.com
The Tairona Heritage Trust is a charity set up by Alan Ereira to help the Kogi community buy, and restore, land near their home. www.taironatrust.org
Photo title: Mama Shibulata, a leader of the Kogi people, and his daughter Francesca
Photo credit: © Aluna the Movie Ltd