In Powerlands, over the course of around seven years of filming, our filmmakers take us to a number of Indigenous communities, all united by displacement and resource colonialism. These communities have lived in these lands for generations, and now these lands are being ravaged by large companies: the natural richness of the environment stolen and despoiled for profit and control. And, of course, these profits, alongside the actual materials seized from the land, are taken far outside of these communities. All those who live there (and have always lived there) get from these companies is pollution, suffering, conflict and loss. It is a narrative that echoes round communities, the constant being capitalist oppression (neo-imperialism in action) with Indigenous communities as victims.
A film about ongoing colonial oppression of Indigenous communities could easily be a document of suffering. Though it is vital to recognise the sins done to communities, it is far more important to watch works where those communities speak for themselves: something that chronicles ongoing cultural practices as a resistant and joyous act; something told in the right way from the right perspective. That film is Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso’s Powerlands, a beautiful and deeply moving documentary that uses the thread of resource colonisation and displacement in Indigenous communities to present a portrait of resistance, culture and identity.
Though it definitely chronicles hurt and pain, Powerlands is ultimately an inspiring and uplifting work, due to a number of smart decisions that allow it to exist outside of the usual documented portraits of these topics. Of course, this all stems from positioning: Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso is a Navajo filmmaker that starts by documenting her community, using her specific lens as a connecting point to then chronicle linked, but importantly distinct, situations around the world. What the film does so well is to capture difference, to capture unique and vibrant culture, while remaining cohesive. The struggle does not define these communities, but the spectre of oppression is a unifying constant. Brilliantly, the result of this is a narrative of collectivism, of solidarity gleaned through narratives of resistance as opposed to narratives of subordination. This is primarily achieved through positioning, where communities speak for themselves and the director’s focus is on capturing life and community as much as it is on chronicling political uprising.
This is because, as the film argues effortlessly, these elements are intertwined. It is culture that is under threat here; therefore, to live your life (and to put that life on screen) becomes an act of joyful resistance. In watching, we view an alternative to the homogenous narratives we see pushed on us through all kinds of media, a different approach to joy, satisfaction and how life can be. Perhaps it is too easy a connection, as a portion of the film takes place in the Philippines, but the work of Kidlat Tahimik comes to mind, specifically Perfumed Nightmare (1977) and Who Invented the Yoyo? Who Invented the Moon Buggy? (1979). Though these works are very tonally divergent to Powerlands, being satirical films marked by irreverent humour, they similarly challenge capitalist notions of progress and success through evocative cultural projects. They also all manage to be deeply anti-imperialist and politically evocative while remaining celebratory.
In Powerlands a lot of this comes from structure, our focus is on learning how communities are standing up to oppression as opposed to being merely victims of it. During this time, there is an astute balance between interview segments (with external narration kept to a minimum) chronicling these narratives and just shots of existence. As much filmic space is given to somebody carrying a lamb through town, or people dancing, as is given to a story of an uprising (an important equalising that speaks to a very democratic feeling work, a film of solidarity). Thusly, these communities are defined by themselves on their own terms, allowed to exist, the ultimate act of resistance when it is their very identity that is under attack. To call it a respectful portrait is too light: it is a legitimate portrait; it is the only way these narratives and communities should be portrayed.
Of course, the narratives are vital. This film provides great cultural insight as well taking us through a number of specific events, educating effortlessly. There is a breadth of topics that shows that, while these stories are importantly united, the specifics are nuanced and complex. Luckily, the film is able to engage with the layers here, taking multifaceted topics and just making the perfect decision of having the right people talk about them. One standout moment is a section about a windfarm. We start with the visual, one of the key strengths of the film is its visual storytelling (where land and people are able to exist on screen and their very presentation is allowed to speak volumes), lines of wind turbines, an image that immediately evokes environmentalism. From this point, the film explains the complexities behind this outward symbol of environmentalism, showing that the community it has been placed on exist without power. Somewhere, a company can boast of its sustainable power source; meanwhile, that source is disrupting a community with its presence, stealing the resources (perceptive narration talks about the wind in this area and its cultural import). This is not to say we should reject ‘green’ power; it is to say that these surface level signs of progress can be mere greenwashing. The realities are complex and the innately corrupt system cannot produce ethical results. The narrative continues though, starting in talk of the disruption of the community and land, but building up to a point about how the community are working to collectively take control of this power. Then, we have renewable power from a community providing to their own community, from a land they have been connected to through generations, an important step.
These kinds of narratives echo throughout. People are pushed down and held under but still they rise. We don’t have footage of suffering and violence, and there easily could have been. Instead, we have curious footage of life being lived. So many documentaries end up being the precise thing that Mayolo and Ospina’s masterpiece short, The Vampires of Poverty (1978), exposed: parasitic documents that function as suffering and poverty porn, poking at communities from an outside perspective with the aim of curating pain. Instead of this, Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso has more in common with Agnes Varda, and her iconic filmic curiosity. The director’s presence is felt throughout, though it never feels obtrusive, the lens evoking a sightline. A number of sequences really show this. At one point we spend time with an armed group. The footage isn’t of violence, it is of collectivism, of communal living. An individual is doing drills with their gun. In the hands of Ivey Camille Manybeads Tso, it becomes expression and dance. A moment of joy and of identity where the curious camera pans around, isolating parts to focus on movement. The lingering image is red wellington boots in the mud, filling the frame, dancing around playfully. Of course, the complex politics around the situation are displayed, the film is very aware of this, but finding joy becomes a motif. Right near the end, an act of defiance is also an act of joy: young people from the Navajo Nation graffiti a polluted well with a warning to not drink from it. It is a layered act, through graffiti they enact a symbolic reclamation but, alongside this, the connotations are artistic, vibrant even. The core of the act is one of expression (facing destruction with construction), defiance done through creativity. Our filmmaker finds the joy, she finds the dance in the struggle and articulates, powerfully, how that dance is the struggle; she finds the creativity in using graffiti art as reclamation, she shows us the art of protest, the expressive and constructive nature of it. When living under these conditions and when oppressed by these institutions, to live is a resistant act; to live joyously is revolutionary. This film carries that revolutionary spirit and does so effortlessly.