From Snow to Sand: Kamerling on Capturing Change

An interview with Leonard Kamerling, co-director of CHANGA REVISITED

By Shosha Adie

“This was not just a story about Africa, Africans and the Maasai. It was a story about the indigenous people all over the world…”

— Len Kamerling, producer of numerous award winning films, co-director of ‘Changa Revisited’ and curator of film at the University of Alaska Museum. —

Filmed in the dusty grasslands of Tanzania, Changa revisited draws on an experimental and dynamic form of cinema that combines both the past and present by marrying traditional ethnographic methods with film and photography. What this offers, as described by co-director Leonard Kamerling, is “The ability to enter the world of a culture, not just to see the physical landscape but the emotional landscape.”

Our host, the compelling Toreto ole Koisegne, is first introduced to us as a boy in black and white, and then reintroduced to us in the colours of his new world. A world, that we learn, is a mere shadow of the dreams from his youth. The 600 cattle he’d tended in his father’s times have been reduced to 20, representing not only Tanzania’s precipitous economic decline but a loss of the famous Maasai solidarity and pride. For Kamerling, the award-winning filmmaker of Uksuum Cauyai: the drums of winter “The things that we saw there, the loss of traditional livelihood… the urban migration of young people to cities and the breaking of these family bonds… these are things that are happening all over the world to indigenous people. It so reflected my experience in Alaska, that I knew this was a very important film to make.”

The collaborative work of both Kamerling and skilled director Peter Biella grants us not only a window into this family’s struggle to survive, but an intimate view into the ultimate human struggle of maintaining hope in the face of an uncertain future.

Kamerling fondly reminisces on the process of making Changa Revisited as the most “high creative moment” in his career. Despite the directors intending to collaborate soon after they met in 1979, when Peter Biella was a graduate student about to embark on his dissertation in East Africa, they faced major drawbacks with funding. Nonetheless, in the 80s, Biella returned home from his research with thousands of invaluable snapshots of the Maasai daily life as it once was, preserved in 16mm film and tape. This meant that in 2009 not only did the directors have the money, they had 6000 vignettes from that same family’s past and the power to bring distant memories back to life.

Being a filmmaker, Biella had also recorded the missing sounds that accompanied his footage, and “Fast forward 30 years” we have Changa Revisited. “They’re not the typical style of photographs that are in a Ken Burns documentary, but rather a third thing,” I am told by Kamerling. “They’re photographs that are used to make a kind of cinema that is not film or photography, but instead a mixture of both.”

As you can imagine, Biella’s long history with the family and their struggles made it very difficult to select what would be used from this vast archive. On top of this, they were dealing with very sensitive and current issues which Kamerling emphasises are important to recognise.

“Alcoholism was definitely there, and a huge issue…In Alaska the struggle with alcohol it has been a long one. I think in Tanzania it is a similar thing, when one’s traditional livelihood and the options for making a living are reduced. and with a kind of loss of self-esteem and control something comes in to fill that vacuum. We decided in the film that we would talk about it but not explore it deeper and certainly not show people in the film drunk or behaving in that way because it’s… a drunk person can’t give you informed consent.”

Kamerling wants to use this story to highlight the unexpected consequences of the decisions that governments make, which affect people’s lives in ways that it’s hard to imagine. He talks about this in a wider context of the uncertainties facing the world now, such as Brexit within Europe, but predominantly the rise of Trump in America over which, he cautiously adds “most people, are quite alarmed”. In Tanzania, after independence from Britain, the first government set out to restrict the Maasai from being pastoralists by forcing them to settle in permanent villages. This move set off a domino effect which eventually lead to their life of plenteousness becoming one of poverty.

He tells me: “This is not journalism, where we are trying to present two sides of an argument, it’s not teaching where we are trying to present information. We are trying to find these rare moments of cultural intimacy that tell you something universal about the culture.” Here Kamerling discusses how their close dynamic as a team, notably the insight of editor Daniel Chein, and with the family in question made sure the film went in the right direction.

“Toreto is such a charming guy, and he’s so open. People need, and like him, are drawn to him… and then you find out about these other things and you switch your allegiance. We hope by the end of the film people have rehabilitated him. You see his struggle and how difficult it’s been. He’s trying to survive in a world that he has no control over.”

CHANGA REVISITED is screening at the RAI FILM FESTIVAL on Thursday 30 March, 11:45 AM
Information and tickets here