A Touching Story

One of the really cool things at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film was the video library: a pop-up mediatheque where delegates could watch not only any of the screened films they may have missed, but also any of the DVDs in the RAI collection. This included a veritable treasure trove of archaeological films and while I only got to catch a couple of them, this one in particular stayed with me.

Volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.
UCL volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.

Touching Objects (2013) is a short film by independent British documentarist Sasha Andrews. The film follows Chloe, a Heritage Studies student and hospital volunteer, who cleverly brings objects from the UCL’s Petrie Museum collection in to be handled by in-patients as part of a wellbeing programme. The patient in this case is Carol, who is recovering from recent surgery, and her enthusiasm for the objects is infectious: a small jar “feel Russian” she says of as she tries to guess what it is, while a raw piece of sodalite stone which is described as having healing attributes “is so powerful […] very emotional!” Ultimately this is a nice little study of affectivity through the power of touch – a human quality unique to archaeology and an experience familiar to all archaeologists. After all, who can resist the desire to touch ancient things, to know them intimately by their texture, weight, temperature and – in this case – even their energy? Having just volunteered at a public artefact handling session for the Festival of Archaeology, I can definitely attest to the remarkable effect that handling real archaeological objects has: it’s as if these objects lack depth, lack a kind of realness, until their physical presence pulls you into their world.
Short films are experiencing a major comeback with the opportunities for exposure now available via online distribution, which is good news for early career filmmakers and those who simply wish to experiment with the medium. The RAI Film Festival cleverly included several shorts in their scheduling, but you may have also noticed the major film festivals and commercial cinemas increasingly doing the same (Pixar shorts in particular come to mind). It would be great to see more short films like this produced by or in collaboration with student and research archaeology projects.


Can a documentary really save an archaeological site from destruction?

One of the wonderful things about ancient sites is how they reveal how humans fit themselves into and are in turn affected by the environment. Our choice of the most sensible trade routes, site proximity to water or access to resources can reveal not only the long term patterns of human occupation but also the depth of human connection to place over time. And even when sites are forgotten, even after thousands of years, their discovery can reignite that connection once more. The problem then, is what happens when an ancient place becomes a victim of its own geography? When war, trade, corruption, and personal conflict intersect and the fate of an ancient site is left hanging in the balance, can there even be a positive resolution? Such is the crisis face by Mes Aynak.

The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Promotional Still (2015).
The view over Mes Aynak in Logar Province, Afghanistan. Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Still (2015).

Mes Aynak (also called Tepe Kafiriat) is an ancient settlement near Kabul in eastern Afghanistan. It’s a very impressive site: dating back to the Bronze Age about 5000 years ago, Mes Aynak peaked during the 5th and 7th centuries CE as an important Buddhist trading city along the silk road, possessing a citadel, forts, monasteries, temples, and – crucial to our story – a complex of copper mining and processing infrastructure. Overall Mes Aynak spread to a size of 40 ha (that’s about 2/3 the size of Pompeii) before its decline and abandonment in the 9th century. Although it was identified as an archaeological site in the 1970s by Afghan and Russian archaeologists, it was not until 2010 that intensive large scale salvage excavations kicked off. You see, in a tragic twist of fate, the copper that attracted the ancient settlers to the site in the first place may also be the seed of its destruction as Mes Aynak sits atop one of the worlds largest copper deposits (over 6 million tonnes of copper, worth an estimated US$100 billion) slated for open-cut mining to begin in late 2015. So which is more valuable to Afghanistan, the copper, or the heritage?

Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).
Saving Mes Aynak Promotional Poster (2015).

Saving Mes Aynak examines this heritage crisis by following the personal journey of Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori as he and his 550-strong crew race against the clock to excavate as much of the site as possible before its destruction. Commercial archaeology is not an easy game in any country, but add to it the long term impact of war and poverty and the outlook for heritage preservation very quickly turns grim. The commercial conflict – deepened by a history of government corruption – is only one battlefront Temori must face. Daily Temori’s crew face reprisals from the local Taliban: one crew-member even tells us how he had a landmine explode in his face as he was pick-axing, partially blinding him but not deterring him from returning to work. Bureaucracy too proves to be a source of tension as half the crew is employed through the Ministry of Mines and the other half through the Ministry of Culture, and international aid funding – necessary for pay and equipment – at one point is delayed for 3 months, causing further friction between the local and international members of the dig team. Even the professional credentials of the archaeologists are drawn into question as some of the team resort to excavation with heavy machinery in their haste to expose the site, to the displeasure of their peers.

Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman interviewing Temori on site. Promotional Still (2015).

Unlike most archaeology documentaries this is very openly a social-justice story. Although there are interviews with French and American archaeologists, Afghan politicians, and even the director of the mining company, director Brent Huffman chiefly follows Temori’s perspective and the impact of Mes Aynak on his life (including his young family). By taking this angle Huffman makes the explicit argument that the real value of this site is its cultural significance to the local Afghan community. It’s a really nice example of how story structure can complement and amplify a more abstract argument about ethics and heritage. In keeping with this approach, whilst the cinematography is stunning, it does tend to over privilege the treasure-like quality of the finds and the crew’s personal response to them, and the subsequent dearth of more scientific analyses may rub some archaeologists and history buffs the wrong way. I do think however that given the lack of voice that Afghani archaeologists seem to have, that Huffman deserves a bit of leeway to tell this story this way – sometimes open bias is justified. I also really like his portrait of commercial archaeology as really being the frontier of archaeology as a discipline – both in terms of new discoveries as well as ethical debates – and I’d like to see more documentaries that put commercial archaeology under scrutiny given its dominance out in the field.

Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).
Huffman filming a Buddhist Stupa at mes Aynak. Promotional Still (2015).

I also love how strategic Huffman has been about this production. Saving Mes Aynak aims to do exactly what it says on the tin: it is the flagship of a much larger activism campaign seeking to inspire viewers to get involved in saving the site before mining begins. By building an audience through crowd-funding (quick disclosure – I signed up too), spreading the word through social media, striking out with multi-platform broadcasting (you can currently watch it on Al Jazeera), and following the trend of providing free unlimited access within its country of production, Saving Mes Aynak is all about using documentary to make a real world impact. It comes from a good lineage too: Huffman is an award winning journalist and documentarist, and the production team (via the non-profit production company Kartemquin) are the makers of Hoop Dreams (1994), one of the 20th century’s most famous social justice documentaries. If anyone can pull this off, it’s these guys.

One of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).
1 of 600 Buddha statues recovered during excavations. Promotional Still (2015).

But what now? Mes Aynak was scheduled for mining to begin this month, a deadline that has been delayed until later this year, but at the time of filming only 10% of the site had been uncovered, and the archaeological team estimate another 10 years will be required to fully excavate the site. Even if that were granted (slim chance), it seems guaranteed the site itself (and the mountain it sits upon) will be destroyed. So can a documentary really inspire an audience to activism in order to divert the powers that be? Time will tell, and tell us soon.

Beneath the Surface of Digging For Britain

So this past weekend I had the privilege of crashing a talk about archaeology documentariesAlice Roberts in Conversation with John Farren – at Salisbury Museum’s open weekend as part of the UK’s Festival of Archaeology. For those unfamiliar, Professor Alice Roberts is a archaeological scientist (her specialty is osteology) who has presented on several British factual series including Time Team, The Incredible Human Journey, The Origins of Us, Ice Age Giants, Coast and Digging for Britain. John Farren is the producer of Digging For Britain (though his company 360 Productions), as well as other factual archaeology documentaries such as Rome: The Worlds First Super Power and What The Ancients Did For Us, and he also edited Timewatch. Digging For Britain is a magazine-style factual series on BBC 4 which reports annually on current UK excavations, taking a novel approach to filmmaking by combining archaeologists’ own DIY footage of the digs with post-excavation interviews in a pop-up studio in local museums.

I love these kind of events, where two familiar experts can candidly talk shop, taking the dialogue to unexpected places, before opening it up to a regular audience Q & A. It was like Sheffield DocFest meets TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference), so despite the audience being somewhat silver-topped, I happily got my geek on.

Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).
Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).

Here are a few essential takeaways:

– “Talent” is key to successful factual formats: when Farren first pitched Digging For Britain it was not until he dropped Alice Roberts’ name that the BBC commissioner began to take the idea for the series seriously. They wanted her so badly that they actually delayed production by 5 weeks to allow her an extended stint of maternity leave (she had initially agreed to start shooting 3 weeks after giving birth). Roberts was at pains to make the point that women can continue working soon after child birth if they wish, and the benefits of bringing her young children with her on shoots and digs. I’m really digging Roberts attitude right now.

Necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation): It was fascinating hearing about the struggles to get Digging For Britain on air and to keep it there. It was particularly revealing to hear how the program was dropped (despite high ratings), but through the changing of the BBC’s commissioner the filmmakers scored a second chance, although with a smaller budget which forced the format to adapt (hence the shift to DIY filming by archaeologists, rather than sending Roberts out as a presenter to sites with a film crew as in earlier series). These innovations changed the scope and tone of the stories, unexpectedly allowing greater intimacy and analysis. I suddenly have a lot more respect for a program that, to be honest, I was not especially sold on when I first saw it (perhaps because I’m not British, so I’m not the target audience). I’ll have to revisit Digging For Britain for another look.

– My own observation: everyone plays the blame game when sensationalism, “dumbing down” and misrepresentation appear rife. Archaeologists blame the filmmakers, the filmmakers blame the commissioners, the commissioners blame the audience. The audience however, seem to be the least bothered by these problems.

– Speaking of, the sheer joy and enthusiasm among some of the audience members during the Q & A was infectious. It was inspiring to hear the positive and very real impact of archaeology documentaries on people’s lives – particularly Time Team – again, I suddenly find I have a lot more respect for Time Team and factual formats in general. It’s nice to sit amongst a public audience and have their warmth wear away at that cynical edge you can develop in academia.

TV is no longer the dominant paradigm: according to Farren, who is shifting his efforts to online distribution, such as his new Youtube series Dig Diaries (which I discovered features my mate maritime archaeologist Dan Pascoe – it’s a small world!). This gels with both my training back at film school a couple of years ago and the general vibe at documentary conferences (eg. Sheffield DocFest, AIDC). The obvious benefit of digital distribution is that it provides an alternative to relying on broadcasters, who tend to be “risk adverse” to the speculative nature of both archaeology and traditional documentary. The short of it: the freedom of digital means we can go back to shooting stories that we don’t yet know the ending of, something broadcasters kind of stopped doing a while ago. The challenge however, is to still pull comparative ratings and to be able to measure success.

– Roberts asked the audience if they felt there was too much emphasis on ‘treasure’ on television – surprisingly, only about 20% agreed. And I suspect by the speed of their hands flying up that they were archaeologists or heritage professionals. I think it’s time for a few new audience surveys.

Roberts and Farren covered a lot of ground and although I can’t do justice to their whole conversation here, thankfully it was filmed, so I assume Salisbury Museum or the Festival of Archaeology organisers will be posting the whole thing online soon – when that happens I’ll be sure to share it here.

Swift Water Place (Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq)

Swift Water Place (2014) is a biographical documentary about archaeologist Douglas Anderson of Brown University, and his lifelong research at Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq, an Iñupiaq site on the Kobuk River in Northwestern Alaska. Anderson’s research focuses on trade economics and has contributed to establishing a continuous narrative of human occupation in the arctic circle extending back at least 10 000 years. The 200 year old settlement site of Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq – an intriguing network of huts and tunnels – was to be the final excavation of Anderson’s career, but it was unexpectedly brought to a halt when human remains were discovered buried within the settlement. This standstill is the crux of the film: will Anderson be able to complete his research and achieve his lifelong goals, or not? It’s a very frustrating climax because as a plot device it feels somewhat contrived, especially when the resolution comes very quickly (especially after such a long set up), when it’s revealed that the local Iñupiaq leaders of the Kiana Traditional Council appear to already have a long and positive history with Anderson (there are also Iñupiaq members of the archaeology team), and so they give the go ahead for the excavation to resume as they too have questions that the scientific research can answer. Conflict resolved, the end.

Promotional Still: Swift Water Place
Promotional Still: Iñupiaq family of three.

Swift Water Place could have been better unpacked for a more powerful and meaningful story (and here the website makes up for some of the gaps in the film). The film dances around but never quite pins down the source of the tension, which is National Park Policy not local politics. This is not simply another story about conflict and resolution between archaeologists and Native American communities, but rather the values of a local remote community vs national bureaucracy, with archaeology and archaeologists caught in the middle. What I discovered on the website, and somehow missed when watching the film, was that this particular decision by the Kiana Traditional Council not only allowed Anderson’s excavation to continue, but re-wrote National Park Policy. Now that’s something I would have liked to know more about, but the wider impact of this shift in terms of heritage policy and Indigenous rights is not really addressed by the film. Instead the film ends with further eulogising of Anderson though a partly reconstructed scene of him explaining to Iñupiaq teenagers at school about how proud they should be of their ancestors ability to survive the harsh arctic conditions (this is not a spoiler – it’s in the trailers too).

Promotional Still: Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq excavation
Promotional Still: Kiana community members visit the Igliqtiqsiugvigruaq excavation.

It’s not easy making a film about the political context of archaeology, especially from a post-colonial perspective. Filmmakers and participants must always be strategic in what they say and how, lest they taint the water for the next collaborative excavation, film or (most importantly) for community wellbeing. Also, at 27 minutes one gets the impression this film was restricted to a half-hour length, which perhaps is not long enough to do the full story justice (there’s a lot of material to cover here). What I suspect is the case in Swift Water Place, is that Anderson really is held in high regard by the Iñupiaq community – I mean, he’s been working with them for over 50 years and judging by the interviews with Iñupiaq elders and teenagers, and the positive commentary on the website, the community sincerely respects him and appreciates his work and this film. And I think it’s a great idea for the filmmakers use his personal story as a lead in to the larger discussion on archaeological ethics and Indigenous sovereignty. Unfortunately however, director Brice Habager don’t quite strike the right balance, and so end up spending too much time promoting Anderson at the expense of the larger story. A key rule in documentary filmmaking is to never turn your participants into heroes (and therefore two dimensional characters), because its undermines their credibility and distracts the audience. It really is a shame that Swift Water Place did not quite achieve that balance. Also, the equally interesting and long commitment to research into Iñupiaq folklore by his wife anthropologist Dr Wanni Anderson is set up, but never gets a pay off, so is reduced to another distracting storyline. Can we have a longer cut please?

Wanni Anderson and Clara Lee, Onion Portage, 1967. From the (Swift Water Place website).
Wanni Anderson and Clara Lee, Onion Portage, 1967. From the (Swift Water Place website).

The message of Swift Water Place is the important thing: if an archaeologist behaves respectfully and ultimately defers power to the Indigenous groups who’s culture is being studied, then the community may well support you in turn, to both stakeholders’ benefit, and that’s an important message for archaeologists and one that cannot be repeated enough. I recommend folk check out this film for themselves and make up their own mind for its effectiveness. For all my criticisms, Still Water Place still a very well made film with high production values, it balances science and ethics which is commendable, and it would make a nice centrepiece for discussion in a university classroom.

“That vase represents the rape of the past”: Looted Mayan gods at the RAI Film Fest

So the other week I had the pleasure of attending the 14th Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film in Bristol. I was only able to pop along for the final two days (thesis joys), but that was just enough to get the gist of the overall shindig. At first the RAI Film Fest appears chiefly academic in flavour with its tradition of research based ethnographic screenings, but there’s also space here for commercial and international features (for example The Look Of Silence opened the festival). This mash up was a nice and welcome surprise: seeing the low-budget research documentaries juxtaposed against industry commissioned features really highlights the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and platforms (is it for research, the classroom, television, the cinema, or can it cross-over?) and reminds us that ultimately a good story will trump high production values any day.

Q&A with Ed Owles (The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival
Q&A with Ed Owles (the lovely director of The Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers) at the 14th RAI Film Festival. (Photo: K Rogers).

The schedule was pretty packed so in the end I mostly stuck to one stream, the “Material Culture and Archaeology Film Prize Screenings.” Even so, that was still a stack of films, so instead of detailing them in one long rambling post, I’m going share them with you one by one – so check back for more RAI Film Fest reviews over the coming days.

Easily the best film in the archaeology stream was Dance of the Maize God by American filmmaker David Lebrun. And so it should be given Lebrun’s evident skill and long term dedication to anthropologically informed documentary filmmaking about Indigenous American cultures (he’s been at this game since the 1960s and seems the be an audience favourite in the European archaeology film festival circuit).

Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).
Promotional Still: digger lifting looted vase from trench (re-enactment).

Dance of the Maize God is a thoughtful exploration into the world of looted Mayan vases. Local villagers, ex-looters, archaeologists, dealers and museum curators each weigh in as equal speakers, telling the story of how these vases came to be discovered, traded, displayed, rejected, hidden, and re-assessed by various stakeholders. The title of this blog entry comes from one of the statements an archaeologist makes in the film, and admittedly, while comparing the looting of objects with the act of rape is a problematic analogy to say the least, it’s a statement that does express a genuine sentiment that’s passionately and regularly raised in international heritage. Looting causes irreversible damage that cannot be undone, even if the artefacts are recovered. And so, Dance of the Maize God asks, can we ever really know what the beautiful Mayan artwork on the looted vases means? Is an artefact taken out of its archaeological context really so (scientifically) worthless? Is it wrong to conduct research on looted objects? Could doing so fuel further looting? What are the responsibilities of archaeologists who hire and train local workers to identify artefacts and sites, but provide only short term employment to these vulnerable communities? Also, what actually happens to the looted artefacts that are rejected by museums and galleries?

Promotional Still: Two views of Maya vase, King with Shaker.
Promotional Still: two views of Mayan vase  depicting King with shaker.

This is a tangled story told with sophistication that both a public and professional archaeological audience can readily enjoy. Lebrun competently marries an account of Mayan mythology and culture (ancient and modern) with the ethical debates about museum policies and the micro-economics of looting. The latter is kind of funny and revealing actually, for example, the initial monetary value of vases here is designated according to whether the depicted characters are sitting, standing, gesturing, etc – an interesting take on artefact categorisation! There’s also a good news story here too, with the skills of former looters recognised and re-purposed through sustainable employment as heritage and environmental custodians, because after all, who would know how to read the landscape and counter future looters better than a former looter? And while state-run museums and galleries may reject artefacts without provenance, in this case we see that those artefacts can still find a home and be valued for their cultural significance and educational use in a local community owned museum.

Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.
Promotional Still: Lebrun filming interviews in the jungle.

My main quibble with Dance of the Maize God is that I would have liked to hear more opinions from Hispanic archaeologists and Mayan stakeholders, as there was the usual dominance of english speaking white (and male) archaeologists. But to be fair, this seems to frequently be a problem in archaeology documentaries, and probably reflects the fact that the discipline is still very white and very male at the higher levels (especially in fieldwork), rather than a failure on the part of the filmmakers to find more representative speakers. And yes, in terms of storytelling there is the odd blurry re-enactment and experts interviewed in front of book cases and fire places that might make you roll your eyes, but there’s substance and style here too. In particular I liked the use of minimal animation and thoughtful cinematography to highlight the artworks on the vases and the stories they depict. For example, in one instance, the clever use a jump-cut sequence really does bring the Maize God to life, dancing on plates to the beat of a drum, no animation needed, just pure, skilled editing.

Promotional Still: Mayan plate showing the Maize God dancing (this needs to be a gif!)

Ultimately Dance of the Maize God is the sort of archaeology documentary we need more of: less focus on archaeological method (that’s what lectures and textbooks are for) and more on the social and political context of archaeology, the ethics and practice of the discipline itself through sensitive but investigative documentary filmmaking.