Not domesticated… this sounds intriguing to me.
Can we still find such a place today? On this planet? It seems that our impact as human beings extends far beyond the places we physically touch. Even the behaviour of animals – as well as plants, rivers, seas, and so on – changes because of human activity. We could probably talk about total domestication, and not in a good way.
It is high time for us to focus on our Earth, the source of life itself. We need to understand how we belong, and how we can make a humble contribution to the cycle. Then, hopefully, it would become inevitable for us to start redesigning the structure of our actions, far from structural violence, and closer to symbiosis.
Intimately, intuitively, I begin to feel the constraints that domestication imposes, and its inherent domination. And my soul, my cells, start yearning for the state of exhilarating freedom wilderness allows. I remember places I’ve been. Closer to the sky, closer to death also, yet pulsing with the energy of life.
It is with nostalgia and yearning for the morning mists and the verdant horizons that I will take you on a trip through my journals and my memory, to bring back two very different experiences: one of my recent project Terra Mater that we shot in the wild grey, and the other of another project a few years ago, The Mercy of The Jungle, that we filmed in the wild green.
memories and musings
about walking, mountains and the power of Mother Earth
As I am preparing to bring the crew for a recce of the unforgiving Dandora Dumpsite, one of the biggest landfills in the region, I know that the task is perilous. I’ve been going there since 2018, and every time I leave with the same realisation: the dumpsite is never quite what I expect it to be. Could it be a living, breathing – dare I say wild – organism?
That morning, we are all at the guesthouse, ready to start working on Terra Mater. The project was very fresh, time was ticking like a bomb. I had just been offered the perfect platform for it: the magnificent Piazza Grande in Locarno, with its giant screen (26x14 metres). The timeframe was short though. We had to get our hands dirty!
A few weeks before I’d sent Daniel, my Director of Photography, a poem and a moodboard. That’s all I had! He embarked on the adventure knowing it would be intense, unexpected, daring. I’m lucky he was able to understand and enhance my ideas with his sensitivity. But as we were on two different continents (he in Bern and I in Nairobi) when we discussed the plan, we couldn’t really prepare in the usual way. In fact, nothing in this project was done “the usual way”. I knew what we needed but wasn’t sure what we’d find. We made a plan, a backup and thought of alternatives, and still had to free ourselves from structure and rules.
I remember calling Safali, our Location Sound, who was equally game, but had never been to that crazy place. I tried to describe as much as possible what we were looking for, and what sounds we needed. But how do you anticipate anything of a place that keeps changing every time? It turns out you don’t. We chose to embrace it and work with reality, even if we aimed for our final mix to sound like science fiction.
They are all here now.
A few minutes later, we’re in a vintage green 4x4 vehicle, driven by Abbra, my Production Designer, who worked wonders with vintage technology and organic material. He’s the one who always tells me anything is possible: we will make it happen. Using old calculators, metallic cables, banana tree bark and microchips, he sewed a dress with for our lead: Earth Spirit, the magnificent Cheryl Isheja. Abbra is also the man who knows this area best. It’s reassuring, for it would be foolish to get there without introduction and expect to get out again in one piece.
It’s early. No one really speaks before coffee.
After the drive we meet the local crew.
Our contact Javan is there, our friends and trusted people from the “local security” are ready to escort us. We have all the unofficial permissions, including from the local mafia. Ready. Go.
We have to walk in line. Follow him! He knows where to step and place the gear, says Javan. But how does he know? I learn that there are sometimes fires in the layers deep below, and that if, for example you hear a bubbling noise, that means you might crash through the surface.
The dumpsite can swallow us?
The dumpsite is alive.
The dress weighed a ton, I was praying that Cheryl wouldn’t be swallowed up by the monster.
We move through years and years of trash. Unorganised pestilential chaos, yet after a while I notice that there seems to be a system to it, somehow. It is vertiginous. I can’t help but think, what have we humans done?
I imagine the trees that populated this area before we destroyed it.
But where does all that trash come from? I see here an area with glass, over there mostly fabrics and clothing. Plastic. Metal. It goes on and on, as far as the eye can see. A few months before, I found out that Kenya had just renewed the agreements with Europe, and that the European countries would continue to send their unwanted garbage all the way here. What have we done?
I see a grey t-shirt that someone donated to the white bins for old clothes sent to save the Global South. I imagine that same person buying the same t-shirt a week later, only in white.
Still no one really speaks. It leaves space for thinking, and keeping our mouths closed also keeps us from swallowing in the fumes. We’re all trying to pretend that we aren’t nauseous. But it takes all of our might not to vomit out our guts and our frustration. Thoughts and emotions feel overwhelming to me, to us. For it is not only the smells and smokes that assault us, but also all the layers of consciousness, the questions about our responsibility in this mess.
Terra Mater talks about land, a vast and complex issue here in East Africa, and the continent in general. An issue directly linked to the people, their heritage, their future – very concrete, very tangible.
We keep on walking. Through hills and hills, mountains of waste.
Trying to choose a location for the scene. Here, with the mountains of trash in the background!
Stolen land, contaminated land, ravaged land as opposed to rich land, fertile land, sacred land.
We walk, and I can’t help but think of another shoot I did a few years ago, also in April, also in mountains.
Mountains of raw, untouched nature, as majestic and as powerful as can be.
14 April 2017 – Ruhija Sector, Uganda, 2350m above sea level – tuning
Yesterday we drove twelve hours from the capital city and crossed the Equator, we reached the small camp at night without seeing any of the surroundings. There was no electricity except for that one “charging station” in the dining area, where everyone diligently plugged in phones and tablets for the next day’s adventure. But the capacity was already maxed out with us three. I made a mental note: bring a generator and sufficient fuel. We were exhausted, dazed by the altitude, freezing and excited for day to break. Our first recce, deep in the jungle.
The night was dark and cold (yes, temperatures drop at night in Africa as well!). But as a reward, we woke up on the roof of the world.
This morning, at breakfast, we discover the peaks covered in mist. I can’t believe my luck; we’re about to start an amazing adventure. We’re getting ready to scout Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. I can’t stop smiling.
Because it’s a national park, no vehicles can go in and we have to carry everything on our backs. Nothing can be left behind in the forest, as we want to leave a minimal footprint. We pack minimal attire and a lunch to spend a full day trekking in the park. My backpack weighs less than 3 kg and it’s already challenging. I’m wondering how we will manage with all the equipment and the drinking water when we shoot. Surely, with the help of locals, we’ll be able to find solutions. I decide to take it one day at a time.
We go in.
We move in a single file. In front and at the back, armed rangers carrying AK-47s walk with us to make sure we are safe. I know now that the gun weighs approximately 4 kg. The region is troubled by many international conflicts, and it would be unfortunate to cross paths with any of the rebels during our quest. I shake my head at the insanity of war, the theme of our movie itself. Our guide opens the way, cutting the thick natural curtains with his machete.
We walk, we climb, we sweat.
We choose trees: That one there with the big branch, it’s perfect for scene 12. Inside, I am petrified, wondering what kind of pretentious fools we are. Are we choosing a single tree in a primary forest? How will we find it again, when we come back? Fools. I banish the thought. I want to trust our guide.
We trek, and trek some more.
In silence. All our senses open. We take it in, all of it, the smells, the colours, the humidity, the sounds, the textures, the density.
We pass three mountains. Swamps, caves and waterfalls. A small second of inattention and I almost step in what turns out to be a crevasse, covered by low vines. I could have disappeared into the underbelly. Swallowed by the jungle. Digested. For not being alert. Life is creative, abundant and short, and this was a sharp reminder.
My legs still shaking, I take note for later that we can die at any moment. We must finish the shoot, alive and well, and be especially careful when we run around, caught up by the screenplay. It is going to be challenging.
We walk seven hours that day. And nine the following day.
Something starts to change inside me. Slowly the forest infuses my soul, and my eyes gradually open to the power and the magic of primordial spaces.
2 May 2017 – Ruhija Sector, Uganda – shoot
We come back after a short three weeks of prep in Kampala, the rainy season has already started. I notice that all the plants grow so fast, nothing looks like the pictures we carefully shot earlier. The forest is green, lush, and abundant. Opaque. Even more so. We feel even smaller. I anticipate the whole expedition to be even more intense.
The next morning, gathered in a circle, twenty-two cast and crew members send a prayer to the forest before we start Day 1 of many. Asking for protection, asking for facilitation, asking for success. Then we simply go in.
The forest takes us in, the forest carries us, the forest challenges us. We are here to tell the absurdity of war. To recount the connection between us all. Somehow the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest enables us to do so.
On Day 2, we think it would be smart to handle all the gear without cables because of the terrain and the many trees. However, it suddenly starts to rain, a downpour. And we didn’t know that when it rains, the forest’s density overpowers the wireless signals. All communication between the gear stops working. The forest is reclaiming her liminal space. We surrender and take shelter under giant leaves. Later, we find a way to shoot with cables.
One night that same week, we cross paths with the elephants. We are carrying all the gear out of the forest. We’ve been delayed and it’s already almost pitch dark. We should be out, past the Main Gate, but we’re still walking. Suddenly, in front of the column, our guides see something moving behind the branches. Something big. We of course saw nothing. Down! Everybody, NOW! they command as one, and the ranger fires shots in the air! There is nowhere for us to run, the terrain is too steep, the path too narrow. We fall on the ground. We hope the elephants move the other way. I know that our meagre protection is no match for them if they decide to challenge us. At that moment, any arrogance left in us has certainly vanished. We bow our entire beings.
As we go through the days – some easier, some harder – we also go through an initiatory journey. We can feel our growth every morning, the slight changes when we trek, our sharper senses, the ease in the effort. All modest, miniature steps towards symbiosis. We give it our all. And receive so much in return.
20 April 2022 – Dandora Dumpsite, Kenya – shoot
Did they cut all the trees first?
Or did they simply direct the loaded trucks to discharge their poison on an area abounding with natural streams and wildlife? I still wonder.
What happens when we inflict trauma on the body of the Earth? There are economic, political and spiritual aspects to the Earth, and we are part of its ecosystem. Who will reap the consequences?
What about the ties between colonisation, capitalism and climate change? Is climate justice even possible?
I wake up from my reverie. Maybe it is the smell that brought me back. Or maybe the heat.
We are in Dandora, the camera is ready, sound as well, all the extras are dressed in futuristic orange attire. We’re about to shoot.
Everyone is enthusiastic. It feels surreal.
When we frame, even the marabou storks play the game. They stand still, looking straight into the lens.
Silently judging us.
Once again, Mother Earth is willing to talk.
Let's listen carefully, with our whole being.
She says our human bodies depend on hers. She says it is high time we start to protect and restore land, to repair and honour it, on a global scale. She is still evolving, no matter how much we try to destroy her.
I take a deep breath. -
Not domesticated… this phrase still resonates with me.
I do like the feeling I get from it. It smells like freedom. As we claim to be exploring the ocean depths and faraway galaxies for our highest good, maybe it is within ourselves that we should look instead. And maybe it is there that we could finally find what we’re looking for: a wild, beating, raw desire for the spirit of life.
Having already confronted, on multiple occasions, the wildest settings, I definitely stretched my personal (and my team’s) boundaries. Yet I keep coming back, again and again, for more. Partly because I sense that there is a story to tell, but also because these experiences make me feel the most human, I have ever been, in its feral, intimate, animal sense. And on my own journey, facing my fears and building my strength, I know that all the challenges I’ve overcome have made me grow, personally and artistically.
Now I am slowly realising that these are the themes I want to address, these are the places, the plants, the animals, and the people I want to talk with. I feel closely related to them because of my heritage, certainly. But also, because this is where I can hear Mother Earth whispering. She needs our attention. Our care and our protection. With film, I have been offered a platform and a voice, where I can at least try to serve a vital purpose and relay her wake-up call.