Crossing Boundaries with Film in the Mesa Verde Region

Melinda Levin, documentary film director, collaborator on the CSID funded interdisciplinary project on the Mesa Verde Story

As a documentary film director and theorist, I often interact and collaborate with others who take me outside of my proverbial comfort zone, whether these are Maya shamans, homeless and drug-addicted veterans, fire-loving cattle ranchers or Hezbollah fighters.  I’m pretty cool with being uncomfortable and tested.  I think most documentary filmmakers are.  Something about respect and adrenaline and telling the good story of humanity and our planet help one to stay focused and artistic in the face of such difficulties.

As a part-time resident of the very region that the Mesa Verde civilization thrived and collapsed in, I have a personal stake in this story.   And (knock on wood) I will very likely play out much of my life within an arm’s reach of where this culture thrived and died.  I am a part of this story.  I decided to live there.  I built family, tradition, memories, and hopes there.  I see the draw.

So I come to this project, and as part of this team, as someone who is intrigued with how I can make a film about a culture that literally no longer exists in the same manner.  Sure, modern descendents of these ancestral Puebloans exist, but the impressive and evocative rise and collapse of a vast community haunts me with similarities of present-day climate, agricultural and self-identity challenges world-wide, including in this corner of the United States.  I see a few too many parallels.  And that makes a good story.

With this particular project, I take odd comfort in two famous quotes on documentary. The first, by famed Russian theorist Dziga Vertov, anchors my opinion that all non-fiction media (and truth be told, most fiction works) are self-reflexive in nature:

“I am eye. I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, am showing you a world, the likes of which only I can see.”

I don’t assume to tell “The Story of Mesa Verde”, but rather “a story of Mesa Verde.”  I will gather information, visuals, sounds, perceptions, shadows, fears and joys, and present the story I see.  I will be challenged and possibly corrected by my colleagues, and I will perhaps serve the same purpose for them. Nothing new here, nothing groundbreaking for academia, cinema, literature or other arts.  But in this case we are dealing with the Science of Archaeology and the “sacred” and tightly held precedents of historical categorization.  We are also perhaps tampering with Native rights, traditions and history.  We are dealing with an indigenous culture that most of us are not steeped in.  The story is taking risks.  We are taking risks telling it.

The second quote about documentary film, which I love to chew on sometimes when I get my pompous academic hat on too tightly, is this;

“Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.” – Wolf Koenig

So the idea of the truth, which is now considered by many to be a dried-out argument, is still one that the collaborative artist often wrestles with.  Whose truth?  Why the truth?  Does it matter?  To who?  What’s the difference?  It is all the difference in the world?

To end, I’ll point you to that astute modernist Virginia Woolf, whose take on early cinema I find delightful;

“A strange thing has happened — while all the other arts were born naked, cinema, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.” – Virginia Woolf

So with this dedicated team of colleagues, I guess you could say I’m ready to hammer and thump, and work toward the hoped-for yet slightly off-tune joint symphony.  The archaeologist, the poet, the photographer, the Tewa consultant, the philosopher and the filmmaker worked on a proverbial mash-up, and out came a good story.  Those are important, I think.

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