Cultural Memory in the Americas: Immemorial

By 05 April, 2016

Immemorial is a new film-in-the-making about the natural environments of the Americas and the cultural memory of its people. As an audiovisual journey through the minds and landscapes of two continents, the film uses a rather poetic approach—even experimental at times—to raise awareness around cultural heritage, sites of historical significance, and traditional ecological knowledge.

It’s an honor to be able to introduce this new film here at Sounds and Colours, a space for sharing and celebrating the diverse artistic expressions of South America. While discussing its content, though, I also want to take the time to draw links between art and memory preservation, and the importance of music in revitalizing traditions that link people to the places that they are from and, ultimately, to the Earth at large.

It all started with the idea that perhaps something is being forgotten amidst the shape that modern societies have taken across the Americas. Perhaps we are experiencing a collective forgetting of the more difficult parts of our history, as well as our intrinsic identity as part of the Earth. I became interested in understanding what it means to forget, and in doing so, realized that I must first ask what it means to remember.

Over a year ago, I took a camera and embarked upon a journey through Colombia, Ecuador, Perú, and Bolivia in hopes of exploring the cultural and ecological diversity along the continent’s coasts, Altiplano, and Amazon basin. Here I began recording people’s memories and collaborating with residents to make audiovisual portraits of them and the natural environments they live in—portraits that would soon inspire the emergence of Immemorial.

It was years earlier, though, that I really began to examine the bond between cultural expression and history, but it wasn’t through ecology, it was through music. In 2012 I began studying Afro-Colombia street music and the racial politics in Cartagena, where I noticed how powerfully musical rhythms and songs safeguarded historical memory and served as a bond between Afro-Colombian folk and their African ancestors. The resulting film, Oíaymelo, comments on these themes and encourages a thorough reflection of how street music is understood today, especially when it is performed in public spaces and sites of deep historical significance, such as Cartagena’s Plaza de los Coches.

The power of music (I discovered in Colombia) is that it so profoundly carries history in its sounds, lyrics, and textures. Songs tell stories of the past and stories of the present, as you know, and so do rhythms and melodies. We are built of these stories—they breathe in our languages, our fears and our dreams, and it is my belief that in fact every cultural expression is a testament of identity that can never be fully divorced from where it came: the past. But not just the past, the Earth too. In Colombia, so often I heard musicians say that they played barefoot so that their feet could connect to their ancestors via the earth, or that the skin of their drum represented to them the skin of their great grandparents, and therefore touching it was like touching their past.

When we celebrate music, we not only celebrate tradition, but we celebrate the places where these traditions come from. We are revitalizing expressions of the past, and in that revitalization, unveiling a link—a link between ourselves and our ancestors, as well as the land that they lived on, the land that made their instruments, and the land that they sang to.

Amidst co-creating portraits of people and landscapes for Immemorial, I watched and (more importantly) listened to the different ways people relate—and have been relating—to the plants, animals, and landscapes of their environments. I began to feel that culture itself is the result of the relationship that human beings have with the places they inhabit, create, and are created by.

There appears to be something special about the way that many indigenous and Afro-Latino folks shape cultural expression as a response to a bond between humanity and ecology. Something that perhaps could teach other communities quite a bit. Something that could even help us remember pieces of our past that have recently become overshadowed.

Drawing from documentary, essay film, and experimental narrative, Immemorial illuminates the diverse ways we preserve memory in the Americas, addressing the histories of distinct communities while also, more generally, asking who we are today and what is changing about how we interact with the Earth. The film suggests not only that memory is important as a way to connect with the past, but also that through memory we connect with the future, our descendants. In other words, it is the vessel through which our descendants will one day connect to us. By remembering, we give roots to our imagination. And this is the importance of looking at history: to know where we’re going, we must first know where we’ve been. What we remember makes a mark on what future generations will remember: What will they remember, and how will they remember us?

By supporting new ways of honoring old traditions that serve to heal the contemporary problems we’re facing todaymost notably global climate changeImmemorial is a creative gesture toward awakening what I believe we need most in this moment: connection with this planet we call home.

If you’ve made it this far in the article and haven’t watched the teaser (above) yet, I kindly ask that you do. If (and only if) you feel called or inclined, support our Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to finish principal photography. I’m delighted to share this project here, and hope that it may find resonance with you.

What I’d like to say finally is that art holds the stories of our past and those of our present. Our expressions—the very ones honored and celebrated here in Sounds and Colours—are instruments of preserving and revitalizing cultural memory, and therefore human identity. That being said, this article is an offering of gratitude to those of you who are giving life to the collective past by supporting the infinite forms of creativity our species continues to imagine and remember.

Thank you.

Nicholas Sea

Director and DP, Immemorial

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