Maasai: At the Crossroads (Dietsch, Jordan, 2009): USA

Reviewed by Nitsa Pomerleau. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Film Festival 2010.

Santa Barbara’s  Kristin Jordan, Joe Dietsch, and Teri Gabrielsen came together to make Massai: At the Crossroads—an insightful and unprecedented documentary about one of the last remaining tribes of Africa, the Maasai.

Something good is happening at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro: a small non-profit Africa Schools for Kenya (ASK) has been working with the local Maasai for the past ten years to create an educational system that does not disrupt or detract from their traditional way of life. Together, they have built the Esiteti School, which offers an alternative curriculum with a focus on conservation, ecology, perosnal health care, and  global awareness to the children. Last spring the founder of ASK, Teri Gabrielsen, invited directors Kristin Jordan and Joe Dietsch to the grasslands of East Kenya to document this process.

What they capture is an extraordinary image of a community adapting to the pressures of development. Men, women, and children open up to the camera ( as Dietsch recalls, they were infatuated with the alien mechanism) with stories about marriage, education, and the struggle to survive in Kenya’s drought. In one scene the women assemble to discuss female circumcision, an integral custom of Maasai culture that has become a controversy amongst those who realize how damaging it its. At the same time a young girl explains that education and relocation to the city is the only way she can escape such cultural obligations, and then, after it all, return to help her community.

The topics of discussion weigh heavy, but I promise the tone is quite uplifting. Jordan directs the story with sensitivity and warmth: I note the gentleness in her questions to the Maasai and her selection of mellow, African desert-blues for the musical score. As co-director and editor Dietsch allows the film to breathe with generous digressions of beautiful time-lapse photography of the sky, darkening horizon, swirling dust, etc.  The documentary was shot in a mere three weeks but nothing about the feature is forced. Rather, it is rounded and meditative, as are the Maasai.

The obvious question for the viewer is: isn’t the integration of the school systems just a prettier manifestation of colonialism? It is, but as Jordan voiced in the Q&A, “modernization is inevitable”. In accepting this, ASK’s efforts are to create a future for the Maasai that does not obliterate their heritage. Which brings us to the title: “Maasai: At the Cross Roads”. The beauty of this film is that it documents a community while it suspends between the old and new. We have a record of the crossroads, and hope for the best.

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