Movement and Stillness: A Conversation with Filmmaker Matt Goldman and Photographer Elizabeth L. Gilbert about ‘The Last Safari’
The Last Safari is a film about photographs. As such, it’s a film about how history interacts with the present and how consciousness needs memory to survive. Psychologist and popular science author, Steven Pinker, once asked, “What would life be like without the camera?” His answer demonstrated the degree to which we take pictures and film for granted in the modern world, “We’d have to rely on our own visual images to recall what our friends and relatives looked like years before…what we looked like years before…” While this may seem unfathomable to you, there are people in the world who don’t have the luxury of film to record their lives. The Last Safari is an attempt to redress this disconnect by committing the experiences and customs of rural tribesmen and women in Africa’s Great Rift Valley to film — and subsequently, to memory.
Filmmaker Matt Goldman and photographer Elizabeth L. Gilbert have radically divergent bodies of work. Goldman, who founded a production company called Akjak Moving Pictures in 1999, has produced, edited, and directed an eclectic line of short films, commercials, and music videos. Much of his fictional work is intensely dystopian and critical of contemporary American society. For example, his first short film Broke is a grating black-and-white journey through the streets of New York where everyone happens to be either poverty-stricken or sociopathic. Goldman followed Broke with a surreal short about the monotony of one man’s paranoid, medicated life — The Perpetual Life of Jim Albers. The latter won Best Digital Film at the 2003 Santa Cruz International Film Festival, and both films won Best Editing at the Brooklyn International Film Festival in 2000 and 2003, respectively.
Gilbert, on the other hand, has been both a war photographer and ethnographer in Africa over the past 22 years. After witnessing the catastrophic effects of war and genocide in Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan and Zaire, she became disillusioned with war photography and decided to pursue a different kind of photojournalism: ethnography. After receiving grants from Kodak and Corbis in 1998, she embarked on a trip through Maasailand — a 5,000-square-mile tribal reserve (now under threat from the Tanzanian government) spanning portions of Kenya and Tanzania. She then compiled 120 black-and-white photographs of the four-year effort and published Broken Spears: A Maasai Journey in 2003. But Gilbert’s love of Africa’s Great Rift Valley isn’t contained to Maasailand. She continued to chronicle traditional African culture with an increasingly acute awareness that her photographs would be, in many cases, among the last records of traditional life in Africa. Her follow-up to Broken Spears had a much wider purview: the documentation of 25 different tribes, including the Maasai, Samburu, Mursi, Karo, Hamar and Batwa. As such, Tribes of the Great Rift Valley, which came out in 2007, covered more geographic and conceptual ground, and ended up 80 pages longer than Broken Spears.
Based on the innumerable differences between their careers, the synthesis of Goldman’s filmmaking and Gilbert’s photography seems strange at first. But the result is one of the finest documentaries you’ll find on the strangeness, and surprising familiarity, of modern Africa. Goldman and Gilbert each courteously devoted some of their time to discuss The Last Safari and the panoply of compelling questions it raises.
GALO: The dissolution of these tribes and customs is often seen as a tragedy that must be reversed. Your film regards it as an inevitability and takes a pragmatic line — this is happening, so someone should chronicle it. What sort of balance do you think there should be between modernity and the preservation of these traditional cultures?
Elizabeth Gilbert: In that sense, the Maasai make an interesting case in point because they were sort of left behind during the colonial era. They maintained a lot of their culture and they brought it with them into this century. They’re making interesting choices about how to incorporate it into modern life and coordinate it with their own development. They don’t always navigate it in a way that looks like we think of Maasai culture looking, but sometimes they do.
For example, the ceremony that we’ve documented in the film is a ceremony that commemorates the initiation of a warrior into what’s called “junior elderhood.” It’s really a ceremony that, for all intents and purposes, has become pretty obsolete. By that, I mean the function that warriors serve. You know, most people would like to see their children go to school, but they decided to maintain that ceremony and have even gone as far (as we say in the film) as to go to the Ministry of Lands in Nairobi and put beacon points on this ceremonial ground to preserve it for future generations. So they can still have ceremonies honoring young men as they become adults, and even if it isn’t tied in with the classic warriorhood, it does provide the same sense of community. And I think that’s the direction people are heading in. As said in the film, as I was speaking to an audience at a museum, it was my interest to document all of these wonderful things but it was not for me to say how these people should live.
Matt Goldman: I was an outsider. Liz has been with these people. She’s spent a substantial amount of time doing the books, and she lives in Africa mostly. So, her perspective would be different. As an outsider, I did look at it rather skeptically and I often thought to myself, ‘These people’s lives are hard.’ It’s not a lifestyle that they necessarily want, and most of these warriors — if not all of them — want out to a certain extent. And sadly, they all just want money. The corruption of the modern world is embodied through the necessity of money. Money didn’t exist for them centuries ago; their economy was entirely based on human resources, cattle, warriorhood as an asset — things like that. So the existence of money has corrupted their culture to the extent where they’re not able to exist without it anymore. Cash is the only thing that can get them by — cows no longer do it. It’s sad, but the cultural preservation element really does have to be relegated to what James Mpusia was saying: the certificates and tourist trinkets. It’s kind of the way of the world now. Everything’s just a tourist trinket now. You go anywhere in the world — Poland, New York City, the Grand Canyon — and everything kind of gets boiled down to a little, chintzy gift shop item that you can buy and stick on your shelf or put in your ear.
I’ve found that the most interesting elements of these cultures that absolutely must be preserved are the ways they dress, their clothing, their jewelry — and what is that? Because at the end of the day, I’ll be quite honest with you, Maasai customs are pretty harsh. There’s female circumcision, women are not necessarily treated very well — it doesn’t hold up to the modern standards that people like you and I live in. They live in these bomas where, they light little fires inside these little houses and they have no chimneys, so they choke on the smoke. They have old customs that don’t fit into this world. So it presents that dilemma of how to preserve culture, and I haven’t been able to solve it beyond that certificate and beyond those little items.
(Interview continued on next page)