Cinema Without Borders: Standing Above The Clouds—For the love of mother nature

In this weekly column, the writer explores the non-Indian films that are making the right noise across the globe. This week, we talk about Jalena Keane-Lee’s Standing Above The Clouds
Cinema Without Borders: Standing Above The Clouds—For the love of mother nature

Jalena Keane-Lee’s Standing Above The Clouds is about the power underlying solidarity of women, not just for the cause of gender but on the issues of community, culture, belief systems, environment, ways of living and life itself.

It follows the mothers and daughters of three native Hawaiian families dedicated to protecting the sacred mountain of Mauna Kea. Their efforts to safeguard it against the construction of the infamous Thirty Meter Telescope—the world’s largest—started in 2010 and led to widespread protests, local, national, and global. The film tracks the ten-year struggle till the pandemic in March 2020 brought the movement, and life at large, to a pause.

While highlighting the specifics of their protest, the film grounds it in the universal concerns about environmental degradation, ecological crisis, and human rights violations. Standing Above the Clouds is also an anthropological documentation of native Hawaiian life. Also, it is a deeply personal and emotional tale about how the movement affected the women involved.

At the head of the movement is teacher Pua Case and her two artist-activist daughters Hawane Rios and Kapulei Flores. Their lives that had been centred around home, family, domesticity, and cultural practices and traditions, get taken over by frontline duties and court proceedings. It brings them closer to other women from the community—Leina 'Ala Sleightholm, Mahana Kihoi, Malama Monica—to form a rare sorority of strength. Yet there’s also the danger of violence and arrests as they stand steadfast in their opposition to the building and development.

The film gives us an intimate peep into how their dedication to the grassroots movement affects them physically, emotionally and psychologically. After nine months of living in a camp on the mountain, COVID forces them to return home for some rest, recuperation and healing, "to retreat to the kitchen table", as one of them puts it. There is the aftermath of PTSD to deal with. The mantra is to stay positive despite the exhaustion.  

What stood out for me were the ethnological details that the film maps out. The mothers and daughters are like the eyes of the filmmaker, and, in turn, the viewer, with which to see, get acquainted with and understand the native culture. There’s something extremely tender and heartwarming in the way they follow and aim to preserve the shrines, cultural traditions, and practices. On the one hand, we have colourful songs, dances, rituals, and festivals. On the other is the pristine but fragile ecosystem. Their deep connection with nature is presented with depth and sensitivity. How their lives are entwined with their surroundings and how the mountain is a beacon of hope for them, a symbol of tenacity.

There’s the focus on intergenerational connection—the urgency for mothers to pass on the practices to daughters, to have them stay connected with sacred spots, protect ancestral places and honour these spaces that strengthen them. Ironically, it’s the elders of the community and their caregivers who are the first to be arrested and removed from the site.

There is a fable-like feel to the narrative. No wonder the protests themselves come with an artistic touch and powerful messaging—"do not destroy what you cannot repair; it’s not about fighting something but loving something”.

The film recently won the Bill Nemtin Award for Best Social Impact Documentary at Hot Docs 2024 in Canada. It reminded me a lot of an Indian documentary by Shishir Jha called Dharti Latar Re Horo (Tortoise Under the Earth) about a tribal couple protesting corporatization and commercialization of the tribal belt while coping with the death of their daughter to uranium mining in Jharkhand. Both films are cautionary tales about the human toll of mindless modernization and development that leads to displacement and loss of not just human lives but ethnic cultures and organic ways of living. Films that are humanitarian wake-up calls that also celebrate the elemental feminine energy.

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