Simon, Elisabeth and Samuel are among the one million Masai in Kenya and Tanzania. Living in one of the world's most beautiful nature preserves, the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania, the three Masai are the main characters in Robin Schmidt and Morten Vest's Masai on the Move. We follow them over the course of a year, listening to their thoughts and witnessing their struggle to adjust to life in a modern, globalised world.
"Though we are in the middle of one of the most beautiful regions in the world, we chose to avoid nature scenery and wild animals. That's what all the tourists come for."
The Masai are pastoralists. They are dependent on land for herding their cattle. But drought and increasingly restricted access to pastures are putting their traditional way of life under pressure. They too, are feeling the impact of global warming and recession.
Avoiding The Cliche
Schmidt and Vest supplied the film with a kind of tagline, 'Indigenous Peoples with Modern Problems', reflecting an important ambition for the two filmmakers.
"That was a mantra for our work. We wanted to be at eye level with our characters. We wanted them to communicate directly to us. And we consciously steered away from didactic narration and avoided focusing on traditions and rituals," Schmidt says.
"We also steered away from showing the cliché of starving and suffering people asking for more help. Instead, we tried to depict what the impact on daily life is, say, when the rainy season doesn't arrive."
To enhance the intimacy of their characters stories, the directors chose to pull in tight. "Though we are in the middle of one of the most beautiful regions in the world, we chose to avoid nature scenery and wild animals. That's what all the tourists come for. Of course there are beautiful landscapes in the film – you can't miss it, it's all around you – but we wanted to stay focused on the human stories.
"We regard the Masai as cowboys of a sort. They drive the livestock across desolate plains of breathtaking beauty, not on horseback but on foot. So we were more in the mood for a Western than a film filled with traditional drum music," Robin Schmidt says.
To suggest this kinship Schmidt and Vest had western-type music composed for the film. "We hope this will help take people's understanding to another level and make the issues more global," Schmidt says.
"Masai on the Move". Photo: Robin Schmidt.
'You People Up There'
Masai on the Move was made in conjunction with a development project with support from Danida, the Danish International Development Agency.
"The standard procedure at the end of a major project is to write an assessment report, but very few people read those," Schmidt says. "So the project managers – the Danish Embassy in Dar Es Salaam and affiliated consultancies – got the idea that they also wanted a film about the people that had helped by the project. They didn't want a conventional film about a developing country, and probably there's not much of an audience for such films anyway. Also, they didn't want any experts or local employees from the development project to appear in the film."
The directors made a research trip, then wrote an outline and suggested possible characters for the film. Plus, the DR 2 channel of the Danish national broadcaster was game.
"We decided to follow our characters over the course of a year to get a sense of the rhythm of their lives. Following the same people over time, the seasonal fluctuations will provide a broader picture of how vulnerable pastoralists are. How little it takes to go from having a good life to being unable to make ends meet," Schmidt says.
Spending so much time in the area enabled the two filmmakers to create a bond with their characters, and this intimacy made it possible for Schmidt and Vest to introduce a poignant narrative element in the film when the characters look directly into the camera and ask questions back, sometimes playfully, sometimes inquisitively, like "You people up there, what kind of work do you do?" or "When you see the changes going on here, do you see them as a good thing or a bad thing?". These are questions about marriage, divorce, work, love, economy, rites of passage and weather-related problems, and they are peppered throughout the film.
"Our asking about personal matters invited the counter-questions that ended up being such a critical element of the film. Their questions, I think, have a big effect on the audience. In fact, their questions speak louder than a lot of the answers and really put our own life and culture in perspective," Robin Schmidt says.