Although most people have the opportunity to experience a reunion in their lives, few encounter the chance to revisit a place after 30 years. With his latest award-winning documentary, Changa Revisited, Anthropology Professor Peter Biella reunites with the Maasai people of Tanzania, whom he studied as a doctoral student and discovers how their way of life has changed since his initial visit in 1980.
Biella has done extensive research on the Maasai for decades, resulting in numerous films and publications about their communication, culture and family dynamics. The Maasai are an African group cloaked in rumor and reputation dating back to the Arab slave trade. In his article, “Maasai Intertribal Relations: Belligerent Herdsmen or Peaceable Pastoralists?,” noted Maasai expert Alan H. Jacobs states that to monopolize their hold the slave trade in East Africa, Arab slave traders used to warn their European competitors about a ferocious tribe that would “kill anyone on sight.” The story was not true, but the image of savage Maasai survives to this day.
“They’re very tall, extremely powerful,” Biella explains, referring to the image they had in the early 20th century. “They carried spears and machetes. … They’re still hired in Dar es Salaam as night watchmen because of their reputation of being brave fighters.”
But when Biella journeyed to Tanzania in 1980 with his East African professor from Temple University, Peter Rigby, he ascertained how much was fact and fiction. He proposed to go with his professor, who had befriended a Maasai family and written books about them over the course of 12 years. The professor agreed, but when they could not raise enough funds for a film, they brought still cameras instead; 600 rolls of medium-format film and six Hasselblads and Pentax cameras resulted in 7,000 photos.
They continued with the model of being a film crew, but while Biella recorded sound, his colleague, Richard Cross, would take sequential stills on a tripod with the intent to make a film of still photos synced with the audio recording. Although they did not fully grasp Biella’s purpose in studying them, the Maasai — four extended families with multiple wives and 50 individuals dealt with by name — were very generous, patient people. Changa Revisited opens with a scene of Biella giving his decades-old photos in the form of glossy-paged books back to the Maasai families who thoroughly enjoyed seeing their cemented history.
“The film is about a look at two ends of a 30-year divide and how things like a sense of communal involvement and Maasai solidarity have changed,” Biella says. “How western values have taken over, and the impoverishment, loss of cattle, introduction of human and cattle disease, and global warming [have altered the community].”
At the time of Biella’s first month long visit in the ’80s, the Maasai were afforded great wealth through cattle. Along with their beauty and fearlessness, wealth from pastoral livestock was the major contributing factor for the elevated status of Maasai in Africa. But Toreto, the main character of Biella’s film, explains how “in 1975, the government stopped [the Maasai] from migrating with [their] cattle” and the livestock began to die. This put an end to the family’s main source of income and forced them to become cultivators of unforgiving soil.
Across a 30-year span, this detrimental change in the pastoralist way of life stripped Maasai of wealth and, with it, the respect and dignity once given to patriarchs like Toreto, who were leaders of the homesteads. As a result, the self-assured, charismatic men that Biella had once interviewed became resentful shells of themselves at the time of filming in 2009, prone to alcoholic — even arsonist — bouts of spousal abuse while the sons emulated the behavior; many of the young men Biella first knew had even died from senseless drunken accidents.
“It was not the story we wanted to tell,” Biella says of the film he created with Leonard Kamerling. “I don’t like tragedies, but that’s what we had and so for what it’s worth, the film starts out with me taking the photos in 1980 and returning them and the people looking at the beauty of their past.”
Biella has been telling stories for more than 45 years. He obtained his Master’s in filmmaking at SF State where he also caught a passion for anthropology. He decided to pursue that field through a storyteller’s lens. In one of his first projects, he reminisces, “I realized when I was shooting I felt more alive than any other time …because your senses are so heightened and you’re doing something you know is really valuable, beautiful and meaningful to many people.”
For Changa Revisited, students including Kellen Prandini and Michael Crammond helped Biella shoot on location. Cinema Master of Fine Arts student Daniel Chein co-edited the film.
What does Biella do with a story that ends in tragedy? He focuses on the mainstay of the community — the women. During filming, Toreto was skeptical about what his wives had to contribute, but he gave permission for Biella’s team to interview with them. In an emotional conversation, the wives relay their troubles of domestic abuse and suffering, but in doing so, reveal their remarkable strength born out of a necessity to survive. The wives rose as pillars of the family; Biella refers to them as the glue holding the community together, protecting the culture after so much damage.
Biella emphasizes that although his stories may be heartbreaking to shoot, he cannot rewrite them. He recalls a time when he was a student and someone in his class stated, “I’m not a poet, I’m a radio,” and he feels the same. “I feel like I’m the messenger, in a way. I happen to be a talented messenger but I didn’t write the plot.”
Changa Revisited has been accepted to five film festivals to date: the Royal Anthropological film Festivals in Los Angeles and in Bristol; the Nordic Anthropological Film Festival, in Bergen; Jean Rouch Festival in Paris; and the Astra Film Festival in Romania, where it won first prize for Best International Documentary.
Biella has three more film projects in the works, all made with an anthropological viewpoint. “Anthropology has helped me see through the lies,” he says, “and even if I can’t stop [people] from lying to me, I feel at least a little more comfortable about the world I’m in.”
— Gospel Cruz