Red Ochre – The Last Guards of the Holy Fire

Credit: Africa in motion

Credit: Africa in motion

Alice Mellon
Writer

The overarching theme of this year’s Africa in Motion film festival was time. Exploring the past, present, and future of the eponymous continent. Throughout history, colonisation and slavery have meant that Africans themselves have had little control over formative periods of their history, and even now, the power of western influence remains and the culture of so many countries is being drained by globalisation.

We see a microcosm of this process in Tim Drabandt and Fanon Kabwe’s documentary about the dying culture of the Himba. Red Ochre – The Last Guards of the Holy Fire shows the way life is changing for Himba people in the Kunene region of Namibia. Since the 16th century this nomadic tribe have farmed cattle and lived in accordance with the land. Depending on the rains, Himba tribes will drive their cattle elsewhere and set up camp where there is grazing. However, this freedom is being taken away with the introduction of stricter regulations that require every animal to be branded and permits held for the land. In times of drought this inability to move with the rains is a death sentence.

The terrifying thing about this predicament is that there is no way back, no solution in sight. The western world has painted itself as a beacon of civilisation that should be strived for and replicated, but at what cost? Development in Namibia is exciting, and access to better education, healthcare and technology can greatly improve people’s quality of life but these changes are being modelled on systems that don’t allow for or incorporate cultural differences. Himba people are being forced to abandon their traditional way of life or be left behind.

The documentary centres around chief Hivazako Hembinda, as he tells us about the difficulties facing his tribe. His children still largely live and dress traditionally but the chief can already see his precious culture slipping through his fingers. As more and more children from the tribe are attending school, travelling to do so and experiencing other ways of life, less and less are willing to come home and live as their elders and ancestors have for centuries. The younger generation’s pursuit of westernisation is speeding up the disappearance of a culture that was already on its way out.

As the documentary is only 30 minutes long, Drabandt and Kabwe are limited in how much of the tribe and their culture they can explore, choosing to focus only on the chief’s perspective. It would be interesting however, to hear the younger generation’s side of the story. At this time of worldwide uncertainty and hardship, it’s easy to understand why things are changing.

This affecting documentary is an incredible piece of cinematography. What really stands out are the captivating drone shots, capturing this beautiful part of the world in a way that has rarely been done before. Vast expanses of desert, raging waterfalls and aerial shots of elephants or buffalo navigating their way through the bush are just some of the powerful images present in the documentary. Cut with close up shots of people’s faces, bodies, clothes and possessions, we are also allowed a detailed look at this iconic tribe.

It seems there might not be a place for the Himba in the modern world and Africa in Motion does what it does best with its screening of Red Ochre; invites us to look and to understand. Ancient tribes like the Himba rarely make it into our small western bubble, but it is our influence which so greatly affects their existence. We are lucky to have a snapshot of their culture so beautifully documented on film and we ought to think about where we might go from here.