Featured Filmmaker: Toby McLeod, Director of ‘Islands of Sanctuary’

Toby PortraitChristopher “Toby” McLeod is director and producer of opening night Celestial Cinema film Islands of Sanctuary, a documentary revealing challenges faced by indigenous peoples from Australia and from the Hawaiian Islands. Toby has been working with indigenous communities as a filmmaker, journalist and photographer for more than 30 years.

We caught up with him before he hopped a plane to come to the Maui Film Festival, where he will introduce his film.

Q: How did you get involved in film? Where and when did you start?

A: In 1990 I got a grant from Bill Moyers when he was head of the Schumann Foundation, just after he interviewed Joseph Campbell. I went on a round-the-world research trip to develop a global series on sacred places. Well, I learned that the western world was not ready for the sacred land idea them, nor was I, so I spent 10 years focusing on US sacred sites and made the feature-length documentary In the Light of Reverence. After ITLOR succeeded – broadcast on POV, won some awards, was well received by Native Americans – I decided the world was ready for a global series on sacred places. We started filming “Standing on Sacred Ground” in 2007 and it has taken eight years to film and edit our eight stories into a four hour series.

Q: What inspired you to create Islands of Sanctuary?

A: The resistance of native people around the world to destruction of their land and sacred places. The values of reciprocity and respect and the spiritual view of nature that is common to indigenous people around the world is, I think, the exact antidote to industrialism’s abuse of the earth and all life, that we need so desperately right now. Sacred places, as a reality and as a metaphor, provide a doorway to tell the stories that contain the seed of the solution we are all craving: having a cultural mandate to respect and take care of the natural world, physically and spiritually. So how do we do it? Let’s try.

Q: What was the most challenging part of creating this film?

A: All eight indigenous communites were suspicious of a white American man offering to help tell their story of intimate secret places and practices. Native Hawaiians provided the greatest challenge in part because of the complex history of Hawaii, amongst the islands and various political strategies that have clashed for years, but also because I am from the mainland. I met Emmett Aluli in 1978 in Hopiland in Arizona just after Emmett and Walter Ritte had been arrested for occupying Kaho`olawe. Emmett and I were both coincidentally visiting Hopi spokesman Thomas Banyacya, both of us looking for guidance from the elders who were also fighting the US government. Our friendship spanned decades and when I started Standing on Sacred Ground, Emmett felt the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana, after three decades of struggle, might be ready to tell their story in a global context. In all communities, filming ceremonies is the most controversial question and in Hawaii we worked long and hard on that one, agreeing on just one non-intrusive scene of a rain ceremony, after the film crew had participated in Makahiki without any cameras around. Working collaboratively with the goal of free, prior and informed consent, and knowing that there are many “stories” – and many are sensitive and personal – setting goals about what the film segment would cover, all condensed down to 25 minutes, and doing this while the filmmaker needed to maintain some editorial independence, was a challenge. But we succeeded and I think we all feel really good about the outcome.

Q: What type of experience do you hope Islands of Sanctuary will bring to viewers?

A: Both discomfort and joy. Appreciation of beauty and wisdom as manifestations of the sacred. A sense that the history we have been taught is a lie and there are beautiful places and people who have not been seen or heard. The feeling that the sacredness of nature and certain powerful places is obvious, something we have all experienced, but for which there is virtually no cultural language to experience and discuss and process such a fundamental human experience. What does that teach us? What should we do as communities to reconnect to the land and water and spirits of place? These are the questions I hope the film will leave people discussing after watching the films (all four hours!).

Q: What do you think our Maui audiences will most appreciate about your film?

A: Looking out at Kaho`olawe and always wondering what is going on over there, here is the story, or one interpretation of the story. honed and polished over five years of filming, consultation and editing. And then looking toward the future, I hope people will ask: how should Hawaiian citizens fund the ongoing restoration and protection of Kaho`olawe as a sacred place, and the heart of a future sovereign nation?

Q: Do you have any prior connection to Maui? If so, please explain.

A: Several visits over the years to Haleakala and Hana and the reefs and the whales had a deep impact on me, and of course the native people are so generous and smart, the place has touched me deeply. And Kaho`olawe is Maui’s baby.

The Featured Filmmaker series is coordinated and written by the Maui Film Festival’s Filmmaker Liaison and Social Media Director Sara TekulaClick here to see all of the Featured FIlmmaker posts and be sure follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get live updates from the festival.