In the stunningly verdant landscapes of Arunachal Pradesh, director Abo Arangham captured a lost tradition of salt-making in the award-winning documentary The Lost Art of Seasoning, an art of ovens and salt wells. Drawn to simple stories from his hometown which are yet to be told, Abo collaborated with his friend Pongro Wangsu, who had reached out to him to direct the project.
Chief of Chasa village
Starting his academic journey with journalism, Abo filmed The Lost Art of Seasoning while still in film school, getting permission for longer shoots. There is no one in his age group from his community, he says, who hasn’t heard of a folk story from their elders about salt wells as a kid. Back then, there were just fragmented stories, but since childhood, he has had a burning curiosity and found filmmaking as the refuge through which he could express himself, reconnecting to the past. Visual elements and techniques add their own ‘seasoning’ to any narrative.
Arunachal Pradesh, being at a very initial stage of filmmaking, brought its own set of challenges to film in, he says. Aside from the unforgiving terrain and the rainforest in the monsoon, there were also budget crunches and difficulty convincing people to come in front of the camera. Lack of awareness among the masses and no support system from the government, Abo avers, adds to the challenge. Most importantly, there is also an absence of senior filmmakers from the area to speak with and look up to. Abo says that apart from one or two people, most filmmakers in Arunachal are at the same level, all trying to help each other.
There was also difficulty in finding multiple people from the same community to act, due to the language aspect. In Arunachal the nuances of language can vary even within a single tribe, and while he hasn’t had the opportunity to work with multiple communities on a single project yet, Abo finds the authentic use of language to be crucial in storytelling.
The art of storytelling runs deep in these tribes, most of whom have an oral tradition of passing down narratives, whether through stories, proverbs or songs. Knowledge, traditions and safeguards were transmitted. Storytelling has helped their community survive through the toughest of times, and will continue to do so. While he considers himself to still be a learner, Abo is proud to take up the mantle of storyteller and continue the tradition.
Recalling a memorable moment during the filming, Abo is still in awe of the surreality of lighting a fire in those same ovens after generations. Unsure until then about the outcome of the project, the first fire hit the cast and crew emotionally and rekindled a connection with their ancestors.
The best way to retain authenticity and cultural sensitivity while telling the stories of indigenous people, Abo finds, is to speak with the elders of the community. Spending time with them brings into the narration a richness born of experience, either their own or that passed down by their elders in turn.
Filmmaking in Arunachal is an untapped reservoir. The film industry has always been crucial in promoting and preserving the culture and heritage of a region. While talented people are making films and telling important stories, there are not many takers even within Arunachal for the state’s own film production, says Abo. Youtube remains the last remaining option for many upcoming filmmakers. However, there is hope: they are learning and improving with every project, and with the wealth of stories that Arunachal has to offer, it is only a matter of time.