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By Carole Bell
Observer Columnist 

Smart And Spicy

Garifuna: Evocative, Personal, Eternal


By Carole Bell

Do you know what Garifuna is?

It's the most unusual film festival I've ever been to.

This weekend, try to go to GIIFF, the Garifuna International Indigenous Film Festival. You are likely to come away feeling quite literally blessed.

What they do is make you feel you are one with humanity. Your heart will feel lifted; your passion for what other people are going through will surprise you.

The flavor of this film festival was different from any other I've been to.

It's in Venice; a hop and a skip will transport you; you'll certainly feel wiser when you leave, and you may feel suddenly more calm.

It's not just the films. The idea's transformative; come see what's happening in parts of our world you might never know existed. GIIFF takes you outside our everyday bubble.

Who could resist?

So what is Garifuna? It's a people, a culture, a way of life. It's an idea in the mind, it's a yearning, it's a passion.

Garifuna is an identity, one that is cultural, lingual, spiritual. Garifuna people talk of literally feeling the ache that comes with being removed from several homelands, against their will, losing home, land, culture, spirit, and half their population.

You get involved in the films. Your heart feels the passion; GIIIF isn't for stonewalling.

And the audience lives it. This was one of the most diverse, sensitive, warmly intelligent audiences I've seen.

Garifuna people believe the need to preserve their culture is urgent; the fear is that it will disappear from the earth. In 2001, UNESCO proclaimed Garifuna language, dance, and music a "Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."

* * *

Who made this happen?

I walked into the Electric Lodge and saw a gorgeous statuesque woman and a man in a jaunty hat doing setup. The thing was, they were wearing unusually colored matching outfits.

This was a film festival - where were all the volunteers? These two were the festival creators, yet they just calmly went about making it nice for people even though the start time was five minutes ago.

People in the lobby were patient. They lacked the burnt stressed look of people wanting that red light to change right now. The mood was sweet, you know, when no one's under pressure, just waiting for good stuff to happen.

And it did.

The first curious thing: GIIFF's founder greeted us by saying we looked beautiful tonight. "Blessings" was the next thing she said. It was an odd way to start a film festival.

During opening night, I felt stirred, yet moved so emotionally, it was hard to figure out what hit me. First Sharon Ellington started speaking, standing simply in front of us; it seemed she was telling a story. Then the story found poetry, then intensity; it mesmerized. Next a touching talk of how one man found his heritage in unlikely places. Ron Wilkins took us on a photographic spree, tracing his roots, and the roots of a people. Yet his talk transversed continents and decades, timeline blending from colonial powers to the words of Martin Luther King. When he held up a deep South prohibiting dogs, Negroes, and Mexicans, it hurt.

Wilkins changed from violent gang member to helping people. "I used to go to jail, and I refused to bail out, because the longer I stayed in jail, the more attention you get for whatever your issue is. You get to organize when you go to jail because you've got a captive audience."

"We're just branches of the same tree. No matter where you find us on Earth, we're the same tree," Wilkins told us.

That theme was the leitmotif of the weekend.

I met people from the Ute Mountain Tribe up close, noticing their handmade jewelry and clothes; I met a delightful classical Indian dancer who came from India for this film festival; I met the Consul-General of St. Vincent, the ancestral homeland of the Garifuna people. Everywhere there were women in brightly colored dresses with matching headscarves tied in intricately different ways; a few wore the patterns and colors I'd first seen coming in. It was fun!

* * *

I wound up staying glued there all day, both days. This was much too interesting not to stay. Over two days, I attended a symposium on mental health and wellness, felt tugs on my heart, and laughed a lot. One speaker said he asks how he can help his people to be happy. "It's so good to hear laughter and music, because it awakens out spirit."

Spirit ran throughout the festival. I met a filmmaker from Thunder Bay, Canada, six hours North of Minnesota, who brought a film about the Mishkeegogamang people living another seven hours further North. One man in the film said: "I'm just a human being from the bush with long hair; my blood is red, and I'm quite sure yours is red too."

"Right now, the big problem is that many in indigenous countries are not treated as human," the film's artist explained,

In the film, one woman said it was a day's trip to buy food. Did it ever occur to you that there are people who can't just go out and find stores that sell food?

Then singing from the Ute Mountain Tribe of Colorado: "The storms of life, they're all around." We learned w there used to be a lot of elders, but now the children don't care to listen to them, preferring electronic things. "So our language, it's dying."

I met the lovely Vijayalakshmi, who with her mother Bharati Shivaji has revived the classical Indian dance form Mohiniyattam, based on ancient Hindu Sanskrit text.

Over and over, the theme was the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another - or the loss of that knowledge, of tradition, of history. From places most Americans never think about, the idea was the same: how to keep alive a civilization, a culture, of value, that's in danger of disappearing.

There were panels, and there was dancing. There was tribal music, and hot jazz with singer Kaylah Marin and Salt Air. And a fashion show! All in black, white, and yellow, the colors of the Garifuna flag. This cultural branding, art as legacy, was made by seamstress Marva Alvarez, after the vision of the festival's founder, Freda Sideroff, and her daughter Eulogia Goree.

* * *

Executive Director Freda showed superhuman energy all weekend. She created the festival to honor, and to preserve, her own Garifuna culture, along with her husband, Dr. Stephen Sideroff, who, when he's not being GIIFF Vice President, is a UCLA Medical School psychology professor and author, an expert in resilience.

Freda identifies herself as Garifuna, although she's been a U.S. citizen for 22 years. Born in Belize, she says, "I am Garifuna, the name of my culture, my people, and the language I speak."

Freda talks of the urgent need; she hopes to make a difference, by encouraging preservation of her Garifuna language and culture, to leave a legacy.

"What's the most important thing you want people to know?" I asked.

"That I come from a resilient people. When I think of my ancestors, and how they were exiled for not wanting to participate in being enslaved, being left to die on an island they were removed to, with many perishing...

"It is our journey to extinction. If the descendants of those who inherited the legacy can't speak the Garifuna language, then who will be left in the future to be able to carry forth the legacy?"

GIIFF is in its seventh year, quite an achievement given its homespun quality. Over the years, what started with the goal of highlighting the Garifuna people has evolved into showing films and culture of indigenous cultures worldwide.

"What made it change?"

"When I see myself I am more than just Freda. I have a husband who is Jewish, and when I hear my husband speak of the Holocaust of his people, we have a common story."

Garifuna people are a marriage of cultures, Africans who intermarried with Amerindians, Arawak and Caribs. They developed on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, and were exiled to the Caribbean coasts of Central America; many emigrated to what are now Honduras, Belize and Guatemala.

When Freda launched GIIFF, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proclaimed May 26 Garifuna International Film Day in the City of Los Angeles and State of California.

GIIFF invites all cultures to participate. Freda says it's evolved to be a true indigenous film festival, interested in hearing what other indigenous people around the world are doing to support their own preservation. "They're finding us!"

"When you invite cultures from around the world to be able to come into one place where they feel at home, that is the difference."

I asked about GIIFF's homespun nature.

"It would be wonderful and amazing to be able to have volunteers, but if no one shows up? I am always there."

"Does it help to have a husband who's a psychologist?"

"It helps to have a husband with heart."

* * *

There's more this coming weekend.

"If you could choose a film or two to highlight?" I asked Freda.

"Crazywise," she answered immediately. In its LA premiere, it asks: What if a psychological crisis were seen as having the potential to be a positive transformative experience, instead of a “broken brain”? Director and human-rights photographer Phil Borges will be there for the Q&A.

"The Cure," she quickly added. "It's the sneak preview, produced by Sharon Stone."

"A Piece of Germany," reflecting Germany's situation with displaced immigrants.

"Burning Paradise," by Director Greg Rainoff, four-time Emmy winner for his Star Trek TV work; it's about environmental impacts of the border fence separating San Diego and Tijuana.

"Nirau!" Freda, breathlessly telling it's a thriller all in Garifuna language.

Deeply spiritual and richly informing, I urge you to spend some time at GIIFF this weekend. Come meet Freda, and expose yourself to her wisdom and charm. The films are the kind that lift you and make your feel good, or they might hurt you and break your heart. But surely your passion will be engaged. And for a day or part of a day, you'll feel connected to kindly people.


Carole Bell is a writer interested in everything.

You can write to her at:


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