CM . . .
. Volume XIII Number 19 . . . . May 11, 2007
Tales of Sand and Snow opens with a recreation of a scene from Hyacinthe Combary’s childhood when his uncle took him to see a geomancer or sand diviner in his African homeland of Burkino Faso. Combary’s life did not follow that predicted in the sand. Instead of staying in his uncle’s village and becoming a farmer, he received a college education and emigrated to Montreal. Feeling cut off from his land of birth and the ways of the Gourmantche villagers, Combary seeks out others who share the quest to answer the following questions: How can one not grow distant from one’s true soul? and How can one not become dehumanized? Combary’s quest takes him to the campsite of Charles Coocoo, an indigenous leader from Wemotaci, Quebec, who aspires to teach Atikamekw children to seek dignity and pride in their ancestry.
Parallels, somewhat superficial, are drawn between spiritual journeys in the Quebec boreal forest and in rural Burkino Faso. Charles and his fellow spiritual leader Paul-Yves explain the goal of the sweat lodge where Combary acts as firekeeper. Later, another aboriginal elder named Mary explains the art of scapulomancy or the reading of cracks in shoulder-blade bones. Descriptions of these sacred rituals are intercut with footage from Burkino Faso where a geomancer predicts abundant rain and a good harvest and the good news is followed with sacrifices of poultry and a goat to the ancestors.
Rather than seeking new predictions of the future through ancient practices, Combary is most concerned with the survival of traditions and their ability to cement one’s identity. While he feels his own traditions are alive and live within him, he recognizes that the Atikamekw traditions are much more fragile and at risk of loss as modern society pushes them aside.
A brief segment featuring Caucasian members of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies at worship amidst a drumming session followed with short statements by participants about their animistic worldview is not well integrated into the documentary. Their adoption of another culture’s traditions comes across as inauthentic, and their dissatisfaction with western culture does not really support Combary’s thesis that all people seek to preserve their humanity and stay true to their soul.
Ultimately, this is an unsatisfying documentary that does not delve deep enough into the cultural and religious traditions of indigenous peoples in Quebec or Burkino Faso to offer more than a superficial understanding. The similarity between the two cultures is likewise simplistic.
Tales of Sand and Snow is the English version of Histoire de sable. Most of the dialogue is in French with English subtitles.
Val Ken Lem is a catalogue librarian at Ryerson University. Last summer he participated in a study tour to Tanzania in east Africa.
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