Warriors of the Sun

Warriors of the Sun is one of the more unique documentaries I’ve seen, not for its subject matter, which is the Totonac ritual of flying dancers, or voladores – men who climb an extremely high pole and propel themselves around it with ropes as an offering to God and a “service to the community.” Like some pow wow dancing and American Indian sports like lacrosse, many activities that may be interpreted as merely recreational have deeper spiritual significance to indigenous peoples. The voladores ritual is actually treated in a more polemical way in the short film Voladora/Flying Woman by Chloe Campero, which follows the emotional journey of a young woman trying to penetrate this all-male establishment. (I did not notice whether the dates of these two films coincided, but I think so. I would be interested in knowing more about the community’s take on the young woman’s efforts.)

No, Warriors of the Sun was intriguing because it lies somewhere between documentary and home movie – and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It is one of the rare movies where a director, in this case Bruce “Pacho” Lane, clearly inserts himself into the movie and establishes his positionality vis-a-vis the Totonac community being filmed. He has had a long relationship with the community, having filmed a previous documentary on the ritual and along the way, becoming godfather to the son of Don Salvador, who takes on the task of reviving the voladores ritual with four young men. Don Salvador takes on the task, “on the condition” that anthropologist Albert L. Wahrhaftig continue research on the topic and that Lane makes another documentary, this time on the process of revitalizing the ritual. Beyond that, Lane makes obvious his close ties to the community by naming not only the protagonists of the film, but also children of his compadres’ family, for example, or brief exchanges that other documentary filmmakers would not think to include. A pretty straight forward treatment of the subject matter, but in a more personal, and therefore interesting, way.

Another unique quality was the somewhat awkward but much appreciated explanation of the English subtitles. Subtitles in yellow font, we clearly read, are for translations from Spanish, while subtitles in white font are for Totonac. This clarification, along with references to the “Americans” and the roles of Lane and Wahrhaftig, signals the various cultures that are in communication in this film. Language is of course especially important since language loss is a concern for many indigenous communities. But beyond that, Lane’s godson makes frequent references to having previously denied his Totonac heritage and seems to be on a quest to regain it in his own life. Some of the more memorable scenes for me are when Lane’s godson and wife visit archaeological ruins and are asked to comment on their ancestors’ accomplishments. It was one of the few times I’ve seen indigenous people pictured next to their cultural heritage like that. Another memorable scene is when a priest (presumably Totanac) gives a homily from the altar and references the voladores ritual and actually names indigenous gods after which the voladores ritually dance around the alter.

This brings me back to the beginning of the film, which is actually introduced by Ivan, a high school student whose dream leads him to ask Don Salvador to teach him to be a volador. This introduction set the stage for the film in terms of its reason for being, its pace, and also reinforced the importance of dreams in indigenous culture.

Several documentaries made by indigenous filmmakers are filmed for community use and not necessarily for external consumption. Warriors of the Sun straddles the line, being both something for the community but also for English speaking audiences. It was enjoyable,  interesting, and even exciting when the young men and Don Salvador took to the skies. I think this documentary would be useful for anthropology classes discussing positionality; those interested in Totonac culture, including the importance of dreams and spirituality; cultural revitalization; intercultural exchanges and possibly, religious syncretism.

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