The Singaporean film director Yeo Siew Hua’s An Invocation to the Earth (2020) speaks to the plight of those who strive to protect ecosystems in a time of planetary and human rights crises. It looks through the lens of pre-colonial folktales and animistic rituals. Deep in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia, a series of incantations invoke the spirits of yore, including the tricksy Kancil (mouse-deer) and the ferocious Buaya (crocodile). These ancient animals enact their folkloric vendetta in a furious dance of dominance, yet long overdue vengeance is shrouded in smoke. Meanwhile, an effigy of a tree is burning, summoning a whole other host of specters and ancestors.
The idea for this short film first came to Yeo during last year’s Hungry Ghost Festival, traditional Buddhist and Taoist festivities which are staged in honor of their most special guests—the spirits of ancestors. At the same time large-scale fires were consuming the forests of Indonesia. The film is dedicated to the fallen environmental defenders of Southeast Asia, a region ridden with ecological threats, in the hope that their spirits will be reborn. In the Philippines, for example, more than 150 environmental defenders have been killed with impunity since 2016. It is already one of the deadliest countries for activists opposing illegal logging, destructive mining, or corrupt agribusiness. The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 further imperils their safety, labelling them as terrorists and allowing detention up to 24 days without charges, warrantless arrests, and the suppression of rights to privacy.
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