'Jojo Rabbit' Director Taika Waititi on the Importance of Oral Storytelling: "The Brain Is Our Greatest Archive"

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© 2005 Sundance Institute | Photo by Michael Mcrae

It's been a great few days here in Michigan—Saginaw Chippewa country, to be exact. Whenever I encounter other indigenous communities, I always try to relate their cultures to my own. It's amazing discovering the similarities and becoming enlightened to the differences. One beautiful aspect of today's visit to the Ziibiwing Cultural Centre and Museum was experiencing the Anishinabe creation stories.

Books can burn but the mind survives generationally; that is what makes oral tradition so great.

—Taika Waititi

The thing that stuck out to me was their idea that all other creation stories are valid. They accept that there are many ways to see the creation of our world and our peoples and each take on it is relevant and true. Both Anishinabe and Maori come from an oral tradition, that is, our history and beliefs are passed down through storytelling and practical lessons. It's a beautiful method of keeping culture alive because the stories are alive, told by a person, always evolving and changing to keep the audience engaged.


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Who's to say the written word is the only reliable source? Everyone knows that history books are always rewritten and "actual events" continue to change through new evidence and alternative viewpoints. Life is like Kurasawa's Rashomon. Heroes in one history become villains in another.

For instance, the great founding father George Washington was also responsible for extinguishing scores of Native lives, comparing them to wolves: "Both being beast of prey, tho' they differ in shape." Nice way to repay Polly Cooper's people, George. There aren't many history books that contain this information, I'm sure.

But that history was kept alive by many people orally and passed down through story because the human mind is greater and more reliable than any book. Books can burn but the mind survives generationally; that is what makes oral tradition so great. We have our own mythologies in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and they are similar throughout the entire pacific, including Hawai'i, 4,400 miles across the ocean.

These stories didn't travel thousands of miles written down in pages, by satellite, or a network of wires and cables. They were carried in the safest vessels possible, the minds and memories of the people on board. So thanks to the Saginaw Chippewa for reminding me how reliable and valuable storytelling is.

Next up, read about the five films by Indigenous filmmakers that screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Lead photo:

© 2005 Sundance Institute | Photo by Michael Mcrae