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The day the Sun died

16 minutes

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When there was too much of nothing, Coyote howled the Universe into being

Like many of the Indigenous people of North America, the Apsáalooke, now known as the Crow, have a deep knowledge of the skies and celestial phenomena. Often called star stories, North American Indigenous astronomy brings together mythology and an understanding of the natural world, both to situate human beings within the cosmos and to provide wisdom and tools for living. Some of these stories are creation myths that recount the origins of the Universe. Others explain the movements and arrangements of the Sun, Moon and stars and the occurrences of eclipses.

The filmmaker Tenzin Phuntsog is of Tibetan heritage, and now lives in the US. On 21 August 2017, he was on the Crow Reservation in Montana where the annual Crow Fair, one of the largest powwows in the US, was taking place at the same time as a full solar eclipse. Phuntsog was there with the Crow elder Henry Real Bird, a cowboy and Montana poet laureate, and took the coincidence of the eclipse as an opportunity to explore star stories with Real Bird as his guide.

The film that came from this encounter, The Day the Sun Died, glows and shimmers with an ineffable dream-like quality throughout. Phuntsog’s 16mm cinematography, which shifts unexpectedly between colour and black-and-white, plays with the strange light around a solar eclipse and lends a gentle, otherworldly cast even to quotidian moments. Occasionally, asynchronous sound adds layers of texture and a kind of fragmented sonic poetry to the images. And a visual motif of upright structures – a tall wooden cross on a hill, the centre post of the Sun Dance ceremony, a church spire – punctuates the sweeping, open vistas of this part of Crow Country.

Phuntsog weaves these aesthetic elements into his exploration of the film’s central theme – the meaning of dreams within Real Bird’s life and in the transmission of Crow wisdom and knowledge. As the poet says: ‘The ones who have had dreams are respected among the people.’ Indeed, Phuntsog’s filmmaking seems to seek a cinematic language that encourages a state of reverie and openness. And the effect of this choice emerges in a singular moment when Real Bird tells a star story in which Coyote summons the world into being through his loud howls. Phuntsog filmed this scene without being able to hear what Real Bird was saying, having only asked that he speak as if sharing the story with a grandchild. As he recounts the myth, his gestures and movements evoke the creation that he’s describing, his hands joining his words to conjure the emergent Universe out of the nothing that was there before. Within the already enchanting dreaminess of the film, this sequence feels visionary, deriving vitality from Real Bird’s performance of the creation myth to give a profound sense of the power and significance of the star story.

The following interview with Phuntsog, which has been edited for length and clarity, offers more information on how the film came to be and his connection with Real Bird.

What was the genesis of this project?

I came into this film like any other documentary filmmaker does, trying to set out these kind of predefined narratives and outcomes. There was an eclipse happening in Montana in 2017, and I wanted to do something there because that’s where I was working and living, having recently taken a position teaching at Montana State University. I wanted to do something to commemorate that. Through some initial research, I found a children’s book on the Crow star stories called The Third Light written in 1979 by Lynda Sexson, Professor Emeritus of Humanities at Montana State University, and her husband Michael Sexson. After some false starts, my idea was to take this book from almost 40 years ago and show it to youth in the Crow Agency Public School and make a film about the interaction. Jason Cummins, the principal, introduced me to a teacher whose class I was going to work. Her name was Lucy Real Bird and she said: ‘You should also meet my father. He might be really good for this.’ And that was Henry. He said: ‘You know, this is what I did my master’s thesis on. I wrote about this because this star story actually was passed down to me in a dream.’ So he could speak to that star story from first person. And he was also a cowboy poet. So what I decided to do was honour the story that was presented to me and let go of this preconceived idea that I had. And by that time, there was the big Crow Fair that was about to take place as it does every year, so I got to spend the whole fair with Henry and his family. That’s how I got to really know them. I just spent a good two weeks with them, and then I proposed that we film something. And I just happened to be there when the eclipse was taking place. That was a really great coincidence.

As someone who’s not Crow or indigenous to the Americas, what were your considerations and questions in making this film?

I was new to Montana when I was making the film, and I’m very sensitive to exoticism or romanticism of the Other. I’m very conscious of that because I feel like I work through those questions a lot in my own personal journey and my personal work. A lot of my work deals with Tibetan identity. I am very aware now how fortunate I am that the Crow people and Henry opened their doors and trusted me. I’ve always felt like a traveller, like just a visitor because when I was growing up my parents would say: ‘Tenzin, we’re going to go back to Tibet someday. This is all temporary.’ So the first 10-15 years of growing up in the US, I was like: ‘This is not my home. I’m from Tibet, and that is where I’m going to live someday.’ So I always felt like the Other. And now as an adult, with that opportunity feeling less and less a possibility, I have had to renegotiate my own relationship to this country where I’m probably going to die. I met this Tibetan Lama the other day and he was born in Tibet, then left for India. Now he’s in California and he said: ‘The Dharma has brought me to California and I have to serve the people here. I’m going to die here.’ And he was so matter-of-fact about it, which made me cry because I haven’t had any conversations with other Tibetans who had the same kind of feelings as me. And for someone to just say it without any attachment was very liberating for me. My heart fluttered because I needed to hear it. So what I’m getting at is, I’m really lucky, but I’m also really aware of a certain amount of freedom that I have when I navigate certain spaces. I think it’s something that I’m more aware of now after making this film. I just want to be very conscious of that responsibility, but I personally never felt like I grew up in any demographic, you know, because I’m always the Other. So in a strange way, I learned more about America through Henry and his family than in 20 years growing up in the US and going through the education system.

What do the star stories mean to you?

I think that, as a creative person, we’re following intuition. We’re following our creativity and trying to be the best person that we can be, and to tell the story ethically and consciously. But a lot of it’s just intuition and showing up and being a good person. But now that I’ve finished the film, I can go back and think about the subconscious layer. What resonates for me is that the star stories are a continuation of a culture, a belief system, a connection to space and land and a way of being. Henry and I connected in a way that isn’t very visible in the film. But Henry is someone who I found was very passionate about preserving his identity, preserving his culture, his language. As a Tibetan in the US, I’m still dealing with my own displacement, my own cultural identity. My Tibetan is not very good, but I’m currently on my third attempt to study the language and it’s finally sticking. I kind of grew up isolated from a shared experience. I had a Tibetan experience, but it was an isolated experience and very unique because we came as immigrants and weren’t given the same privileges that most Tibetans had arriving as legally recognized refugees. This meant we didn’t have Green Cards and that travel to and from America was not a possibility. And so, Henry, in a way, exemplifies this individual who went through a Western education, preserved his culture, and stayed true – to use a kind of cowboy term – to his guns. He stays true to himself. And that’s why I’m so inspired by him. Someone who stays true to himself. And despite all of those challenges, he can still speak his language. He still knows his spiritual heritage. His people have gone through hundreds of years of oppression. The Tibetan diaspora is quite young, only about 60 years old. And I’m the first generation that’s grown up fully in the West. So I really was looking to Henry almost like a big brother, to understand what he has learned in his lifetime and what have his people learned and how are they living on. Even though I did tell him during the filming, it really filled my cup to be around Henry and his family and to see how they’re surviving and just staying strong. So, to me, the star stories are strength.

Directed, shot and edited by Tenzin Phuntsog

16 December 2020