I just finished watching a remarkable DVD from anthropologist / filmmaker Hugh Brody. Tracks Across the Sand follows the progress of a land claim made by ‡Khomani San people, hunter-gatherers indigenous to the Kalahari Desert, who were driven into destitute exile in townships by European colonists.

I first encountered Hugh Brody’s work recently in the form of his marvellous book The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World. It chronicles his experiences among Canadian Inuit communities, and is one of the most intelligent and sensitive examinations of what was lost in the transition between foraging and agriculture that I’ve read. It lacks both naivety and cynicism—a rare achievement in writing about precivilized cultures. The dominant theme is that of place. Paradoxically, it is us “sedentary” farmers who have, in the long run, been the rootless wanderers lacking deep connection to place; and it is the nomadic hunters who, in fact, come to bond with a particular region intimately, engendering an interweaving of nature and culture that is unique.

Brody was involved, in the ’70s, in helping some Inuit reclaim lost territories, by mapping the recollections of elders who could remember the time before they were exiled from their native lands. When Brody ended up in South Africa in the late ’90s, to learn about the famed San “click” languages, he happened to meet Nigel Crawhall, a sociolinguist who was doing research in support of a land claim recently initiated by a group of ‡Khomani San. Brody became involved in the claim and the efforts to map the people’s ancestral connection to the land. Being a filmmaker, naturally he brought along his camera.

Rather than cut a regular-length documentary from the 130+ hours of footage, Brody decided to release this DVD, which features themed segments and interviews that run to around 4.5 hours. It’s worth watching every minute.

Especially moving is the discovery, during research for the land claim, of old women who still speak the presumed-dead NÇ€uu language. One woman is found, then three sisters. They are played recordings from the ’30s, and understand them perfectly. As they are being interviewed, watched by curious children, they remark that this is probably the first time their grandchildren have heard them speak NÇ€uu. By the end of the process, they are spending time teaching the apparently enthused kids. They’re realistic about the slim role that the language will play in their cultural future. But merely seeing this incredible thread of ancient culture, almost severed, in the process of potentially re-spinning itself, is an astonishing thing to have captured on film.

The film doesn’t shy away from the huge problems faced by the San. Even after the claim’s success, the people relocated back to their ancestral lands face battles with alcohol and violence. But in their willingness to forgive the wrongs visited upon them by European colonists, and their pragmatism and canniness in the face of the unavoidable modern world, there’s much hope for the future. And their unreserved joy at being back in the places that form part of their being is a delight to be aware of.

The DVD can be purchased for around $40 from Face to Face Media.

Here’s the trailer: