LEAVING THE RAT RACE BEHIND

Our journey started in 2004. Our children were respectively 6, 3 and 1. We never expected that having children would have had such an effect on our thinking, the way we looked at the future and the way we looked at our Western society as a whole. We held up a mirror and asked ourselves what it was we were really trying to achieve. What was the value of our success? The more we had, the more we could afford, the more restless we seemed to become. What was our true contribution to the world our children would grow up in?

We felt an urge to break away, break out of the system.

We decided to take a time-out for a few years to re-connect with ourselves, re-connect with nature. And as we made that conscious decision, serendipity started to happen. Out of the blue we were invited to meet a clan of Native Americans in Upper Michigan. Meeting these people was the start of an adventure that would change our lives forever.

We both felt a strong draw to the land and the people: the Anishnaabe (first Native Americans), people who lived on those lands for thousands of years and whose way-of-being resonated so much with us. Looking back, it’s amazing how quick the decision was taken to pack up and sell everything. We bought a piece of woodland along the North shores of Lake Michigan, on the ‘Land of the Dancing Spirits’ and started a new life.

We went without any plan other than to learn and grow. We built a house, built a school for our children, and a garden to grow our own food and medicine. We saw it as an opportunity to do something completely different, an opportunity to find a renewed perspective on life. We had no idea that this move was only a steppingstone for what was to come.

ANOTHER WORLD – ANOTHER REALITY

In the four years we lived in the woods we embraced many of the Native American teachings, realizing how fitting they actually are for our modern world. Yet, what really shifted us, was meeting Nowaten (He Who Listens), the teacher of our Native American friends. We had heard many stories about this medicine man, about his wisdom and his ability to heal people from incurable illnesses. When we finally met him in person, our eyes were opened to a whole different reality. How was this humble man, living a secluded life in the woods, able to tap into this seemingly infinite source of wisdom? How was he able to heal people who were given up on by the medical field? How did he always manage to answer the questions we hadn’t even started to ask, the questions that lie in our hearts?

 

OUR QUEST

We realized that there are people like Nowaten all around the world: Wisdom Keepers, people who have held on to a connection that most of us have lost. We felt a calling to record Nowaten and medicine people like him on all continents, to share their wisdom with the world. We felt that those Keepers of the Earth might hold the key to a renewed world. But when we asked Nowaten how he felt about being filmed, he didn’t answer. It was almost a year later, on our seventh visit, that he responded to our question. This moment marked the beginning of what would become DOWN to EARTH.

FINDING THE KEEPERS OF THE EARTH

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How do you find people who live under the radar of our modern society? Individuals like Nowaten who live in service of their community and who have never been interviewed or filmed before. Initially we had no idea how to manifest such a huge quest. A year of research followed and slowly but surely the necessary pieces started to fall into place, including the funding for the journey we were about to embark on. We decided to travel around the world for a year, together with our children, now 10, 7 and 6. No crew, no production team, one backpack and a camera each.

We lived with an aboriginal family on a remote island and with the San (Bushman) in the Kalahari desert and had many more amazing encounters. But our journey was more than an fascinating adventure. The memories, the friendships and teachings that the journey brought us, are forever. Throughout the process of making this film, we were severely tested, over and over again. That way the journey was one big lesson in having faith and following one’s intuition. In every country we had to start from scratch as nothing was laid out. The experience of the journey to find and meet these people was and always will be more important to us than the film itself.

TIME FOR CHANGE

The Keepers of the Earth, as we came to call them, weren’t eager to be filmed and some had to overcome their traditional stance about being filmed and recorded. Therefore it was very powerful to experience that, without these people being linked to one another in any physical way, they told us over and over again how they felt that now was the time to step forward. It often happened in the process of meeting these people, that they changed their mind and, to the surprise of the community, accepted our invitation to be filmed. The Keepers of the Earth are unified in their vision that the time of change is here and now.


Before our journey we considered various geographical area’s on different continents where we believed we would find people who have retained a natural balance and live in harmony with their surroundings. There was no shortlist or even names when we set out on our journey. We decided intuitively who to film as they came onto our path travelling around the world. In most cases they were not keen to be filmed and some were very much against the idea at first. But as we spend more time with them, living as a family in their midst, the trust grew and ultimately they all embraced the idea.

These earthly characters are the message in the way they live their lives. Un-affected by man-made laws, man-made religion or the distorting layers of the ego, they share a clear and transcendent vision on life on planet Earth. Having lived in hiding for centuries, the medicine men and women know that now is the time to step forward to share their insights and wisdom with those who are ready to listen.  

The characters in the film are unknown individuals who live under the radar of our modern society. Most of them live secluded lives in service of their community. 

They are referred in their communities as medicine people, wisdom keepers, shamans, healers or spiritual leaders. The term ‘Keepers of the Earth’ was chosen as we felt it was the right way to describe the characters in DOWN to EARTH. Not only are they incredibly humble and ‘down-to-earth’ individuals, but they are also the connectors between the other realms and our life on Earth, between the physical and non-physical worlds. In reality we all live in multiple dimensions all the time, it’s just that shamans are aware of existing in multiple dimensions. Through that connection they can access much more information, reclaiming for themselves and assist others in reclaiming what has been abandoned in other realities.

    

Capturing The Journey

What was your approach in capturing the Earth Keepers to create the magic that we experience watching the film?

Renata: A big part of the result you feel when watching the film, I think has more to do with the unique setting than with specific camera or lighting skills. I believe that the energy of the recordings of the characters in the film is so special because of the intimacy. We filmed every individual in their natural environment, the place they would normally sit, with natural available light. Mostly it wasn’t really an interview. You couldn’t call it that. Often it was more like a ‘listening session’, where we would hardly ask any question. In many cases we cut out the interpreter because it interrupted the flow. We had to connect on a different level than the level of language. We would only really find out what we had recorded after we got it translated line by line afterwards. In hindsight these sessions delivered the best sequences

Without much film making experience, no crew and a low budget, how did you manage to make a film to such a high standard and production value?

Rolf:  We reckoned that it was more important to capture that intimacy than having the perfect shot. I’m not a techie and have a love-hate relationship with the camera and recording equipment. But we decided that it was better to be fully in the experience as family and accept some hiccups or wobbles, rather than losing the intimacy by bringing a crew. I think we have been extremely lucky considering the limited technical knowledge we have, that we managed to film for a year without any major hiccups. Fortunately it was only after the journey that I started to feel the weight of the responsibility to have been trusted by the Earth Keepers with their story, their message for humanity. At the time of our encounters with them it was all very low key. We were just sitting and chatting, whilst we let the camera run. It wasn’t about the camera at all, it often felt as if it wasn’t even there.  

But the film is much more than the wisdom keepers talking?

Yes, that’s right. We wanted to create an experience and not make a ‘talking heads’ film. To capture the journey across the globe, the big challenge was to get the big wides; beautiful nature shots but without using any cranes, planes or other fancy film maker toys. There is only so far you can go with a tripod. To get the aerials that would give the film it’s cinematic feel, we had to be very creative to generate these shots.  

Can you be more explicit about the level of creativity involved?

Rolf: We tried out all kinds of things, not hindered by any knowledge. One could say that the areal shots of the film were shot in a very unorthodox way. Without the budget for a glass-bottom plane, we shot all the aerials in America over Hiawatha Forest and Lake Superior from a powered parachute. And the signature shot of the film, flying over the Namib Desert was the most adventurous. We had tried to shoot it form a plane window but it didn’t work. I shared my frustration with the pilot and jokingly said that he would need to take out the door of the plane to make it work. To my surprise he said: ‘we can do that’. The next morning he arrived with a screwdriver and took out the door before take off. It allowed me to point my camera down whilst hanging out of the small airplane. But only after the pilot had strapped to the back of the plane with a bungee-jump cord, just in case I would be pulled out by the air pressure. 

 

Constructing The Film

How did you go about crafting a story from 200 hours of raw footage?

Rolf: The editing was the most difficult part of the process. First of all the translation of all the footage was an incredible amount of work. It took us almost a year to get al the translations finalized, with some of the tribal languages only having very few translators. When everything was scripted, we ended up with a stack of transcripts the size of a telephone book. But where do you start? Shamans talk in stories and in the beginning we had no idea how to start cutting into stories that on average run for ten to twenty minutes. The first cut we made was actually on paper. We started literally cutting out snippets and ended up with a whole room full with stacks of paper snippets. From that the leading themes and the first storyline evolved. 

Did you edit yourselves?

Renata: We have done a lot of editing ourselves but we are very fortunate to have been able to work with two great film editors who both felt attracted by the project. Even though we have been in charge of the choice of the themes and the construction of the story, we couldn’t have done without them. Both editors have contributed a lot to the weft of the story. The first cut we made with Award-winning editor Andrew Quigley, who is very gifted in structuring and creating the different layers. We still love that first cut. Where many directors do it afterwards, you could say we first made the so-called ‘director’s cut’. But then, based on the audience and industry feedback, we decided to add our story to the film. That’s when Sahil Gill came on board as editor. We initially told him we needed some help for a couple of months with some changes to an existing film. Well, that became a process of no less than three years! Pulling the puzzle apart and trying to fit the new pieces in… well they didn’t fit at all at first. It was a long process of creating and re-creating. It was like sculpturing; reworking the film, layer after layer. 

The music is an important part of the whole film experience. How did you get Stephen Warbeck involved in the project?

Rolf: He came on board early on. We came in touch with Stephen shortly after our journey, through the new school of our children. Our daughters happened to be in the same class as his daughters. When he heard about the project, he asked us to show him a rough cut. After the viewing he offered to write the score for the film. It was an incredible gift to the project that he came on board. Not only did it instantly lift the profile of the project, but working with him was a real joy. Stephen is a most humble and down-to-earth character, who is an amazing listener. He has almost as little ego as the Earth Keepers. 

Renata: Things just fell amazingly into place, once again. I realize that we have been very demanding. We didn’t make it easy for him but he stayed committed throughout the whole process and has been incredibly generous with his support for a process that took so much longer than anticipated.   


INTERVIEW WITH OSCAR-WINNING COMPOSER STEPHEN WARBECK

Being a very sought-after film composer, what made you decide to work on a low-budget film like DOWN to EARTH?

Each time I choose to work on a project I am looking for something new in it, a new creative challenge. Down to Earth met those criteria. I have not come across a piece of work which so dramatically combines the personal and the universal.
 
Can you describe how you went about creating the soundtrack for the film? 
When did you come on board? Can you describe the process?

The film was still in the editing stage. I watched the rough cut with Rolf and Renata and we started to talk about the way we would approach the music. We wanted to create a language which took no account of boundaries but borrowed elements from the musical cultures of the different indigenous cultures. But also from electronics and from Western orchestral tradition. In the studio we worked with a core group of instrumentalists who provided the main part of the palette. After the recording stage we worked with music editor and programmer Kirsty Whalley and started to put the different elements together.

How did you come to the choice of the instruments that are used in the soundtrack? 

Each geographic place the film visits provides us with inspiration for this. Although we never wanted to mimic the music of a particular country or region, we would selectively borrow aspects to serve the overall concept of the soundtrack.
 
How was the collaboration with first time film makers Renata & Rolf? 

Working on a project where there is such a vital connection between the film makers and the subject – on a personal, political and spiritual level – meant that I felt a particular responsibility to be as truthful as I could to their vision.

ROLF WINTERS, Filmmaker

Rolf has his professional roots in the corporate world. His incessant drive to understand and make better use of human potential led him to found his own leadership consulting firm at the age of 30. The next 10 years he travelled Europe as boardroom consultant and coach, working for some of the largest corporations in the world. Through his in-depth experiences with leaders and decision making at the top of the corporate pyramid, Rolf also gained an insight into the stranglehold our established structures have on organisations and their leaders; the damaging effects of their short-term focus and their lack of a holistic vision. He started searching for a different perspective and a key to renewal. When he was exposed to the leadership principles and the way-of-life of the Anishnabe (first Native Americans), he felt he had found that key.

The Native American vision on life and their way-of-being resonated so strongly with him and his wife that they left their successful cosmopolitan life behind. They retreated for four years with their three young children into the woods of Upper Michigan in order to gain a deeper understanding of the wisdom and heritage of the Native Americans. Then he decided to go with his family on a year-long journey around the world, in search for the Keepers of the Earth.

Rolf continues his work with leaders around the world, now integrating the wisdom and insights he gained from the Keepers of the Earth.

 

RENATA HEINEN, Filmmaker

Renata Heinen studied communications in Antwerp. After her studies she decided to follow her true calling: the path of a self-made free-spirited artist, expressing herself in word and image. Her versatility manifests in many different art forms: from painting on life-size canvas and found materials to metal sculptures and from writing to her current adventures in filmmaking.

Living in London in her twenties, she felt drawn to the world of film and worked for a few years as an actress. It was during this period that she started writing screenplays for film. She wrote her first screenplay Walking Wounded in 2003. Her most recent screenplay Life, she has directed herself, and will be released in 2016. Renata’s raw and uncompromising writing style is a result of her drive for pure intuitive storytelling, whereby the mind only plays a secondary role. Her search for true originality and values also finds its way in her art.

Renata’s desire not to conform to society’s common denominator became the drive behind the search for a change of rhythm and lifestyle for her and her family. Her encounter with the Native Americans and their connected way-of-life was an obvious fact. For four years she lived with her partner and their three small children in the woods of Upper Michigan, enjoying a life closer to nature and learning from the Native American wisdom. When the vision came to travel the world to make a film about the Keepers of the Earth, it was the ultimate project where she could bring her various roles and professional skills together in a totally open-ended adventure. With her years of experience as a storyteller and screenplay writer, Renata’s desire was to create the weft and capture the spirit of the journey. Her aim was to ensure that the film would primarily be an experience, using all cinematic means to convey the energy and connectedness of the Earth Keepers.  

 

THE CHILDREN

DOWN to EARTH was the journey of a family. And the journey or the film wouldn’t have turned out the way they have without the children. They were the starting point of the whole adventure and proved to be the ‘door openers’ to be welcomed by remote & protected indigenous communities. But not just that, they are part of the film making team as it was the footage on their camera’s that saved the day! When they went on their journey Renata and Rolf had no intention for the family to be in the film. They were determined to make a film about the Earth Keepers through the lens of their camera, with the family staying behind it at all times. However, when audiences and film consultants saw their (first version of) the film in 2012, they pressed them to incorporate the story of the family’s journey in the film. They had no filmed material… until they discovered footage of the family on the camera’s of the children. That enabled them to weave the story of the family into the film.