Modern Tribalism

An Interview with the filmmakers


Fire! Journey into America's primitive soul. A "graphic, unflinching and startlingly touching" (L.A. Weekly) documentary charting the resurgence of humanity's oldest and most intense rituals, Modern Tribalism looks at a growing - and sometimes disturbing - movement in American popular culture. From garden-variety tattooing, to frenzied effigy-burning festivals, from the extremes of body piercing to supernatural shamanism, Modern Tribalism tours the nation on a hypnotic voyage into our mysterious and primeval subconscious.

Enter a world where suburban skate-punks perform Malaysian cheek-spear rituals, computer programmers don body-paint and burn effigies in the desert, "good girls" tattoo ancient symbols across their bodies -- and all of society's primal urges and primitive desires are laid bare. Is it a dark sub-culture of thrill-seekers? Or a fascinating new faction of mainstream America, searching for expression, community and meaningful experiences in their world?

Packed with riveting footage and rare interviews with writer Tom Robbins, body-piercing pioneer Fakir Musafar, controversial publisher V. Vale, medicine-man Malidoma SomÈ and Burning Man founders Larry Harvey and Crimson Rose, Modern Tribalism takes you on a powerful and provocative journey that you'll never forget.

© 2001 low-fi filmworks / color / 77 minutes


It hit me like a wet t-shirt. At the Azatlan Theater the primal performance group Crash Worship whipped into yet another onslaught of discordant sound, drumming and ululating. The "instigators," as they're known, were working the crowd -- breathing fire, throwing fruit and honey, and drenching the ecstatic hordes with bladders of wine. People who had arrived looking somewhat respectable in button-down shirts and Levis were now half-naked and writhing with the bacchanalian throng.

We stepped back to survey the chaos. We smiled to each other in a can-you-believe-it sort of way. Something was happening here. Some primitive energy was being tapped into by that age-old combo of drumming, dancing and fire. And then it hit us.

Fakir Musafar
To be attracted to an ancient way of life
is to initiate one's personal spiritual emancipation.

- Malidoma SomÈ, Author of Ritual

Having gone to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada a few times already we were aware of the ability of modern people to discover their more primitive selves, but now as we saw the same energy generated in a different part of the country by a different group of people it took on a whole new aspect -- that of a movement.

As children of the 80's we had seen tattooing and piercing grow from a coffee table book put out by RE/Search to a world-wide phenomenon including everyone from fringe teenagers to sports and rock stars to suburban baby boomers. All of this seemed to point to something. Something ancient that had been asleep for a long time and was just now beginning to stir. We began to dig deeper.


Tom Robbins has been called one of the wildest, most entertaining, and even most dangerous writers in the world today. He is the author of experimental, often hilarious fiction drawing on ancient myths, primitive cultures, and his boundless fascination in what makes human beings tick. His best-selling novels include Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Still Life With Woodpecker. We caught up with Tom weeks after finishing his latest work, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates, to talk about, among other things, fire, shamen, bacchanals and Leave it to Beaver.

Malidoma SomÈ, born into the Dagara tribe of west Africa, was kidnapped as a boy and raised in a Catholic mission. Returning to his tribe as a young adult, Malidoma had to undergo all of the tribe's rites of passage in order to be recognized as one of them. Today he is an initiated diviner and medicine man who holds three masters degrees and two doctorates from the Sorbonne and Brandeis University. A human bridge between primitive and modern worlds, he lives up to his name which means "friend of the stranger" by trotting the globe conducting rites of passage workshops for groups ranging from gang kids to corporate CEOs. Malidoma is the author of Ritual: Power, Healing, and Community and Of Water and Spirit: Magic and Initiation in the Life of an American Shaman.

Larry Harvey & Crimson Rose are two of the key organizers of the Burning Man Festival, an art-music-pyrotechnic event that garners over 25,000 celebrants annually in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. Larry founded Burning Man serendipitously in 1986 on a beach in San Francisco when he torched an 8-foot stick man as a personal act of rebirth. Today, the event still culminates in the burning of an effigy -- now a 50-foot wood-and-neon sculpture -- which Crimson Rose has ignited since 1992. Drawing on her years of experience as a fire dancer, Crimson designs and produces the spell-binding pageant of fire performers at Burning Man, as well as runs the home office during the rest of the year.

Fakir Musafar is known worldwide for his lifetime of research and personal exploration of primitive body decoration and rituals. He coined the term "Modern Primitives" to describe what is now a movement, and it's fair to say that today's tattoo and piercing trend can be traced back directly to Fakir. He combines the teachings of many cultures into a philosophy which emphasizes the body as the portal to spiritual awareness. Today Fakir publishes an online magazine called Body Play and conducts workshops training piercers to hone their craft and to strive to be modern shamen.

V. Vale, founder of the seminal punk periodical Search and Destroy, continues to explore subcultures and the avant-garde through his publishing entity RE/Search. His best-selling issue, inspired by Fakir Musafar, was entitled Modern Primitives, and was called "the bible of the underground tattooing and piercing movement" by the New York Times.

Alicia Cardenas & "Big Mike" Nickels are the owners of Twisted Sol, a piercing and tattooing shop in Denver, Colorado. Of Native American decent, Alicia is committed to exploring the Aztec roots of her piercing work. Big Mike pushes the envelope of tattoo artistry with a mix of old and new school design. As "elders" for a tight-knit group of artists and clients, they witness everyday a generation's fascination with body adornment.

Matt Wray is a Smithsonian Fellow studying white trash, a writer for Bad Things (an internet site devoted to cultural studies), an editor of books on American subcultures, and a college instructor. Matt has been attending Burning Man for years and has created a college course on the event, seeing it as an experiment in community.

Ray Valdez first got involved in staging Santa Fe's annual burning of Zozobra -- a huge clownish marionette who represents the community's collective gloom -- when he was a teenager in the 1970s. Today, as the Santa Fe Downtown Kiwanis Club president, he's keeping this 75 year-old tradition alive as he passes it down to the next generation of volunteers.


The filmmakers
Rick Kent and Mimi George
As the digital age of filmmaking comes upon us, the shackles of over-priced, over-produced films have been lifted. With that freedom filmmakers face a new challenge -- to make movies that arise from our souls.

As we began production of Modern Tribalism we asked ourselves, "can the making of a film be a spiritual quest?" Knowing that we would be traveling to sacred spaces and meeting spiritual seekers, we wondered if it would be possible to merge the intense art of filmmaking with the Hero's Journey. Could we experience ecstatic transformation while still remembering to charge batteries and label tapes? We decided we had to try. How else could we create a film that we hoped would be a window on the condition of humanity?

We set out on a crusade to document, to learn and hopefully to inspire. We treated our interviewees as the wise elders who would guide us on our way, and the modern tribalists as our fellow warriors -- unenlightened but pure of heart. What we learned about ourselves in the process is as important as what we have brought to the screen. The result is a film that is part ethnographic field study and part rite of passage, set to the hum of technolgy and the beat of a tribal drum.

Modern Tribalism is an offering. It's a tool to create understanding and a prayer for the survival of the human soul. We hope it inspires people to create thier own initiations, rituals and vehicles of self-expression - their own Hero's Journeys.


"One day some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart
and make a beautiful film with her father's little camcorder."

- Francis Ford Coppola

low-fi filmworks is a collaboration between a boy from Idaho and a girl from Ohio.

Rick Kent, Director/Producer

Rick's dual passions for images and technology began at a young age. When Rick was seven his father brought home a video camera the size of a small engine block and his mother signed him up for computer programming classes. In no time Rick had invented his own system of stop motion animation and was creating graphic-intensive adventure games on TRS-80 computers. Neither experiments were all that successful, but the seeds had been planted.

Years later Rick attended film school at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he directed many memorable short films including the Gen-X period piece loser which won the university's Peter Goldfarb Award, was shown at the IFFM's first student film showcase and earned him a nomination for the Princess Grace Film Award. Rick went on to work as the youngest Avid Editor in Denver, Colorado and Head of Production for one of the area's first internet and multimedia creation companies. While editing projects for Animal Planet, PBS, The Learning Channel, and others Rick began to see the emergence of technologies that would eventually make Modern Tribalism possible. Currently he lives in Los Angeles and rides the bleeding edge of technology daily. He has attended Burning Man for the past five years and is a better person for it.

Mimi George, Director/Producer

After earning a Masters in Education from Columbia and teaching in an all-boys Catholic school, Mimi went to work at a children's publishing house. During her five years in New York City Mimi answered mail at National Lampoon, was a groupie, volunteered in an animal hospital, and wrote two screenplays. When New York spat her out, Mimi spent a divine albeit monotonous season on a snowboard before landing in Denver and directing a short film about a violent makeover in an elevator. In Denver, Mimi directed a documentary on kids in jazz, wrote 50 episodes of a Learning Channel home improvement show, and directed commercial spots for the Denver Film Festival. Her brain deprived of oxygen during a midnight summit of Kilimanjaro, she decided to move to Los Angeles where in the past two years she's written and produced an A&E documentary on underwear, produced a short film noir, and produced and directed her first feature documentary, Modern Tribalism. Yes, she's been pierced.

Scott Jones, Director of Photography

Scott survived a childhood in suburban Chicago and a desperate crush on his second grade teacher to enjoy a cultural awakening in art school in Los Angeles. Soon after, a trip to Amsterdam evolved into an photography instructor post. When California lured him back to the US, Scott became one of the most in-demand landscaping artists in San Francisco. In Denver he found his current art form, the moving image. Scott has now had years of experience behind the camera both as a documentary film cinematographer and still photographer. Recent work includes Steven Speilberg's Survivors of the Shoah, a project recording the testimonies of Holocaust survivors; Jazz Alley, an on-the-road concert series with jazz's greatest living performers; Power of Language, an Emmy Award-winning educational film; and Generation Jazz, a brief look at Denver's young jazz prodigies. Other projects include work for The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, ESPN, Fox Sports, NBC Sports and Newsweek. In his own words, "Appreciate life as theater. Patience will become opportunity. A documentary is created."



2000 Modern Tribalism, low-fi filmworks. Producer / Director / Editor
A feature-length digital documentary.

1999 Suspects in the Murder of Miss May, Shadow Machine Films. Producer / Editor
A 22-minute 16mm short film.

1998 Keepers of the Frame, Mt. Pilot Productions. Editor
A documentary feature. Premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. Shown at South by Southwest, IFFM, and the Cleveland Film Festival.

1997 The Glassbreaker, Eye of the Storm Productions. Editor
A 16mm film short directed by Alex Bulkley.

1997 Denver International Film Festival T.V. Campaign, Denver Film Society. Producer / Editor
Five 16mm 30-sec. spots directed by Mimi George and Sean Leman.

1995 loser , Producer / Writer / Director / Editor
A 12-minute, 16mm short film.
Winner of The University of Colorado Peter Goldfarb Award for Best Film, shown in the 1995 IFFM Student Showcase, nominated for The Princess Grace Film Award.

1994 The Wanderer, Producer / Writer / Director / Editor
A 5-minute, 16mm student film short.


2000 Modern Tribalism, low-fi filmworks. Producer / Director
A feature-length digital documentary.

1999 Suspects in the Murder of Miss May, Shadow Machine Films. Producer / Casting Director / 1st AD
A 22-minute 16mm noir film.

1998 Unmentionables: A Brief History, A&E. Weller-Grossman Productions. Senior Segment Producer / Writer
A two-hour television documentary.

1997 - 1998 Work in Progress, The Learning Channel. Rocket Pictures. Writer / Associate Producer
50 one-hour episodes.

1997 Denver International Film Festival T.V. Campaign, Denver Film Society. Producer / Director / Writer
Five 16mm 30-sec. "mockumentary" spots aired on local network affiliates and won Best Commercial Spots at the Denver Underground Film Fest.

1997 Generation Jazz, Words & Pictures. Producer / Director
A 10-minute video documentary on young jazz musicians.

1996 Guerrilla Wardrobe, Writer / Director A 3-minute 16mm short film.

1995 Circle K, Writer / Director
A 12-minute short video.

WHY low-fi?

There's something pure about making a piece of art using only what you absolutely need to create it.

low-fi means creating films without waste. In the case of producing Modern Tribalism it meant buying a DV camera and wrangling a crew who likes to sleep in tents. It meant shooting an epic on a budget smaller than what most feature films spend on craft service. In an age when anyone can make the next Star Wars on their desktop computer, low-fi is film as folk art. It¼s the punk ideal of DIY. It¼s where Gummo meets Lawrence of Arabia.

When we began planning our strategy for pulling off Modern Tribalism, we sat down with Scott, our director of photography, and asked him to help us make an epic on a shoestring. We likened ourselves to modern pilgrims, low on funds and high on faith. We talked about using sunsets and streaming traffic -- things that the natural world offers up for free -- as special effects. We discussed being inspired by Dan Eldon¼s journals -- gorgeous travel collages made with polaroids, magic markers and soul. We talked about knowing when to point the cameras and shoot and when to put the cameras down and shoot the breeze with our subjects.

The result is not just cinema, but intimacy, not just observation, but participation. Modern Tribalism's audience will sit and talk with a modern African medicine man, feel the tattoo gun vibrate beneath their skin, and get hit in the face with the heat of a massive effigy exploding into flames. For, it is only through documentary film -- the collage of first person storytelling and first-hand experience -- that we can walk a mile in someone else's moccasins.


Journey into America's primitive soul in this "graphic, unflinching and startlingly touching" (L.A. Weekly) documentary about the resurgence of humanity's oldest and most intense rituals. From garden-variety tattooing, to frenzied effigy-burning festivals, to the disturbing extremes of body-piercing, Modern Tribalism explores the cultural context surrounding this underground movement.

(c) 2001 low-fi filmworks / color / 77 minutes

©2000 low-fi filmworks 1.0