‘Fire & Ice on the Mountain’: A Conversation with the Filmmakers

Bill Gentile, an independent filmmaker and American University professor, has recently released a short documentary film, “Fire and Ice on the Mountain.” The film was produced on assignment for American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies and investigates the connections between religion and climate change in Peru.

For the research, Gentile teamed up with Karsten Paerregaard, a Danish anthropologist who has studied Peru for the past 30 years. Together, they explore how the ongoing retreat of Huaytapallana Glacier, located near the city of Huancayo in the central highlands of Peru, affects the local people’s worldview, based on Andean cultural traditions, with particular emphasis on their spiritual relationship with nature and Pachamama (Earth Mother).

GlacierHub interviewed Bill Gentile and Karsten Paerregaard about the film to find out more about how climate change is forcing locals to adapt their traditions.

GlacierHub: Was the local community in Huancayo accessible and willing to share their thoughts on the changes they observed in the glaciers? Were they willing to discuss their religious beliefs?

Karsten Paerregaard: We were well received in Huancayo… Huancayo’s Catholic Church showed great interest in the video and took its time to introduce us to its work. The same happened when we visited the regional government in Huancayo and Pedro Marticorena, the laya mayor [head shaman] on his premises. People are generally keen to discuss the city’s environmental problems. Many are also pleased to relate these to religious issues even though they do not always agree on how religion and climate change are linked.

GH: How is the glacier important in the communities’ traditional practices and religious beliefs? What does it represent?

KP: Glaciers are critical to not only the city of Huancayo but also the neighboring rural communities. This is because they provide them with fresh water, as well as they symbolize the Apus (the mountain deities) whom the local believe control the water flow.

Glacier melt is a physical sign of a rapidly changing nature that causes widespread concern in the city, which is experiencing contamination in many respects: traffic, mining, garbage, etc. However, exactly how glacier retreat, water scarcity and pollution are related is a very contested question in Huancayo. Only a few attribute it to global climate change, and many believe that it is human activities that are causing the city’s environmental problems.

GH: How has the connection with the glaciers developed?

KP: Glaciers have always been there, and as such, they are seen as symbols of the Apu’s powers. Nevertheless, recently people have become concerned about the avalanches they occasionally cause— the last big ones took place in the early 1990s— and currently they are worried that they will disappear altogether. From being a symbol of respect and fear, they have now become  an issue of concern and compassion.

GH: How do Andean worldviews express themselves in the daily life of people in the region?

KP: Generally, people are rather syncretic in their religious belief, sometimes tapping into the Andean worldview and sometimes into Catholicism, but more recently the former has gained momentum. This is partly related to glacier melt and the concern for its consequences for Huancayo and partly to the growing feeling of insecurity and uncertainty about the future.

Many visit the mountains to ask Apus for favors in their personal lives, but at the same time, people are becoming aware of the impact of their own actions on the environment and, in particular, the glaciers. This creates confusion about the mutual relationship between humans and nature, which prompts people to review fundamental aspects of their religious beliefs.

GH: Why do you think the regional government is limiting the pollution in the Huaytapallana glacier? Do you think this is influenced by religious groups?

KP: Huaytapallana has been declared a protected area by the national government and it is the regional authorities’ responsibility to implement the regulations associated with its status. The different regional governments have tried to do this with varying degree of success.

Bill and I were impressed by their commitment, particularly by the young woman (Vanessa) who is currently responsible for protecting the environment of Huaytapallana. Regardless of the resistance she encounters from people visiting the glacier, including those who participate in the annual celebration of the Andean New Year at the foot of the glacier.

GH: How do you think the religious practices and festivities will be affected when the glacier retreat is even more advanced than it is?

KP: Glacier retreat attracts more people every year, which suggests that climate change is an issue of serious concern in Huancayo. Nonetheless, the growing number of participants is also a reason for concern.

Bill and I noticed that Pedro Marticorena, as well as some of his followers, are becoming more aware of the impact their activities are having on the glacier. Eventually, they have to modify these and adapt their religious practices and beliefs to the changing environment.

GH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

Bill Gentile: The biggest challenge facing the project was finding characters who can help transmit important information from the field to the audience. I was lucky to be working with Karsten, who had the patience to put up with a person (me) pointing a camera at him and asking questions all day. He is a gold mine of information and is articulate enough to convey that information in a compelling way… In addition, and as Karsten points out, the many Peruvians whom we met on our journey were welcoming and generous with their time.

GH: How has the film been received?

BG: American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS), which funded my trip, was delighted with the way the film explains the issue of religion and climate change in Peru.

The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting published a piece on “Fire and Ice on the Mountain” on its website because it addresses the “under-reported, systemic issues” that the Pulitzer Center is most concerned about. I have been using the film in my classes as a teaching tool. Students and colleagues find it inspiring.

GH: What plans do you have for the film?

BG: I will be entering some film festivals and will continue to use it as a teaching tool.

GH: What is your greatest satisfaction in having made this film?

BG: As with any of the films I have made, my deepest satisfaction is taking part in the global conversation that we call “journalism.” I am lucky and privileged to be able to travel, to seek truth, to create, to meet fascinating people, to explore their lives and to communicate their reality to people in other parts of the world.As you know, we live in a time when truth is under attack. I take great pride and even greater satisfaction in defending it.

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