Ever since Robert Flaherty's Nanook Of The North, documentarians have been drawn to remote communities where people live off the land and are bemused by the complexity of the modern world. For director Dinaz Stafford and her producer/mentor Mira Nair, that community is Sadolpara in the Meghalaya region of India, where the Garos have farmed rice in bamboo villages for six millennia. Stafford's documentary Still, The Children Are Here opens with an explanation of the title (it comes from a song insisting that even if everything falls apart, the future remains secure) and a snazzy opening-credits sequence, complete with catchy world-beat electronica. That's a lot of fireworks for an introductory section that's essentially a breakdown of grain genetics.
But then, that's a balance Still, The Children Are Here strikes throughout, and not always cleanly. Like Flaherty, Stafford relies on re-creations to get what her cameras missed the first time, which becomes starkly noticeable when she has a married couple commiserate about their recently dead child while lying in bed at nighta moment that no documentary would catch naturally. Stafford also structures the film a little awkwardly, as one long answer to a question one of the Garos asks early on, about how they can farm the same grain as their ancestors but make less money. Stafford's response exists in footage of men drinking, women complaining, gender roles stagnating, the industrialized world luring the village's young men for better-paying work, and some Garos succumbing to missionaries who make Christianity sound no different from ancient fables and superstitions.
When it comes to putting indigenous peoples' lives in a larger context, the new standard may be Thomas Balmes' underseen The Gospel According To The Papuans, which shows how the transformative power of religious conversion settles into one more damn thing to do before nightfall. By contrast, Still, The Children Are Here takes too broad an overview, and becomes a string of "Oh no, a way of life is vanishing" generalities. But when she's not subtly judging her subjects or converting their lives into reality television, Stafford slows down graciously for plaintive sequences of people at work. Like Flaherty's films, which were often more about processes than people, Still, The Children Are Here works best when it circles around the hows of life in a village with no electricity or sewage. Somehow the commonalities of human experience, from home design to recreation to moments of worry, become plainer once the distractions of choice are removed.