TRAILER: Chile’s Indigenous Rapa Nui Get Emotional Watching Themselves in a 50-Year-Old Lost Film

There’s no doubt that film is a living art form, and even within the oldest artifacts of cinematic history we can find fresh meaning and new interpretations. But film is also an archive of cultural memory, a medium through which we remember and relive our collective past. So imagine the delight of the indigenous Polynesians known as Rapa Nui from Chile’s Isla de Pascua (Easter Island) when a missing piece of their own film history showed up one day on the doorstep of archeologist Andrea Seelenfreund.

Filmed in 1961, the documentary in question — titled Isla de Pascua — followed the daily life and traditions of the Rapa Nui in an era before tourist development transformed the physical and cultural landscape of Easter Island. Lost for decades after it premiered in Chilean cinemas in 1965, the unlikely discovery inspired Seelenfreund to contact documentary filmmaker and film restorationist Carmen Brito to collaborate in the restoration and revival of this missing piece of cinematic history.

Not only did the duo bring the film back from its state of decomposition, but they also tracked down some of the original subjects featured in the documentary to comment on the personal importance of the discovery. In the resulting film Buscando a Isla de Pascua, la película perdida, the emotion of the Rapa Nui is palpable as they wax nostalgic on a simple way of life tragically lost to the march of modernity. The restored footage shows an uncharacteristically joyful people living according to the traditions of their ancestors, accompanied by songs and hymns of praise that capture their spirit and resilience.

For outsiders, Buscando a Isla de Pascua promises to be a fascinating look into a culture never before seen on film in such depth, as well as a meditation on the archeological importance of cinema. For the Rapa Nui, its personal and cultural value is no doubt infinitely greater.

Buscando a Isla de Pascua played last year as part of the 9th Showcase of Indigenous Film and Video in Santiago, Chile.