Traditional art of salt-making dates back thousands of years and it can take days, even weeks to produce a single batch. These traditions have been passed down from generation to generation throughout the years, however, in Northeast India, the art form is no longer practiced owing to the ease in buying mass produced commerical salt.
This dying art form is now only known by a couple of members of the community in this region and the teaching are no longer passed down. I spoke to Abo Arangham, Director of The Lost Art of Seasoning, 2021. The film, which was screened at the Native Spirit Film Festival this year, perfectly captures the revival of the art form and teachings from one generation to the next.
Abo, thank you so much for speaking with me today, your film The Lost Art of Seasoning is so interesting, how did you come to first hear about it and what spurred you to direct this film?
It was my friend and the man behind the project, Pongro Wangsu (producer / presenter) who encouraged me to become part of this project, as well and the love for my people, culture and getting a chance to know forgotten traditional art.
How did you go about approaching the direction for filming? Did you face any initial roadblocks?
My narrative approach was to tell a story of the teachings of faded knowledge from one generation to the generation of our time, only appointed families can practised the art of salt-making and luckily Pongro belongs to one.
Confluence of modern religion and the ancient culture were the initial roadblocks. Overcoming the obstacles were very tricky as we were equipped with little or no knowledge about the past but were going right into the centre of it. We took the time to approach the right person and explain to them the pros of the project and how it can unite the community and preserve this cultural and traditional art – which can be fruitful in the long run.
You began filming for this documentary whilst still in film school, how did you juggle school life with filming and what was it like continuing the project after you left?
We planned the production according to my holidays and took special permission from the college authority for extended days to shoot. After going back to the film school I was on and off with The Lost Art of Seasoning as I also had to complete my other film school assignments. The whole project took us around 2 years towing to the fact that the team all lived in a different places at the time – including the editor, who was also pursuing post-production in another film school.
How long did it take to travel to the site of the well and build the oven and cook the salt?
We would travel for around five hours each day, to get to the well from the village and then back again. It then took a further week to build the oven seen in the film and further four to five days to cook the salt.
Having lived for several years in the city for my studies and suddenly coming back to shoot in such a terrain was a reality check! But gradually I got used to it. The villagers were also really great and helped whenever we needed them.
What challenges did you face filming in the wilderness? Did it affect your shooting schedule?
We shot in a rainforest during the monsoon season so we were faced with unpredictable weather. Some of the challenges faced included, moisture in lenses and difficulty capturing specific angles because of the unforgiving terrain. Although shooting the film saw its challenges, the salt-making process was not affected at all!
Were there any surprising benefits presented whilst filming in the wilderness? Anything you will take away for future reference?
The experience to shoot in a rainforest with difficult terrain during unpredictable weather and learning to tackle the problems which come with filming in such a place was a huge learning curve. Future projects in the rainforest? I’m not worried!
Did you have a favourite moment during filming?
Yes, the time when we first lit the oven. Until then, even I wasn’t sure about the project and its outcome, but that first fire really hit us emotionally and helped us get connect with our ancestors. It was surreal to see the fire in the same oven after such a long time.
In what way will screening the film at the Native Spirit Film Festival be beneficial to the message of the film?
We were trying to reach out to film festival looking out for indigenous content so I’m glad it did get selected into the Native Spirit Film Festival. Hopefully the film and its message will reach out to the other native indigenous people and will relate to how we are losing sacred and special parts of our lives, which is translated through traditional and cultural art.
Will the tradition of salt-making now continue? Has an oven been lit since the time the documentary was filmed?
As commercial salt is easily and cheaply available in the market I don’t think the art will be practiced on a daily basis – but yes, the oven, the salt well and the art as a whole will be looked after from time to time in order to keep the art alive. It has been lit two times voluntarily since the time the documentary was filmed.
What impact has the relighting of the ovens made on the community?
At first it was mixed review from the villagers, as the art of salt-making comes with various superstitious beliefs. But, as the mission was successful in the end I think villagers felt relieved and became the ambassadors of art and culture in their own ways.
Where do you hope this film will lead you?
I hope this film will lead me to different people, different places and different cultures.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
Yes, the work I am doing will continue to share the stories of more communities, more places and many more cultures.
I have to ask, did you try the salt? If so, how did it taste?
Yes, I did! Being present on the ground and witnessing the whole process of making it, the taste was extra special for me and I know it will be to anyone who is lucky enough to get the taste of it. I still have some kept preserved in my kitchen.
How can people find your work?
For now I’m trying to reach to as many film festivals as I can and eventually build my own website where people can find my work. People can follow me on instagram @abo.arangham to keep up to date with my work.