“One Word: Sawalmem” Documentary Review by Super Star Agni

Released in March 2020, the short documentary One Word: Sawalmem is a reminder to live in reciprocity with the natural world.  

Since its release, Co-directors Michael “Pom” Preston (Winnemem Wintu) and Venuzuelan filmmaker Natasha Deganello Giraudie have held online screenings and conversations about the film and humanity’s role in climate change.

Preston said in a statement he met Giraudie at a conference in Point Reyes, California where she told him about her idea to invite a young indigenous person to direct a film with her and share one word from their ancestral language that changed their life and that humanity could use to rebalance its relationship with the earth.  Preston’s word, “Sawalmem,” came to him instantly. 

“Sawalmem, ‘sacred water,’ is how we’ve always been in relationship with water,” Preston said in a statement. “Coming from Northern California, where water is abundant, the tribe decided it was time to share the meaning of Sawalmem to help change the misconception of water as ‘resource’ to water as sacred life giver,” Preston continued. “As a member of my tribe, I decided to do my part in sharing this with the world, and so I stepped into the adventure of becoming a first-time film director with full authorship and creative authority, with the support of Natasha’s filmmaking experience, and under the guidance of my tribal leadership.” 

Giraudie is the creative director and founder of Micro-Documentaries, LLC, which produced Sawalmem. Micro-Documentaries aims to be on the vanguard of the micro-documentary film genre to advance humanitarian missions, according to its website. As the name implies, a micro-documentary, micro-doc, or mini-doc, is a short non-fiction motion picture that instructs, educates, and/or documents. For readers who find documentaries to be nothing more than tedious info-dumps,  Sawalmem is the antithesis to that stereotype—beautifully shot, heartfelt, and uplifting, yet informative. A true micro-documentary, Sawalmem presents both challenge and opportunity in 18 minutes. 

Preston, son of current Winnemem Wintu tribal chief, Caleen Sisk, is the lead subject and voice of the film. In the opening sequences, he reminisces about his academic years at University of California Berkeley while walking the campus: 

“Spirit doesn’t exist in academic realms for the most part…I was the only one talking about the sacred. I was talking about my home lands in Mount Shasta. I was trying to remind people through academic language of how one relates to ecosystems and how to protect them and why traditional ecological knowledge in the native world is important.” 

For the past 4 years, Sisk and a collective of Indigenous women, activists, and allies have held Run4Salmon, a 300-mile prayer journey that follows the historical path of the winter-run Chinook salmon between the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the McCloud River in order to raise awareness of  practices and policies that threaten the waters, fish, and Indigenous ways of life.  

Fiscally sponsored by Robert Redford and the Redford Center, Salwalmem was selected as a finalist in the Tribeca Film Institute short film program and has been selected to screen in nearly two dozen film festivals since its release.

This review was also featured in the Winter 20-21 issue of News from Native California.


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