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Tourism to a Dying Ancient Culture

Jul 10, 2018 | 671 videos
Video by Max Lowe

“The modern world has come for our little island,” says Heu Rapu Haoa in Max Lowe’s short documentary, Amo. Heu is one of the 800 remaining speakers of his native tongue. His home, Rapa Nui, known widely as Easter Island, is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world.


Situated more than 2,000 miles in the southeastern Pacific Ocean off the coast of Chile, Easter Island was once home to Polynesia's most advanced megalithic culture. At its peak, from 1100 to 1680 A.D., 20,000 Rapanui people lived on the island. They belonged to a complex society that erected thousands of magnificent stone statues, called moai, to commemorate their ancestors. Then, it all collapsed. By the mid-19th century, fewer than one thousand Rapanui remained. Archaeologists still debate the official cause of Rapa Nui’s demise. (Realistically, it was probably a confluence of factors, including resource depletion, disease, civil war, and invasive species.)


Until the 1960s, Easter Island was insulated from the modern world, accessible only by ship. Today, it is a Unesco world heritage site, attracting more than 100,000 tourists a year. Heu and other native inhabitants are left to wrestle with the inexorable force of globalization.


“The moai have opened a path for us to gain abundance,” Heu says in the film. “But at what cost?”


Lowe’s documentary, which was supported by the Celine Cousteau Film Fellowship, tells Heu’s story in his own words (and in the Rapanui language). “I was driven to tell a unique and different story about the people in this place really only known on a surface level across the world,” Lowe told The Atlantic. Lowe and his film crew spent a month on the island living alongside Heu as he worked on his farm, fished, cooked meals with his family, and rode across the vast rolling volcanic hills.


“From what I observed on that tiny island in the middle of the South Pacific, the cultural and social bonds of the people who call it home are some of the strongest I have ever witnessed,” said Lowe. “And while I am sure the continued modernization and globalization of life on the island will continue, the people of Rapa Nui will hold on with strength and mindfulness that will long outlast the ancient stone men that have brought the world to them.”


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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of short films curated by The Atlantic