Arts & Life, Film & Television

‘Birthplace of the People,’ a VR film about Puvungna, debuts at CSULB

Inside a dark room in the basement of the University Library, sounds of crickets chirping surround students as they swivel in their seats to watch an animated coyote and red-legged frog-woman dance around a 360-degree screen.

The 14-minute animated virtual reality film “Birthplace of the People,” directed by anthropology professor Scott Wilson, made its debut in the “Igloo,” the cylindrical virtual reality theater located in the basement of the library.

The film tells the story of the sacred land of Puvungna, on which Long Beach State and much of the city is built, and the Gabrielino-Tongva people.  

Wilson, who has previously produced virtual reality documentaries, collaborated with Cindi Alvitre, an American Indian Studies lecturer at CSULB and a member of the Tongva people. 

“We made what we want[ed] to see,” Wilson said. “We want to demonstrate how spaces have [an] emotional dimension.” 

Alvitre narrated the film, telling the story of a deity called Wiyot, whose death brought together the creatures of the land in a large mass, illustrated in simple strokes of violets and browns. Puvungna, Alvitre explained, means the “place of the big mass.”

For Wilson, the film is a way for the CSULB community to engage with its history. During a panel discussion Feb. 20, he shared a common saying within the anthropology department, that they are “speaking alongside people.” 

Through his collaboration with Alvitre, Wilson did exactly that. 

“I never thought about what was here before,” said Kailee Anderson, a third-year business finance major. “It’s good to know what you don’t know.”

The film, which took over a year to make, brought together several artists like Carly Lake and animator Katherine Scully. The two, along with the rest of the team, discussed the making of the film during the panel discussion. 

“I tried to stick to the story the way it’s told,” Scully said, explaining that she did not want to put in her own interpretation of the story in order to allow Alvitre’s narration to dominate the film.  

Lake, who used Tilt Brush, a virtual reality illustrator, often had to create multiple sketches of the scenes beforehand.

Lake explained the importance of knowing what the land looked like before. 

“I had to think about what needed to be shown,” Lake said.

Wilson shared similar sentiments and said that the ecology of today has been changed due to development. 

Puvungna is no stranger to change.

In a story first reported by the Forty-Niner, contractors dumped construction dirt from the new Parkside North Dormitory development on the sacred site last September, sparking outrage and protests within the Native American community. 

Alvitre hopes that “Birthplace of the People” and its story will become a part of everyone’s history. 

“It’s an indigenous story,” Avitre said. “It’s sharing the story with all indigenous peoples.” 

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