Luiz Bolognesi’s The Last Forest, playing at Berlinale 2021, takes us to the Yanomami tribe in the Amazon basin
The Last Forest brings up the often-debated question about whether indigenous people should be allowed to be who they are or brought into the fold of a modern world.
In Ex Pajé (2018), filmmaker and anthropologist Luiz Bolognesi captured the spirit, the essence, the modern-day conflicts of the Paiter Suruí, an indigenous community living in the Amazon basin. His new documentary, A Última Floresta (The Last Forest), is playing at the Panorama section of the Berlinale — and it’s a continuation of sorts. This time, Bolognesi focuses on the Yanomami, who live in the Brazilian-Venezuelan borders. Correction: a title card tells us that they lived in these regions before either country existed.
This sense of people coming before nations is reflected beautifully in the opening, where we hover past a mountain and mists of cloud and land on a man with a bow and arrow. The only “modern” aspect of him is his pair of shorts. He is in a place surrounded by reeds, and you doubt if he cares whether it’s in Brazil or in Venezuela. To him, it’s Eden. It’s home. It’s the place that hosts the scaly creature he is after, and ends up killing. He brings it home to his wife, who makes a meal. The images are primal: man as hunter-gatherer, woman as nurturer.
In case, to modern eyes, this marks any kind of inequality, Bolognesi takes care to show these women as independent beings. They chop down trees. They speak of a “women’s association”. They make baskets using a technique taught to them by members of another tribe, and they exchange these baskets with “white people” for food. A woman says that this way, they would have to depend less on men.
But there’s another kind of hunter-gatherer around: the white man who comes with others because he’s heard there’s gold in these parts. In an early scene, the shaman of the tribe takes with him a few men and scares away these prospectors. “If we don’t protect ourselves now, after they find gold they will come in thousands.” Some of these prospectors have turned rivers in other regions dry. They have contaminated the land with mercury. And of late, they have brought COVID-19 to these isolated communities.
“If they bring gifts don’t take them,” the shaman says. But how do you convince the younger men, who are tempted by these gifts, by the prospect of money? The shaman tells one such youth that the white men may seem nice but even if you learn the language you will never be one of them. “They will make all the money and you will stay poor.” The shaman is named Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. (The press notes say he is one of the best-known spokespeople for the Yanomami, internationally. ). He co-wrote the screenplay.
He delivers the film’s most moving passage: “White people don’t know us. Their eyes have never seen us. Their ears don’t understand our speech. They don’t know us up close. That is why I must go where white people live.” He says he is not going to go with festive food or traditional dances, the “exotica” that typically fascinates and entertains the outsider. He wants to teach them their way of thinking, “because we are the last children of this forest.”
Among these ways of thinking is the tribe’s creationary myth, centered on two brothers named Omama and Yoasi. They dug a hole through the forest floor and water accumulated in these holes, creating lakes – and there was no more thirst. They planted trees. And then, they created winds, which could carry the smells of the forest flowers. But they were alone, until a woman came into their lives, a fish in female form.
Do the Yanomami still believe in these myths? Maybe the older people do. When a woman says her husband hasn’t returned from hunting, her mother says a forest spirit perhaps cast a spell on him. But what about Davi Kopenawa Yanomami? Does he believe, too? It’s hard to say. He is, after all, a man who communicates with the modern world. But this much he believes: these myths need to be preserved.
Maybe what we call “the fear of God” resides in these myths. The shaman tells his people that they should not take ore from the earth because Omama buried evil spirits and the “smoke of disease” underground. To dig up the earth would be to release these terrors into their community. I was touched by this statement of his: “This is not their forest. Omama put this forest under our care.”
The Last Forest is, thus, a record of a rapidly vanishing home.
In 1986, the discovery of gold deposits in the Yanomami regions led to an invasion by 45,000 prospectors and the death of 1,500 to 1,800 natives. In 1992, the Brazilian government legally recognised the Yanomami’s land rights. And yet, we hear about the Haximu massacre, where prospectors raided a village and killed 16 natives with guns and machetes. And now, the current administration is trying to legalise the prospectors’ invasion of native land. Davi Kopenawa Yanomami has been receiving death threats.
As a person utterly accustomed to modern amenities, I was taken aback by the force of Davi Kopenawa Yanomami’s words at Harvard University. “You who live on the other side of the river can’t see from here. You think everything is beautiful in the forest. But the ‘white people authorities’ allowed gold in our land to be prospected. For you who live in the city, products are the most important thing. Although there are plenty of products, white people don’t share them. They are greedy. Making too many products is bad for the forest. What matters are the animals in the forest, fertility, sharing food amongst our people. Our survival. Our growth. Our way of life. Our existence as a people.”
This may be a romantic way of imagining life, and it brings up the often-debated question about whether indigenous people should be allowed to be who they are or (when the rest of the world has changed so rapidly and industrialisation has caused such depletion of nature) brought into the fold of a modern world. But there is something to be said for how the Yanomami think. One of them says that their people sleep quickly at night because it’s dark in the forest and it is so quiet. “There are no cars, no lights, so we can sleep well.” It’s a line I am going to remember for a while.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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