Birdwatchers

Birdwatchers

****

Reviewed by: Chris

The closest I’ve got to the rainforest was earlier this year. I fell into the Amazon climbing a tree to get a photo. My guide had just scaled it with ease, whereas I was unfamiliar with the slippery bark. It is an alien and challenging environment, mostly cut off from the rest of Brazil and the civilised world.

Director Marco Bechis penetrates further. Much further. Further than tourist-explorers who trek far into the depths. Further than the Bafta-winning TV series of Bruce Parry which charted people living deep along the Amazon. Further than Martin Strel of Big River Man, who swam across Brazil to become one with the denizens of the rivers. And arguably much further than filmmakers such as the excellent Elite Squad director José Padhila, who finds commercially viable subject matter in the favelas of Rio or the starving thousands of his native Brazil.

Copy picture

Compared to the Indians of Mato Grosso, who play the leading parts in the gripping drama Birdwatchers, the rest of the world is just that. Looking at birds from the outside in. A pretty species here. A rare tribe in warpaint there. A fascinating social problem to look at. We see it from the point of view of our own world. But here is a story that evokes Brazil from the inside out. The people connected with its land from the start. We see the world through their struggle for existence. Their loves. Their lives. Their suicides.

Says Bechis, “All Guarani share a religion that attributes supreme importance to the earth, the origin and source of life. The Guarani experience the invasion of their land not only as theft, but also as a serious assault on their very identity.” Set within the creeping genocide and loss of the rainforest that sustains them, Nadio leads a rebellion to try and reclaim a small part of their homeland. The place where their forefathers are buried. It happens to be a farm. They set up a makeshift camp, and the farmers try to interact constructively. Up to a point. They try to offer them work. Or sleep with the women. Or arrange for them to perform ‘authentic’ displays for visitors in this deep interior. Ultimately, they terrorise them.

Osvaldo is learning to be a shaman. Following a strict lifestyle that includes not eating beef even when the tribe is starving, the handsome youth forms a liaison with a farmer’s daughter as they swim in the same lake together. Their sexual and emotional awakening coincides with the increasing irritation of the farmers with Osvaldo’s tribe. The lyrical beauty of the rain forest’s deep south is paired with a story of increasing violence and hopelessness.

In the last 20 years, over 517 of the few remaining Guarani-Kaiowá Indians have committed suicide. Many were young people. The youngest was nine years old. Brazil prides itself on being an indivisible mixture of three races – Europeans, Africans and Indians. But the mix is not as equitable as we are led to believe. Deforestation – ironically driven in part by demand for ‘green’ ethanol fuel – has reduced the Guarani Indians to an endangered ‘species’ that does not even have the right to own land. Eliane Juca da Silva, a Guarani who stars in the film (playing Mami, who sleeps with a farm hand to steal his gun) was taken to its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. She broke down in tears after journalists applauded. “We just want a chance to survive,” she said.

Bechis had first to introduce them to the concept of cinema, over a period of months, before interviewing would-be actors. With Osvaldo, he hit gold. As a trainee shaman, his ritualistic life is already one of performance, and he understands instinctively what it means to act. Bechis used a theatre trainer to develop acting technique in the selected players based on their existing cultural mannerisms, movement and way of talking. He worked with the charity Survival International to check facts are accurately portrayed in the story. But the whites are not thrown into any cultural cliché either. In a confrontation where Nadio rages about the theft of the earth they walk on, the farmer angrily retorts that three generations of his people have worked the land, successfully producing food for many people. His jet-setting modern friends, and the iPod-groovy teenage daughter who takes up with Osvaldo, are also representative of an established part of Brazilian life and are accurately depicted.

It is a situation where there are no ethical absolutes. We have the privilege of trying to understand. Even help. But the charity (http://www.guarani-survival.org) whose website address flashes on the screen all too briefly among end credits and the parting facts and figures – how many will contact it? How many will go and see the film? For most of the western world, Brazil, a country the size of the USA, is barely on the map of consciousness. Sadly, ‘coloniser-friendly’ films, like City Of God or The Motorcycle Diaries, are the only ones likely to get much airtime.

Remarkably, Birdwatchers is no bleeding-heart polemic: these lost people’s way of handling things will make you laugh as well as keeping you glued to the screen wanting to see how their impossible but real life situation unfolds.

Reviewed on: 18 Jun 2009
Share this with others on...
Birdwatchers packshot
A drama which explores the tensions between the white and indigenous cultures of Brazil.
Amazon link

Festivals:

EIFF 2009

Search database:


If you like this, try:

Rez Bomb