The preservation of life

Juliana Curi on the collaborative work behind Uýra – The Rising Forest

by Jennie Kermode

Uýra, The Rising Forest
Uýra, The Rising Forest

Every now and again, a documentary comes along which has the power to make a real change in the way viewers think. A film about a Brazilian non-binary artist of indigenous ancestry who is also a professional ecologist and uses performances to teach people about the importance of caring for the rainforests, Uýra – The Rising Forest may not sound like everybody’s cup of tea, but few people who try it will go away without feeling moved in some way. The film not only has a fascinating subject, but is creative in its approach. When I met director Juliana Curi in the run-up to the film’s screening at Outfest 2022, she was keen to make it clear that it’s the project of a group of artists working together, and not something which she could take credit for on her own. She opened the conversation by talking about Uýra.

Heading downriver in Uýra – The Rising Forest
Heading downriver in Uýra – The Rising Forest

“ I think she's one of the most intersectional persons in the world,” she says. “She connects so much causes, and she is so intersectional that I could not address this in a traditional way, as a single vision of a director. I always like to say that I am one piece of a big puzzle of artists and thinkers that came across to create this story. So I'm here representing a constellation.

“I first encountered Uýra in 2019, through her Instagram. I come from a field of study regarding gender and feminism, and then I had two other filmmakers that were part of the initial process of the film, which is Martina Sönksen, the writer, and Livia Cheibub, who is both editor and producer. All of us came from different fields of studies, and once we met to meet up, we realised that all our fields of study could be connected in this story, because Uýra teaches us that, at the end, all causes are connected by the preservation of life. It blew our minds. We wrote an email to her, we send a direct message on her Instagram, and we made a meeting and we made a proposal to do a film with her. She loved the idea.

Deep in the forest
Deep in the forest

“We evolved the idea. and after three weeks, we were ready to start shooting. It was really fast. All of us – Uýra, me, Livia and Martina – had a sense of urgency when we met. It was the second year of Bolsonaro and really danger in Brazil. We had a sense of urgency for this story to go to the world, and we didn't want to wait for the traditional way of brands and development. So we did a small fund with co-producers, and it was a very independent and low budget production at the beginning. And we travelled to the Amazon. And it's crazy, because when we returned after few months, the first cases of Covid start to appear in the Amazon region, what was one of the most affected regions in the whole Brazil.”

We discuss the importance of making indigenous people’s voices heard through film and not filtering them through an external lens, and Juliana says that, again, it was very important to her to take a collaborative approach.

“Uýra is not only the main character, she is a writer, and she's one of the co-producers,” she explains. “It was intentional. We have, since the beginning, a desire to blur this line that divides filmmakers and characters, like subjects and objects. This is her film, she guided us. We just offered the filmmaking tools that we have access to, and she guided us to create this story.”

Workshops in the forest
Workshops in the forest

I ask how she experienced that connection when first talking with Uýra about the performance art that she does and the way that that empowers people to take action on environmental themes.

“You need time to understand how everything is connected,” she says. “Uýra teaches everyone about that. With her artwork and now with the film, she can make us understand that our environmental issues, LGBTQ rights, the forest, everything could be connected. We had this challenge: how to translate this to a documentary feature film? It was definitely a learning process for everyone involved.

“We live in a world that's very Cartesian and very straight, and everyone tries to move everything into a box. And what we challenge everyone to do is to start to interconnect everything, and avoid this partitioned way to approach life and also films and also stories and also art. So yeah, it was challenging. When we were with Uýra writing and shooting the film, it was super clear. After that, in the editing process, which is super long and lonely. It was harder, because you need to balance all these elements.

Bringing the community together
Bringing the community together

“For example, we felt that one of our main goals was to blur the line that divides documentary and fiction. Because in one hand, we have a story that's about a trans indigenous artist in one of the most dangerous countries in the world. So we need to address in a more journalistic way this fact, because it's really important. It's a documentary about a real person. But at the same time, Uýra can make us feel and understand everything in a different way, in a more sensory a way, in a more poetic and symbolic way. So how can we balance these two elements? That's why we decided on this hybrid storytelling in which we have the facts but at the same time you can feel Uýra’s work, in order to try to explain it more. So this is the way we chose to translate all this intersectionality.”

When she talks about those intersectional ideas, it strikes me that they're all things that Bolsonaro hates and has tried to stamp out, I say. So it's a very political film. But it seems like a way that we don't usually approach politics, that sensory way of connecting to things emotionally.

Performing in the city
Performing in the city

“Yeah,” she agrees. “Again, we were trying to blur the line that divides art films and social film. Why can’t these be connected? Uýra’s work is about that. She's an entity that views all elements of the forest, and she brings us these astonishing images, but at the same time, it's so political. So I think it's something for everyone to think about. Social film doesn't need to be gritty. Yes, this is political, but this could be with poetry, and metaphor can also have a really significant impact when we talk about social justice.”

I tell her that I’m also interested in the way that, within the film itself, that theme of how art – and performance art specifically – have changed people's understanding of things like politics, is addressed. There's a moment when someone talks about the experience of wearing an earring and how that changes the way one thinks about oneself.

The changing face of resistance
The changing face of resistance

“Yeah, this is work that Uýra has been doing for a long time,” she responds. “This is exactly one scene in which we have indigenous culture and LGBT culture completely connected, because she started talking about how painting is important from traditional communities. And at the same time, she made a very clear link about how this is also important for the LGBT community. And that at the end, they are part of the same struggle, which is the expression and preservation of life. I think this workshop is one of the expressions of Uýra’s work, that's more clear and powerful in order to teach the audience about these connections.

“Uýra started to bring the community for this workshop, and we were just there. We found an amazing place which is a museum in the middle of the of the forest. It was a very symbolic place of resistance in Manaus, and Uýra was just there with her groups, leading the experience. We were trying to be as invisible as possible.”

The film also features some incredible performances by Uýra herself. How did the filmmaking team go about capturing those?

Dreaming a better future
Dreaming a better future

Juliana nods. “We have three acts in the film. Each one of them represents a part of the ecological succession. So the dry land and then we have the pioneer species, and then we finish with the ecological succession. So it was just this very deep study about the body of work that Uýra has. We came up with a short list of performances that could represent each act. And then we started to to create the performances base on this short list. Some of them Uýra already did, but some of them are completely original for the film. Uýra is a performer, and she works a lot of with photography media. And in the field of the filmmaking, it was her first time, and this is where we bring a lot of tools in order to help her to express these performances in a filmmaking way.”

She’s thrilled by the way the film has been received at festivals, and by being selected for Outfest.

“It's so exciting. Yeah, we just came from Frameline, and now we are at all very important festivals in terms of LGBTQI productions. It's particularly important for us because Brazil right now is living through a very terrifying moment for culture, for the environment, and for the LGBTQI community. So for us to have this international recognition, it's really important in order to bring attention to this story. Besides being a film about artists, we are also an independent production made by women, BIPOC, indigenous and LGBTQI people. So for the whole crew, it's really important to be in LA with our film.”

Uýra – The Rising Forest screens at Outfest today.

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