Birdwatchers at BIFF

Being a person who would readily understand why the Grouch stole Christmas, I have not been spoilt lately by too many undiluted positive experiences in my irregular sojourns out among the people that form my fellow audience in the movie theatre. Today, however, everyone behaved as well as could be expected, and while this should be no superhuman feat, one has to polish the silver lining where one finds it. I have to say in all fairness, though, that the audience members are not the only contributor to the decline in one’s possibilities of cinematic enjoyment. Often the films themselves take well care of ensuring that the visit is a disappointing one. However, once in a very seldom while one is rewarded for wading through so much mediocrity and incompetence (see yesterday’s post on Helen), and when the elusive prize presents itself, it can make everything seem worthwhile. It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece neither, I’m more than content with a pleasant surprise or two. As luck would have it, today offered exactly that (and it is a bit of a master piece as well…).

The Birdwatchers is an Italian production, set in the Brazilian rainforest/countryside and is the first film to use the indigenous Guaraní people as actors. That should by no means be the only reason to see this beautiful film. Unlike the amateurs in Helen, it turns out the Guarani can actually act. I suspect the director, Marco Bechis, has spent quite some time in order to pick his cast. All the Indians (I hope that is an accepted word these days) have readily distinguishable features and are easily recognizable as the characters they are meant to portray. By this I mean that I assume the director picked people who were not too remote from the personalities he needed to portray in the film. I don’t want to fall into the trap of automatically assuming that they have no theatre schools or drama projects in the areas they come from, but I somehow doubt it. Of course, for all I know, they may all have been living in a Brazilian metropolis prior to filming, but if so, their acting here is of an even higher order. (After writing this, I’ve done a bit of research, and found that none of the actors had acting experience, but were used to performing, since that was what praying meant to them; a performance for their gods and fellow tribal members. At first they talked incessantly while being filmed, but the director showed them clips from Hitchcock’s The Birds and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West to show them the importance of silences in film acting. They understood immediately. See here for more information about the filming process.)

For act they do. The reason I know this is that the film tells me so. I don’t consider the story as far away from reality – or a possible reality. I know that it is not a documentary, but it is a well told story, too well told to be pure reality. That doesn’t take a sense of immediacy away from it. The customs we witness and the situations the Guaranís encounter all have an air of not only possibility but inevitability. One kind of knows that the film will not have a very happy ending – after all, we are talking about indigenous people opposing the “civilizing” forces of rich landowners and the government – but for the 100 minutes the film lasts we witness something valuable and something I’m very glad to have seen.

The film is, according to the Indians themselves, close to reality and the Indians were very satisfied with it when they saw it for the first time. It was also the first time any of them were inside a cinema, except one of the actors, who said he was once in a film theatre, in Campo Grande, many years ago: “It was scary. There was no way out.” They have said in an interview that they prefer to be represented in this way, rather than in a number of well-meaning, but false nature documentaries: “The white people only show ugly things; they don’t talk about what needs to be done, what needs to change. They talk about malnutrition, and soon all seem to be suffering from malnutrition. But that doesn’t solve the problem. And the mothers and fathers get the blame. But they don’t discuss the lack of lands, the devastation carried out by the whites, the lack of work and opportunities. Without forest there are no animals and it is not possible to perform the “kunumi pepy” (initiation ritual, also known as “fura-labios”).

Let me stress again, that this is not just an “exotic” film, showing us the noble savages or “the beautiful nature people”, but a valuable work of fiction in its own right. The film is entertaining and thought provoking (which is a rare thing these days and maybe all days), it is comedic and it is sad. Above all it’s damn good. The film begins with the Guaranís standing naked by the riverside to add a piece of exotism and excitement for the white tourists traversing the river. After the day’s show is ended they return to their transport and dresses in ragged jeans and t-shirts. I think the film is early on trying to warn us of the dangers of regarding these people as “others”, as harmless idols for the new age crowd or overly idealistic environmentalists. Later they try to fend for themselves by moving out of their allotted reservation and closer to the place their forefathers inhabited, and by this move are perceived as a threat by the local landowner. Conflict gradually ensues. But apart from the overt conflict with the land owner, there are several other conflicts and themes that run its course; nature versus civilization (as always!), man’s relation to Death; suicide, love, attraction; in many ways it is also a coming of age story told better than 99% of what comes out of Hollywood.

I guess it is impossible to make a film of this theme without showing certain well known examples of how an entire race has been extinguished, not necessarily by guns, but by commerce and alcohol. Capitalism and its good friend Catholicism has played such an unquestionable role in the eradicating of the indigenous people of South America that it is hard not to include certain aspects of these institutions. The local shop owner likes to give them hard liquor before negotiating prices for the goods, and as such comes across as a bit of a cliché. We know this character from the “Indian Agents” haunting the reservations of the North American Indians, poisoning entire tribes with his “fire water”. But maybe there is no way around including what is already known to us in order to show us what we don’t know? The reason I mention this is that the film is in other ways remarkably reflective and doesn’t unduly demonize the white landowner. (His speech about his grandfather working the soil sixty years ago is both laughable in his short view of history as well as true in that the Indians themselves have seldom bothered to cultivate the soil).

I won’t say too much about what further happens in order not to spoil the film for anyone, and therefore will not attempt an analysis here. Let me just say that the feeling of inevitability that I mentioned is both fulfilled and denied. There is a victory for good at the end of the film, but maybe not in the battle we thought we were watching. The end of the film is indeed one of the most satisfying I can remember having seen in recent times, expanding the arch of the film as well as giving the only kind of closure we can hope for in a film of this type.

A few words must also be granted the music, which is in part natural sounding incidental pieces by the score’s composer, Andrea Guerra, which work well by introducing an ominous aspect to the proceedings. But the most noticeable part of the soundtrack is definitely the choral works by early eighteenth-century composer Domenico Zipoli. The end credits inform us that he was a Jesuit missionary in Argentina and known as the “Indos composer”. By letting Zipoli’s stringent arch-European compositions accompany the images of the Indians’ mundane tasks, the film illustrates the Western constant presence, legacy and continued influence over their situation. It is a beautiful sound, but completely out of place here, like a dream or a feverish glance of heaven. I’ll let others read into that what they will.

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