My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.
I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:
Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.
Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.
An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.
This is a fascinating film which raises a number of the ‘global film’ questions that we like to explore on this blog. The film is directed by the team of Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra who will be familiar to UK audiences because of the wide success of their previous production, The Embrace of the Serpent (2015). The gossip seems to be that the couple have now split up and I wonder how significant it is that Cristina has a joint directorial credit on this film – whereas she was the producer on the previous film. Just as in 2016 when the previous film appeared in ¡Viva!, this was a preview screening and the film will get a UK release through Curzon on 17 May.
There are various ways in which this film could be described in conventional terms and the most popular seems to be as a ‘universal family gangster film’. There is certainly something in that description but it is a little glib to say the least. If I had to try to sum up the film in this way I’d suggest it is something like a cross between Gangs of Wasseypur and a film by Sembène Ousmane or another Senegalese or Malian director with all the rich mix of ideas that such a mash-up suggests. Ciro Guerra in the Press Notes (French via Google Translate) confirms a wish to make a genre film but still retain the exploration of the representation of indigenous peoples from the couples earlier films:
For me, it’s a film noir, a gangster movie. But it can also be both a Western, a Greek tragedy and a tale by Gabriel García Márquez.
Guerra also discusses the idea of ‘myths’ in story telling and sees popular cinema genres as a way to explore these. Later in the Notes, Cristina Gallego suggests à propos of discussing the ‘great bonanza’ of the cannabis export to the US and the subsequent drugs wars in the 1970s:
It’s a metaphor for our country, a family tragedy that is also becoming a national tragedy. Speaking of the past, it allows us to better understand where we are today as a country.
The story covers the years 1969-79 and it is set in the peninsula of Guajira, the most northerly part of South America which sticks out into the Caribbean Sea. Wikipedia describes the region nicely:
The scenery of Guajira is very picturesque, with wide desert plains and green, foggy mountains.
The indigenous people of this desert/mountain region are the Wayuu. Under colonial rule, and after, the Wayuu were subject to missionary pressure to convert to Catholicism but in recent times they have been allowed to practise traditional rituals without interference. The Wayuu have always resisted centralised control over their affairs. The film narrative is set at a time when there might be priests around (much as in Sembène’s Ceddo (1977) but they don’t appear in the film. At times it is difficult to believe that this film is set in the 1970s – until we see the Land Rovers and Jeeps. The narrative begins with a meeting of a Wayuu clan in which a young woman, Zaida, who has been confined for a year is brought out to celebrate the moment she has become a woman. She performs a rapid dance with her younger brother and then he is replaced by a stranger, a grown man known as Rapayet. By taking a role in the dance Rapayet (who is also Wayuu) has suggested he is interested in marriage. But this requires a ritual proposal and Rapayet’s uncle Peregrino is an accepted negotiator. A bride price/dowry is agreed in the form of goats, cattle and necklaces. So far, so traditional. For us as the audience, the inciting incident is a chance observation by Rapayet and his business partner of a trio of Americans who we learn are associated with the ‘Peace Corps’ and who are distributing anti-Communist propaganda in the form of playing cards. They are also on the lookout for marijuana for which they can pay in US dollars. Immediately we know that tradition has been undermined by modernity, capitalism and American culture. Rapayet will buy the crops grown by his cousin in the mountains and the Wayuu clans will grow rich.
I won’t spoil the narrative any further. Instead I’ll just outline one or two of the other elements. The bride’s mother Úrsula turns out to be some form of spirit messenger who foresees the tragic events ahead (often via the appearance of certain birds – hence the title). She is also a formidable leader of her clan – to which Rapayet has now pledged himself. What follows is visually dominated by the stark contrast between the semi-desert lands where Úrsula’s clan are settled and the lush tropical hillsides where Aníbal, Rapayet’s cousin, has his house and fields. The second important element of the narrative is the deadly way in which the greed of criminal capitalist enterprise will join with/poison the traditional relationships between clans. This means that once a dispute begins it is almost impossible to end it peaceably. The narrative resolution which I won’t describe does return us to the use of traditional storytelling, although sadly it is too late to compensate for all the damage that has been done.
In all the carnage of the second half of the film, the Colombian police appear fleetingly and only to take their cut of the drugs business. Now, several days after the screening, I’ve only just realised that the time period in the second half of the 1970s was a violent time in much of South America and the period of the first two organised crime groups involved in the Colombian drugs business (although by this time it was cocaine rather than marijuana that was being exported to North America). The internal wars in Colombia (which involved both the drugs barons and leftist guerrillas) don’t appear in the narrative which seems to be almost timeless and also completely cut off from the rest of the region. It’s true that the peninsula is the most isolated part of Colombia, but it still feels odd.
The film’s casting does appear to have posed some problems for the filmmakers. I assumed that the largest proportion of the Colombian population was, as in many Latin American countries, mestizo – the result of inter-marriage between European colonists/settlers/migrants and indigenous peoples. This appears to be the case but, as in Mexico, there are different ways of estimating and defining the proportion of mestizos and that of ‘Europeans’. In most of Colombia, the indigenous populations are relatively small except in the peninsula and some border regions of the south. African-Colombians tend to be concentrated in the Caribbean coastal regions. While some of the actors did appear to be indigenous and possibly Wayuu, others were more European in appearance. The Wayuu use the word alijuna which I understand to simply mean ‘outsiders’ or ‘strangers’ – i.e. ‘not Wayuu’. It was this that I found a little confusing and I wasn’t sure if ‘marrying out’ meant being cast out of the community. My concern is that the principal characters (who are all professional actors) appear more ‘European’ than indigenous (though the Press Notes reveal that both Carmiña Martínez and Jose Acosta have Wayuu roots in the family histories). The only African-Colombian character of note, Rapayet’s business partner Moisés, is a loud and aggressive character and I assume that his treatment by the Wayuu is more to do with his personal characteristics than any racial prejudice. The film doesn’t really clarify any doubts about this.
I’m left wondering what I made of the film. Part of me is worried that the genre conventions of a clan war dominate the film too much and don’t allow enough of the unique geography and sociology/ethnography of the region to be fully appreciated (and it must have been a very difficult production to shoot). I fear the ‘City of God‘ syndrome and the over-promotion of the gangster genre so that the film becomes a cult hit based on its genre qualities. On the other hand perhaps there is enough suggestion about traditions and rituals of the Wayuu and the ‘spirituality’ of Úrsula and her family to keep us interested in the cultural questions. The filmmakers themselves have positive reasons for making the film this way and perhaps they are reaching a local audience? It’s what happens in markets like the UK that worries me. Curzon as a distributor used to be quite good with films like this, making available press materials. This time there is relatively little I can find (but perhaps more will appear before the actual release?). At the moment, the language of the film is given as ‘Spanish’ – but much of the dialogue is actually in the local Wayuu language.
I found watching the film was a very intense experience with the dramatic landscapes photographed by David Gallego. Gallego photographed The Embrace of the Serpent for the same filmmakers, but he was also responsible for the photography on I Am Not a Witch (2017) which would have taken him to Zambia, so perhaps my suggestion of an African feel about some images is not too outlandish? I enjoyed the music by Leo Heiblum and the sound design by Carlos García. Both are very strong in eliciting an emotional response and the film worked very well in the big screen in HOME’s Cinema 1. When it comes out, find the biggest screen you can.
This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.
I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.
Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).
At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.
At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.
When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.
I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.
I did see this film in Glasgow, but as it was released officially in the UK on March 9th, I decided to wait to see what kind of reception it got on its opening weekend. That has proved to be an interesting experience. Sweet Country was screened at Cineworld on Renfrew Street on a large screen which benefited this magnificent film – if you get the opportunity, see it on the largest screen you can. Unfortunately, you will struggle to find a local multiplex showing the film over the next few weeks. Despite the good job Thunderbird Releasing has done in promoting the film it is mainly showing at arthouse cinemas in major cities (and we don’t have screenings in Bradford – just two shows in Leeds). Check for your nearest screening here: http://showtimes.sweetcountryfilm.co.uk
Sweet Country is that rare but increasingly important beast – an Indigenous film from Australia. It is presented in a form that is instantly accessible to audiences outside Australia as a ‘Western’ set in the Northern Territory during the late 1920s. The narrative is based on a true story and it explores the racism of Australia’s colonial past (and as such comments on the racial tensions of the present and possible future of Australia). Writer-director-cinematographer Warwick Thornton came to prominence on the international stage with short films and then with Samson and Delilah (Australia 2009) which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes. I was knocked sideways when I saw that film on DVD a few years later. Samson and Delilah uses local non-professional actors for its teenage lead characters and was shot on location in the Alice Springs area. Before I saw that film I had come across Warwick Thornton’s camerawork in a more mainstream Indigenous film The Sapphires (Australia 2012) by Thornton’s mate Wayne Blair. This hugely enjoyable (and moving) film about an Aboriginal girl group performing for US Armed Forces in Vietnam in the 1960s deserved a much bigger audience than it found in the UK.
The narrative of Sweet Country is in one sense quite simple, but Warwick Thornton’s treatment, in terms of sound and image and narrative structure, turns into a rich and complex film that will repay many re-viewings. (The film eschews non-diegetic music and relies on the natural sounds of the environment.) The basic premise is that the establishment of cattle stations in the Alice Springs area has produced an unbalanced and dangerous local community with white men outnumbering white women and the local Indigenous people forced to work almost as indentured labour on their own land. In 1929 an embittered war veteran Harry March takes over a ranch and seeks to ‘borrow’ some Indigenous workers for a couple of days. Fred Smith (Sam Neill), a local rancher who sees himself as a religious man reluctantly agrees to ask his worker Sam to go to the March place along with his wife and niece for a few days. Sam is wary of March and when the drunken white man comes after the Indigenous family with a gun, Sam kills him in self-defence. Having killed a white man, Sam and Lizzie must go on the run in the bush. A posse led by Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown) sets out to track them. The outcome of the search and its aftermath is shocking. I’ve purposefully left out a lot of detail and not allowed any real spoilers but these are the main sections of the narrative. Thornton uses both flashbacks and flashforwards in presenting his narrative.
Helped by his local knowledge, Thornton’s presentation of landscapes including rocky outcrops, ravines, scrub and desert is stunning. The brief outline above refers to familiar elements from American Westerns. Australian development in the Northern territory was slower and only the presence of a travelling film show featuring The Ned Kelly Story (1906) signifies the twentieth century. The Western comparison is, I feel, a two-edged sword for Warwick Thornton who has promoted his film using the ‘Western’ tag. It makes the story more familiar and more accessible to audiences outside Australia (and perhaps to contemporary Australian audiences), but it also risks critics and reviewers treating the film as simply an ‘exotic’ form of a familiar genre rather than a historical Indigenous film exploring the racism and oppression of colonial exploitation. I fear that this has happened to a certain extent in some of the UK critical writing on the film. Some of the better coverage of the film comes in Sight and Sound, April 2018 with ‘Red Earth’, an essay by Trevor Johnston plus a review by Jason Anderson. Also in the same issue is a Tony Rayns DVD Review of the film Goldstone by Ivan Sen. As Rayns notes: ” . . . it’s blackfella directors like Ivan Sen and Warwick Thornton who are making the running in current Oz cinema”. I would endorse that view. Ivan Sen’s new film is another ‘frontier Western’ (in Queensland) following on from his previous film Mystery Road (2013) featuring an Indigenous police officer Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen). None of the reviewers I read this weekend mentioned The Tracker (Australia 2002), the film made by the partnership of director Rolf de Heer and veteran Indigenous actor David Gulpilil. The pair made two more films, Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013) about Indigenous characters across history. The films by Thornton, Sen and those in which Gulpilil had considerable creative input sit alongside films like Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) – which though directed by a white Australian has Indigenous children at its centre and a memoir by an Indigenous woman as its source material (and is therefore another historical film based on a true story). Together these films present a significant Indigenous Australian cinema. (I should also note that Little White Lies is a UK publication that has a committed review of the film and references ‘10 essential Indigenous Australian films‘.)
Although Sweet Country and The Tracker are not the same narrative they do share several significant features. Both are set in the 1920s and both involve a posse attempting to apprehend an Indigenous man accused of the murder of a white person. In both cases the posse includes a white man who is fanatical and openly racist, another who is experienced but not so ‘hot-blooded’ and a younger police officer who is more constrained by rules and ethics. Equally both groups of Europeans are outwitted by the Indigenous fugitive who knows how to live off the land and navigate the terrain. Important too is the fact that the chase moves across land occupied by other Indigenous groups – Aboriginal Australians are not one amorphous mass simply recognisable as ‘Other’ by white society. Instead they are different groups of people with different languages and different cultures. The significant difference in The Tracker is that an Indigenous man is ’employed’ as a tracker to lead the posse to the fugitive with all the moral dilemmas that entails (and he’s played by the film’s lead actor David Gulpilil). In Sweet Country there is also an Indigenous tracker, Archie, another stockman. But Archie is a relatively minor character in the narrative. Another minor character is a mixed race boy Philomac whose status is not clearly defined. However, Philomac is involved in the major incident at the beginning of the film and his ‘in between’ position carries meaning. The whole final section of Sweet Country is loaded with meanings. It poses a number of questions including whether the establishment of a church or the intervention of the justice system will have an impact on the racism expressed in the white community. British audiences should feel implicated in these questions because although Australia became an independent nation in 1901, the influence of British colonialism was still being felt in the 1920s. Researching this post I discovered that between 1927 and 1931, when the events in the narrative were meant to take place, the Northern Territory was in a kind of limbo while new arrangements for its governance were being discussed. I’m not sure if this is significant. Wayne Thornton expresses some of these concerns in the Press Notes.
Sweet Country is a western. A period western set in Central Australia. It has all the elements of the genre – the frontier, confiscation of land, subordination and conquest of a people and epic sweeping landscapes.
The world of Sweet Country has been newly established by the British Crown through the forceful taking of Indigenous lands. Yet these are lands which had and still possess a deep and complex web of ancient Indigenous laws, customs and life.
Sweet Country is set on a frontier outpost in 1929, where different cultural worlds collide, in an epic and beautiful desert landscape. It is a place where Indigenous, and non-Indigenous people push against each other like tectonic plates. It is a clash of cultures, ideologies and spirits that still continues today from when the colonisers first arrived in Australia.
My aim has been to use the accessibility of the western genre for audiences to enter the story and be drawn into this world and so experience the issues faced by an occupied people. (Warwick Thornton)
I think that reference to ‘an occupied people’ is very telling. Sweet Country should make non-Indigenous audiences think differently about how they have previously viewed Australian films.
I’m looking forward to seeing the film again at some point and I’m sure I’ll see things I missed the first time round. I’m encouraged by the Australian box office which after seven weeks has held up very well taking nearly US$1.4 million so far. The UK first weekend (plus previews) is £29,000 from 26 sites (the equivalent of US$40,200). The film opens in the US on Friday 16 March. Part of its box office appeal lies in the presence of Sam Neill and Bryan Brown, two audience favourites in Australia. The Indigenous characters Sam and Lizzie are played by Hamilton Morris and Natassia Gorey-Furber. Morris has one previous credit but Gorey-Furber was making a first appearance. The film was written by Steven McGregor and David Trainter. McGregor is an experienced hand having written and/or directed several TV dramas and films. David Trainter is an Indigenous sound recordist who worked on Samson and Delilah. It was from his grandfather’s knowledge of the historical incidents that the story was developed.
The Australian trailer: (WARNING it shows more of the story than set out above):
This screening was listed as a ‘Preview’ and the film is to be released in the UK in June by Peccadillo Pictures. It’s a shame that the impact of The Pearl Button (Chile 2015) will have diminished a little by then because the two films have much in common and I would urge you to see both. The story of the havoc that European mercantilism, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism have wreaked on the indigenous peoples of Latin America is one that needs to be told and these are two fine examples of how to do it in a sensitive but always engaging way.
The Embrace of the Serpent is a fictional story but one closely based on two diaries/documentary accounts by a European and a North American making journeys into the Upper Amazon region in the first half of the 20th century. The film is presented in Black and White ‘Scope (2.35:1) with a short colour sequence towards the end. This formal decision immediately sets up meanings for different audiences. For older audiences it may take us back to the documentaries of our childhood when Black and White meant ‘realism’. For younger audiences it might mean ‘artistry’ – or artistic pretension. Personally, I forgot about it very quickly – though I did think about a film like Tabu (Portugal-Ger-Braz-Fra 2012) which raises some of the same kinds of questions. The film was shot on 35mm and the director maintains that the film camera is more robust than a digital camera under extreme conditions – a reminder that Theeb, filmed in the desert conditions of South Jordan also utilised film (and both films were nominated for Best Foreign Language Oscar this year). Film also acts to discipline the filmmaker when two takes is the maximum for each shot, presumably because of cost and the physical labour of carrying more cans of film. The only downside is that there is only one film lab for 35mm in South America – and it’s in Argentina. (For more discussion on this go to the Cineaste interview.)
The film is set mainly in Colombia on the rivers that flow into the Amazon in the Vaupés region of Colombian Amazonia. There is still debate as to where the Amazon begins and national borders must be fairly arbitrary in this region where Colombia, Brazil and Peru meet. The Venezuelan border is to the North East. The first meeting between a German botanist and an Amazonian shaman Karamakate is around 1910. The shaman believes himself to be the last survivor of a tribe wiped out through contact with ‘whites’. He is hostile towards the European and his assistant, a local man who the European has bought out of slavery on a rubber plantation. The shaman is persuaded to help in the search for a rare plant only because the European says that there are more of the shaman‘s people upstream. The European is sick but the shaman can temporarily ‘cure’ him. A full recovery is only possible if they find the yakruna plant (a fictional epiphyte that grows on rubber trees and is a source of hallucinogenic substances). The second story involves the same shaman thirty years on, still on his own but now less aggressively hostile and accepting that he has lost many of his memories of his people. He agrees to help an American scientist/traveller search for the same plant – although the American’s reasons for his search seem less clear (at one point he seems to be looking for new rubber tree varieties). The film’s director and co-writer Ciro Guerra has decided to tell the two stories in parallel so that the narrative switches from one to the other, almost at will. The effect is that it is difficult without the film actually in front of me to remember which incident relates to which story. The reason for structuring the film in this way is to represent the indigenous peoples’ way of seeing the world and telling a story. Guerra discovered that the two whites who wrote their diaries were perceived to be the same character and that stories didn’t need to be told in a linear fashion.
Guerra maintains that the film is intended to allow the indigenous peoples of the region to tell their story and to represent history as they see it. The region suffered very badly from the ‘rubber boom’ in the last quarter of the 19th century and today the region still has no roads, but is in danger of exploitation from mining as well as coca cultivation and other ‘plantation’ practices. As well as the capitalist exploiters, other agencies such as the Catholic Church are responsible for the suffering of the local people. Guerra discusses the various issues in the press notes downloadable from the US distributor Oscilloscope and in the Cineaste interview.
This is certainly an important film but it might be approached in different ways by different audiences. In one sense it is a genuine ‘art film’, beautiful to look at with an unconventional narrative and no distinct ending/resolution. (I realise I’ve already forgotten how it ends, but I don’t think that matters.) Could it be seen as an art film with the possibility that audiences might miss the politics? Perhaps for some it will be primarily ‘exotic’ or ‘ethnographic’? Others may assume a generic perspective, expecting a trip upstream to be informed by Conrad and therefore a voyage into the ‘Heart of Darkness’. It’s also a reminder of the hallucinogenic/psychedelic culture, mainly associated with the 1960s counter-culture and writers such as Carlos Castaneda. I’m most taken by the ecological discourse and the critique of capitalism and organised religion.
The film’s title refers to the ‘founding myth’ of the peoples of the Amazon basin. Here’s the director on the mythology (from the Cineaste interview):
In Amazonian mythology, extraterrestrial beings descended from the Milky Way, journeying to the earth on a gigantic anaconda snake. They landed in the ocean and travelled into the Amazon, stopping at communities where people existed, leaving these pilots behind who would explain to each community the rules of how to live on earth: how to harvest, fish, and hunt. Then they regrouped and went back to the Milky Way, leaving behind the anaconda, which became the river. The wrinkled skin of the serpent became the waterfalls.
They also left behind a few presents, including coca, the sacred plant; tobacco, which is also another kind of sacred plant; and yagé, the equivalent of ayahuasca, which is what you use to communicate with them in case you have a question or a doubt about how to exist in the world. When you use yagé, the serpent descends again from the Milky Way and embraces you. That embrace takes you to faraway places; to the beginning where life doesn’t even exist; to a place where you can see the world in a different way. I hope that’s what the film means to the audience.
I’m looking forward to watching the film again and I’m hoping for a successful UK theatrical release.
This is scheduled for a UK release in the next couple of weeks. It’s the best film I’ve seen this year and I’m now going to have to go back and watch director Patricio Guzmán’s previous film Nostalgia For the Light (2010). But then, Guzmán’s been making films since 1968 so I’ve got a lot to learn. Why is this film so good? Partly it is because of the sheer skill in combining sets of ideas – ideas about the importance of coastlines and water to the inhabitants of Chile, a long thin country with both the driest and wettest areas on earth; ideas about the culture of indigenous peoples and the genocide suffered under colonialism/imperialism; ideas about the Chilean version of fascism and the brutality of the smashing of democracy – so that a seamless narrative seems to be being constructed. It’s about the beauty and the horror of images, the testament of survivors, the honesty of those who ‘followed orders’ and so much more.
The film is only 82 minutes long but this is a beautifully-edited documentary that flows effortlessly and logically through its powerful arguments so you hardly realise just how much you are absorbing and learning. The ‘pearl button’ of the title is the tiny object that almost magically ties together the two historical narratives. I feel that I don’t want to reveal how the narrative works because that would spoil the impact of the connection. What struck me most forcefully (apart from all the facts about Chile that I didn’t know) was the terrible universality of the two historical narratives.
Before the arrival of the Europeans the indigenous peoples of the Patagonian archipelago had a developed nomadic maritime culture which was based on an understanding of astronomy and the seas around the islands. The people fished from canoes and moved freely between islands. The culture survived until the start of the 20th century when the few thousand strong Kawésqar nation was decimated by European diseases and attacks by settlers. Only a few survivors in the 21st century can still speak the language. Guzmán’s presentation of this history brings to mind Jauja (Argentina-Denmark 2014) and Indigenous films from Australia as well as other narratives from Africa and the rest of the Americas – I’m sure similar histories exist in parts of Asia as well. Guzman is something of an expert in uncovering the evidence of the brutality of the Pinochet regime in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Here he manages to link what happened to the supporters of the democratically-elected President Allende to the destruction of indigenous Patagonian culture. One of the major islands of the archipelago, Dawson Island was first used by Chilean settlers to intern indigenous people (the Selk’nam) evicted from land required for sheep grazing. After 1973 Pinochet used the island to intern civil servants and others associated with Allende and Guzman presents evidence that some of these internees were thrown into the sea from helicopters – a terrible symmetry in terms of the importance of the waters to Chile.
This film is riveting viewing, I hope it draws large audiences when it reaches cinemas. It comes out on March 18th in the UK from New Wave Films. Find out where it is playing near you from this website.