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‘People don’t know the Yanomami’: Q&A with filmmakers Davi Kopenawa & Luiz Bolognesi

  • In an interview with Mongabay, filmmakers Davi Kopenawa and Luiz Bolognesi talk about the production process of “The Last Forest,” a documentary that brings the current reality of Brazil’s Indigenous Yanomami people to theaters.
  • Located in Roraima state, the Yanomami Indigenous Territory is the largest reserve in Brazil, with 26,000 Indigenous inhabitants — but nearly as many illegal miners, spurred on by the anti-Indigenous rhetoric of President Jair Bolsonaro.
  • “People from the city don’t know the Yanomami; we live very far away, close to the mountains. It’s important to show who Brazilian Indigenous people are — those who first took care of our place, of our country,” says Davi Kopenawa about the decision to make the film.

After a dream, Yanomami shaman and great leader Davi Kopenawa began to reflect: television, cinema and all the images created and transmitted are an important part of white people’s culture. He concluded that it would be a good idea to make a film. “People from the city don’t acknowledge my people. The whites hadn’t been there yet to make a film for the big screen, so they could watch it. They can’t just look at cars, ships, planes,” Kopenawa says in an interview with Mongabay.

After reading The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Kopenawa’s autobiographical account written in partnership with ethnologist Bruce Albert, director Luiz Bolognesi decided he wanted to make a film with the shaman. Their partnership became even stronger when Bolognesi — whom Kopenawa affectionately calls “Vulture Head” because he is balding — chose to write the script together with Kopenawa and make the film with Indigenous people from the Watoriki community, in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory in Brazil’s Roraima state. These encounters gave birth to The Last Forest, a documentary that premiered in Brazilian movie theaters on Sept. 9.

This is the film’s official premiere on urban big screens after its first showing in April at the international documentary film festival It’s All True. Between then and now, The Last Forest won the audience award at the 71st Berlin International Film Festival’s Panorama sidebar, best film at the 18th Seoul Eco Film Festival, best documentary at Berlin’s Zeichen der Nacht Festival, and the Teueikan Prize at the First Peoples Festival in Montréal.

“It’s traveled a lot and will continue to do so,” Kopenawa says. “Where I can’t go, the film will be taking the stories of the Yanomami and our resistance to the threats against us, mainly because of invaders, illegal miners and the Bolsonaro government.”

A report by Indigenous organizations the Hutukara Yanomami Association (HAY) and the Wanasseduume Ye’kwana Association (Seduume) shows that, between January and December 2020, an area the size of 500 soccer fields was devastated in the Yanomami reserve, and 500 hectares (1,240 acres) of Amazon rainforest were destroyed by illegal mining in the territory — a 30% increase over the previous year. The Yanomami reserve is the largest in the country, covering 9.7 million hectares (24 million acres) and is home to approximately 26,000 members of eight Indigenous groups: the Yanomami, the Ye’kwana, and six isolated groups.

But an estimated 25,000 illegal miners, and growing, now occupy the area, encouraged by the rhetoric of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has openly called for mining on Indigenous territories — a practice that’s banned under Brazil’s Constitution. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the presence of these miners has also been a source of infection in these territories, a constant and real threat that’s one of the core narrative devices in The Last Forest.

In an interview with Mongabay, Bolognesi and Kopenawa talk about the production process, the connections revealed between current Yanomami reality and that of non-Indigenous people — such as the strengthening of women’s roles and young people’s difficulties in the face of an increasingly fragmented reality — and how cinema can contribute to Brazilian Indigenous people’s struggle against legislation that threatens to deprive them of their land and open it up to mining.

Mongabay: What is it like to premiere The Last Forest in Brazilian theaters amid the vote on the marco temporal, the legislation that says lands not occupied by Indigenous people before 1988 will not be demarcated? What is it like amid protests by thousands of indigenous people in Brasília? How important is it to bring the Yanomami to urban big screens right now?

Davi Kopenawa: I’m not worried about the marco temporal vote; I’m disgusted. And also about Bill 490 [which calls for opening up Indigenous lands to major economic projects]. The film tells the stories of the Yanomami, but that doesn’t mean that my people are more important. All Indigenous peoples are like one people, like one heart, and now we are all facing serious difficulties. So the film can be good for more people to know and for people with good minds to join us in this fight.

Luiz Bolognesi: On the one hand, it’s strange because we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, so we know we won’t have large audiences. That’s why the film will also be available on streaming within a few months, so that as many people as possible can watch it.

But it is important that we bring the power of the Yanomami and of that film to join a struggle that, unfortunately, will not mobilize Brazilian society as it should. We still deny our Indigenous cultural roots and the importance of these peoples for what we are as a country. And it is precisely that indifference that allows genocide and ecocide to advance as we are now witnessing in the country. So, premiering in theaters now can also be considered an act of resistance.

Mongabay: Davi, why did you want to make this film?

Davi Kopenawa: I wanted to show it, show my community, show the true modern beauty of Brazilian forests. That’s why I told Bolognesi, “Come on, let’s work, let’s make a well-crafted film.” People from the city don’t know the Yanomami people, we live very far away, close to the mountains. It’s important to show who Brazilian Indigenous people are, those who first took care of our place, of our country. Making a film is important because those who don’t know it may ask themselves, “Who is Davi? What are these Yanomami like? Are they dark-skinned, are they a little ugly? Are they animals?” Our Yanomami people are not animals, they are not savages. So I wanted to show the image of my people and also the forest, since the forest is our home — where we live, where we eat, where we study the xapiri [sacred beings of the forest]; we learn by interacting with nature. That’s why it was good to meet Vulture Head. I think it’s a way for non-Indigenous people to feel that it’s important to keep the Yanomami protected and ensure that they can live on their own land.

Mongabay: Luiz, in the film Ex-Shaman, you told the story of a shaman who lost his power due to the proliferation of evangelical Christianity in his community. With The Last Forest, your intention was to show the power of those who managed to preserve their culture and its sacredness, having Davi Kopenawa as its central figure. What was it like to build that power, cinematographically?

Luiz Bolognesi: For Davi, it was very important not to portray the Yanomami as poor things. After all, according to him, we are the ones who are sick and weakened — and when we started these conversations, the pandemic hadn’t even happened yet.

I think the core device was engaging the leading character of the film as an author as well, radicalizing it in that place. When we started the work, it was Davi who made the decisions about what narrative lines would be adopted, what stories would be told — and those choices were made collectively, with the members of his community. This allowed the emergence of a cinema with Indigenous ethics and aesthetics.

Sometimes, I’d defend ideas and Davi would say, “No, that’s not how we tell it, that’s not how things are, that’s not how we dream.” I was there with my experience as a screenwriter for both my films and others’, but I let myself be led through these different ways of building a film narrative.

If sacred entities are present in everyday life, this should appear in the film. And the same thing with dreams and their centrality. If you chose to film the story of Omama and Yoasi, the two entities that created the entire forest, then let’s do it. Here, we assumed that there could be a certain uneasiness on the part of the audience when faced with a reality that encompasses these magical elements, but this immersive experience is also part of the film’s proposal.

Another device that made all the difference was accepting a loss of control, something that is very difficult for a director. At one point I couldn’t even sleep because it seemed like everything was getting too abstract, and I thought about our team there, filming in the Watoriki community [inside the Yanomami reserve] for five weeks, mobilizing so many Indigenous people. But that loss of control was necessary for us to be open to what the environment would bring, to be available and relate to the Indigenous people’s time. We didn’t impose a filming schedule on them, so a lot of decisions ended up being made on the spot, based on the events, the birds, the rain, on their time to sleep and wake up, their relationship with the fire at night. I needed to lose this whiteness-based authority to let the camera truly impregnate itself with the poetry of that reality.

Finally, let us not forget that the Yanomami have very clear strength and aesthetic sense in them. They know they’re cute, they’re not camera shy. It’s some kind of sense of self that is very difficult for a non-Indigenous person to achieve and that also comes through when it is filmed.

Residents of the Watoriki community in the Yanomami reserve watch the documentary The Last Forest. Image by Marcos Amend.

Mongabay: Among the stories chosen is that of a young man who, enticed by the opportunities of mining and the world of the white people, is advised to remain in his community — one of the film’s most sensitive moments. What was it like to deal with the generational issue when building this narrative?

Davi Kopenawa: Some Yanomami youth have their heads spoiled because of the money, with the illusion of earning money from mining or in the world of whites. Money is a big wrecker for our minds. They are curious to know cellphones, television, computers — they want to know everything that white people use. And that’s making their thoughts ill. Cellphones are good for talking. Not for looking at them, for watching movies about violence, about people hurting each other. This relationship with cellphones is a disease that came to you first, and you also need to deal with it with your children. I wouldn’t say all the young people, but half of them are no longer interested in working in the fields, hunting, helping to do what has to be done. There is danger to those youth’s heads, and showing that in the film was good.

Luiz Bolognesi: We had a very strong experience, which was witnessing a generational conflict take place right in front of us. There is no internet or telephone signal in Watoriki, but some youth have cellphones where they watch movies or play games, using our team’s generators to charge their batteries. The leaders asked us not to allow that anymore, which created a small rebellion on the part of the young people. We didn’t include that in the film because we didn’t want to appear as characters, but it was interesting to see that conflict. I believe in particular that cellphones have also become tools for Indigenous youth to create journalistic and artistic content, as instruments to affirm their culture. Let us not forget that, for these young people, choosing to go to the world of whites often means living in a situation of vulnerability in the outskirts of cities.

Mongabay: Another part is about women in the community, who even talk about the possibility of joining an association to sell their handicrafts, and thus become less dependent on the men. Do Yanomami women seek this emancipation?

Luiz Bolognesi: This was one of the most challenging parts of the process. I ended up spending a lot of time talking to women. We had very intense conversations in which they told me about topics such as sex, menstruation, children, how they relate to their daily activities. Also, the camera fell in love with them. So I suggested to Davi that we tell part of the story from the women’s point of view, that they be listened to. And his first reaction was negative. In Yanomami culture, decision-making is exclusively male, and this hierarchical structuring between genders is very strong. After a while, Davi came to me to say that I was right, that we had to tell the women’s stories. Since they chose the narrative, it’s possible to say that they are moving to understand how to occupy their space in the community and regarding men in a different way.

Mongabay: Davi, the film also shows the appalling advance of illegal mining over your territory, with our capitalist way of life destroying the forest that nourishes all the Yanomami power that can now be seen on the screen. What would you like us non-Indigenous people to learn from the stories that were told?

Davi Kopenawa: The first thing is that I think we made a very beautiful film. And it’s important that it’s beautiful. Preservation is a beautiful word. So I’d like you to learn to think, to appreciate what is beautiful and also what protects life on this planet. Because we are there in the forest, working on it, protecting it. If you keep destroying it, forest people won’t suffer the consequences alone: you’ll suffer with it too. So I think this is it. I think it’s about time you started thinking. You also need to start learning from what is already happening around you, with climate change. Watching is not just for the movies.

Banner image of Davi Kopenawa by Joelle Hernandez (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 24, 2021.

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