Cinema as Ritual
A Window into Indigenous Cinema Today
by Olivia Arigho-Stiles
After suffering the historic violence of European colonialism, Indigenous peoples in South America are today still fighting its effects while faced with illegal logging and the rampant use of pesticides in their territories. The films screened at the ICA’s Echoes Indigenous Film Festival represent a subversive fightback against these present and past injustices and an impending environmental catastrophe. Olivia Arigho-Stiles talked to two filmmakers: vivid and uncompromising, they seek to make their voices heard, in the heartlands of former empires, and to keep their cultures alive
A man runs, to escape his burning skin. He collapses in a river: a voice whispers to him, “you are killing yourselves and killing me too. The poisons are killing the Mj’u’u, the mothers of the earth.” All the while a plane looms ominously in the sky, a portent of something we cannot see.
This is Pinjawuli: o veneno me alcançou (The Poison has reached me), a two minute film directed by Bih Kezo which is part of a new corpus of Indigenous cinema recently showcased through the Echoes Indigenous Film Festival at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. Like many in the festival, Pinjawuli addresses anthropogenic ecological destruction, and in particular, the rampant use of toxic pesticides in Brazil. As a whole the films are testament to the political urgency and ecological consciousness that suffuses contemporary Indigenous cinema today, united through their mutual concern with environmental degradation, the enduring violences of colonialism for Indigenous peoples and a cinematic blurring of the body and the natural world. Predominantly from Brazil, the films reflect the diversity of Indigenous languages and experiences; almost three-quarters of the featured filmmakers are women.
I spoke with two filmmakers, Graciela Guarani and and Ziel Karapotó, who also curated the festival, together with Takumã Kuikuro and People’s Palace Projects. Guarani, who directed Horizonte Colorido (Colorful Horizon), tells me that she believes film can be a tool for subversion. She sees Indigenous cinema as one part of the global expression of Indigenous stories and urges the importance of these narratives in Indigenous cinema circulating in all spaces, not only in film festivals. She is proud to be an Indigenous filmmaker, as is her co-curator Karapotó though he cautions, “we do Indigenous cinema, but do not put us in a box. We do other things, we can tell any human story. […] I think there is a basic lack of comprehension, to understand what it means to be indigenous. People don’t even understand what it means to be an indigenous person, so it starts from there.”
Karapotó sees the wave of Indigenous cinema as part of a wider mission to protect Indigenous ways of life, and to convey Indigenous narratives from the perspective of the peoples themselves. “I want to talk from the perspective of indigenous persons. Cinema for me is ritual. Making cinema is part of Indigenous ritual. It allows us to maintain our culture, our history and our language.” In the film that he directed, O Verbo se fez carne (The Word Became Flesh), a cloaked figure stitches pages from the Bible into a long horse tongue with red twine, invoking the violence of missionaries and legacies of Christendom within the colonial project; meanwhile the singing voices and chants to ‘Jesus’ suggest something perhaps more of a dynamic cohabitation between the Christian faith and Indigenous cultures.
Elsewhere, the short film Siia Ara (521 Years) directed by Adanilo Reis offers a symbolic depiction of the long arc of colonial extraction in something akin to a high-stakes medical drama. The title refers to the number of years which have passed since 1492, the year in which Christopher Columbus first set foot in lands imagined as the ‘New World,’ iniating a centuries long process of violent European conquest.
A man lies in a simulated medical coma in a wooden bed in the forest. Surrounding him lie the symbols of plunder; the axe of the logger who encroaches on land; a plastic Action Man figurine as the masculinised, swashbuckling European who enters the jungle to steal jewels and plants for western pharmaceuticals. The film is silent except for the eerie beep of a heart monitor, a portent for a dying planet.
Indigenous cinema today is responding to the escalating environmental and social pressures experienced by Indigenous peoples across the Americas. In recent years, there have been rising levels of illegal logging, land grabs, and mining in the Brazilian Amazon. Over one third of all tropical deforestation in the world in 2019 took place in Brazil. Efforts by Indigenous and peasant communities to resist are often met with violence from armed groups, a practice tacitly encouraged by the former far-right President Jair Bolsonaro. Last year Bruno Pereira from the Brazilian Indigenous agency Funai, and Guardian journalist Dom Phillips were killed while reporting on the situation facing Indigenous communities in the Javari region.
But the Indigenous experience is certainly not confined to the rural world, as many Indigenous films attest. The film Aiku’è Zepé (I Still R-Exist) directed by Zahy Tentehar and Mariana Villas-Bôas, addresses the pressures of urbanisation for Indigenous peoples. The protagonist paints her face, telling us “The land is our only inheritance… We were annihilated. History buries my existence.” She then begins applying Western-style make-up, curling her eyelashes, applying eyeliner while a tear slides slowly down her face. She says, “I’m an urban Indigenous person. I adapted myself to the system.” It’s an unsettling combination of Indigenous and Western body aesthetics.
“They say I’m not Indigenous. I become the invader of my own land”.
“They are taking our lands and killing us. Give our land back!”
The film conjures a double bind; the Indigenous person as denigrated and subjugated as Indian and belonging to the rural world in the national imaginary. But when Indigenous peoples move to the city, they are rendered invisible or dismissed as ‘wretched.’ In the film’s closing scene we see the protagonist’s body thickly coated in crusty mud. A millipede scurries over her body. The line where body meets the forest collapses and is rendered indistinct. The film here seems to challenge the nature-culture divide, problematising the distinction between the natural and the social world, a legacy of European thought.
More than a third of Brazil’s Indigenous population, or about 315,000 people, live in cities. Karapotó stresses that while Indigenous peoples are highly marginalised when they move from villages to favelas in the city, their cultures remain resilient. “There is also a re-significacion, [a reinterpretation] which happens, the culture is dynamic,” Guarani adds. For example, when undertaking rituals in the city, Indigenous peoples use plastic straws in place of traditional feathers; a reformulation of Indigenous practices in the urban space.
The films the ICA presented at the Echoes Indigenous Film Festival are being shown at festivals across Europe. What does it mean to engage in a decolonising dialogue in cities everywhere surrounded by the legacies of colonialism, in lands at the heart of empires? Ziel declares, “Occupying the space is to say it is possible to establish intercultural connections without violence. In many museums in Brazil there are works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, where European artists and travellers came over and depicted us. Now we come here to deconstruct the violence that we suffered by colonialism.” Guarani feels even stronger about it: “I believe it is revolution. The images, spirits that we produce.”
The second edition of the ECHOES Indigenous Film Festival took place at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London from 19-21 May 2023 and showcased 18 films from 13 ethnic groups spread across 10 regions in Brazil and neighbouring territories Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and Argentina. The digital catalogue can be downloaded free of charge here.
OLIVIA ARIGHO-STILES is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Indigenous Ecologies and Environmental Crisis research cluster at IAS. She is an interdisciplinary researcher of Indigenous histories and the rural world in Bolivia. Visit her IAS profile here.
Edited by MARTHE LISSON
Copy-editing by ANNA STELLE
Standfirst by NICHOLAS LACKENBY
Lead Image: Film still from Jayankiri, 2021, directed by Natali Mamani