Tuesday, 29 September 2009

birdwatchers (w&d mario bechis; w. luiz bolognesi)

Birdwatchers is a film made with indigenous tribespeople in Brazil. If that sentence conjures up an image of Brazilian Indians standing on the bank of an isolated river, wearing little, firing arrows into the air, then that is exactly what the film delivers in its opening shots. Before pulling back to reveal the same Indians emerging from what is no more than a thin strip of jungle, putting on T-shirts and jeans, and being paid for the spectacle they've provided for visiting tourists, who've come to take in the native fauna.

From the opening, there are semiotic games at work in Bechis' film. We, the viewers, are placed in the position of the tourists, until the camera suddenly swings around behind, to reveal the Indians perspective. In a sense, this might be what the filmmaker is aiming to achieve. Bechis, born in Chile, but having spent much of his life in Europe, does not belong to the Guarani tribe, and the chances of anyone from that community making a film which breaks out to be seen by the world must be slim. So the film would appear to be made by someone knowing the very medium itself might be in conflict with the community it seeks to portray, but nevertheless attempting to present their perspective to the best of their abilities.

Furthermore, it might be that it's hard for a Western, cinematic audience to relate to the values which the Guarani display. For example, when the chief's son kills himself, following on from the suicides of two other tribespeople earlier in the film, there's little remorse shown for his part in the son's decision, and little sign of mourning. There are set cinematic responses to a son's suicide, (regret, sadness, soul-searching) which this film doesn't meet. It seems to me to the director's credit that he not only resists any attempts to sentimentalise the tragedy, but seems to actively endorse the tribe's seemingly unfeeling response. It is claimed in the film's notes that the Guarani assisted in the film's development, and it's perhaps when the film seems least likely to do what we would expect that it's getting closest to capturing the things it has set out to do.

It would be easy to criticise Bechis' film, which perhaps suffers to a certain extent from trying to straddle two worlds. Storylines don't go anywhere in particular, notably the trainee Shaman and the ranch owner's daughter's romance. The conclusion feels prosaic, no matter how true to reality it might be. However, this is a film of moments, of images, none of which is more striking than the closing scene, when the gap between cultures seems inflamed, and the trainee Shaman's howls sound like something from another world, another vision of human destiny, a road that might be on the verge of being lost, overgrown in what remains of a place we know as a jungle.


nb: I know little of Bechis but I saw an earlier film of his, Garage Olimpo, and of the films that I've seen dealing with the Dictatorships of Latin America, his, in my memory, seemed like one of the most subtle, aware of the complex knots that contribute to any conflict.

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