Let me start with a frank assessment: the Brazilian movie “Le Chant de la Forêt” (“The song of the forest”, bu no idea how the movie was named in English) is plain boring. My friend slept over long chunks, and some people protested against boredom by leaving the cinema. Unless you are really into the topic, you will waste two hours of your day. But the topic is actually very intriguing.
The movie takes place in an indigenous village in Brazil of the “krahô” nation, apparently in the Northern state of Tocantins. The protagonist is a young krahô man who is mourning the death of his father. He has a mystical experience in which his dead father talks to him at a beautiful waterfall, and tells him to prepare the ceremony that finishes the mourning period. The young man starts having other such mystical experiences, feels scared, gets sick, and decides to go to the city to escape from these weird events. He eventually goes back home and the village performs the ceremony, which is depicted with many details in the movie.
The episode in the city is the only one in which the characters speak in Portuguese, and otherwise the whole movie is spoken in the krahô language. That is the aspect that most interested me in the movie, because I have never had much contact with Brazilian native languages. Obviously, to do a movie in krahô the two directors (a Portuguese guy and a Brazilian woman) had to recruit directly among actual villagers, and their characters bear their true names. The movie has a strong documentary flavor: the exotic language, the landscape, and the ancient customs of this tribe unbeknownst to the world.
The movie is not political, but touches on the delicate issues that surround indigenous people. In a long (every thing is long in this movie) monologue, an elder talks about conflicts with farmers and a massacre that took place in this youth years. Another political topic is the exercise of Brazilian citizenship, which is not obvious for people speaking another language and living in complete isolation from Portuguese speaking Brazilians. When the main character goes to the city, he can barely communicate with the health agents and does not have an identity card. In the streets of the city, a folk party takes place with many horses, cows, and people dressed as cowboys. Nothing to make a krahô man feel at home.
The debate around indigenous people is as hot as ever in Brazil, as illustrated by a recent pseudo-scandal involving Jair Bolsonaro’s minister for Human Rights. The minister is a female activist, lawyer, and evangelical pastor who founded an NGO to help indigenous women. She claims that her NGO saved children from the appalling practice of “infanticide” (i.e. killing small children), which is rare but presumably still exists in certain Brazilian native peoples. The minister also adopted and raised an indigenous girl, who is now in her 20s. A magazine sent reporters to the home village of the girl, interviewed some people with the help of translators and published a long report accusing the minister of having kidnapped the child against the will of the “community”. The story raised a lot of heated debate at the time (I tend to favor the minister’s side of the story) but eventually faded away in the prolific torrent of Brazilian scandals.
To be honest I feel embarrassed by how little I know about native Brazilians. They are culturally heterogeneous, scattered on vast swathes of land, but not so numerous anymore. It is misleading to refer to them with a label — “Indians” — that suggests that they are all parts of the same cultural family. In the early times of colonization, knowing the differences between the tribes was a matter of life or death. Tribes were fighting against one another, some were allied with the Portuguese, some were sworn to kill and eat every single one of them. Today people like me cannot really appreciate the differences between different tribes, even though my great-great-grandmother (the grandma of my maternal grandpa) was indigenous!
The movie “Le Chant de la Forêt” is, as I said, quite boring. A movie like that is not something one will watch many times in life. But being exposed to this thematic helps me fill this cultural gap which has been bothering me for a while. Just drink a coffee before entering the movie theater.