Co-Helmer João Salaviza on Un Certain Regard Winner ‘The Buriti Flower,’ the Krahos’ Sophisticated Battle for Land Rights

Lightning strikes twice. Having won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2018 with “The Dead and the Others,” filmmaking duo Renée Nader Messora and João Salaviza scooped a Un Certain Regard Ensemble Prize on Friday night, including the collective crew and creative team, for “The Buriti Flower.”

The couple, whom across the years have developed what they describe as a profound relation with the Krahô Indigenous community, have delved once again into a unique production process resulting in a portrait of strong, sensorial visuals, while tabling an urgent dialogue on the means of resistance in a modern world. 

Produced by Karõ Filmes, Entrefilmes and Material Bruto and sold by Films Boutique, the film tackles the impact of policies pursued by former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s on the life of Indigenous communities, eloquently shifting between fiction and documentary as it registers their own political discourse.

Shooting the previous film required a nine month period living alongside the Krahô. This time the filmmakers spent 15 months, not only finding the film but developing an intricate relationship where cinema is just but a facet of it. 

This palpable connection yields highly intimate moments, while jettisoning the cliché of the noble savage by underscoring the acute awareness this community has of its political context, environmental issues and new ways of confronting these realities provided by technology and mass media.

One instance came at Cannes as the Krahô actors wearing traditional dress staged a protest on the red carpet before Wednesday’s premiere of Tran Anh Hung’s “The Pot au Feu,” in support of the land rights of the Indigenous peoples of Brazil. 

Variety talked with Salaviza as “The Buriti Flower,” the directorial duo’s second feature, bowed in Un Certain Regard.

Although most filmmakers revel in the aesthetic appeal of analog film, nowadays is not necessarily an obvious choice since digital cameras give certain freedoms, especially when approaching a subject with a documentary style. Why did you decide for 16 mm? 

As you said, it’s really not obvious but for us it was a decision made since the previous film, The Dead and the Others” where we started working with 16mm. There’s something really practical about it and we have a thrust in the material, in the camera, in the film as it’s a technology that hasn’t changed that much over decades, and is resilient to warmth, humidity and dust. And with the rampant evolution of digital cameras technology, we wanted that atemporal aesthetic that film has, from the Technicolor era, all the ethnographic films from Jean Rouch etc. Because we are dealing with a reality that it’s very ancient in a way. Although they resist in very modern ways and are very contemporary, the Krahô rely on very old techniques of dealing with their environment. 

The film is incredibly rich both in image as in sound, giving depth to the forest by adding a wide variety of sound textures. What was your approach?

It’s a big construction and we barely used direct sound. We added lots of layers of things that were recorded separately. Sound is a sort of second shooting period that is often dealt with when the camera is off. It conveys and explores the way in which they perceive reality. Just like us in a modern city, one can feel the time of the day and what is happening around through sound: a police siren, the bells of a church or just a construction site nearby. In that same manner they have a very deep interpretation of the forest through sound. There are birds, for example, that announce death or a disease or how the river sounds tells you the moment of the day. So we add layers that for us Western viewers are probably just sensations. But for them it is storytelling, they are making an interpretation of what’s happening, because the forest is so obviously alive to them.

The film is highly coherent in its language while asking audiences to observe actively. When it came to direction, what were your most important guidelines?  

Even if we’ve had a very close relationship with the tribe for over a decade and our process is very intimate, we are still foreigners. So this immediately brings the question of distance, which I think it’s very important in cinema because it’s not only [a question of] the aesthetics of compositions, but it’s really about how close you can be at a certain moment and how can you interfere in what’s going on? So once you get these precious moments which are pure improvisation from them, even if you feel the filmmaking urge of taking a close up or a strong reverse shot, it’s not the moment to interfere but to let go and understand the privilege that we have to be here and witness this very intimate conversation. On the other hand, sometimes you’re doing fiction so you play with everything you have. But the reality that you’re filming dictates how you approach it.

Your film echoes points made in Latin American cinema yet rarely heard: Marta Rodriguez’s “Our Voice of the Earth, Memory and Future” pointed out how politically conscious Indigenous communities have becomes down the decades and what a grave mistake it is for its countries to ignore them, or dismiss them as naive or ignorant. Could you expand on this? 

Just five centuries ago, before the colonization, there’s a clearer geographical and cultural continuity across America that was broken and left the indigenous communities as sort of archipelagos across the continent. And yet nowadays through technology they are building new connections amongst each other. it’s a subversion of the non-Indigenous language and technology in favor of their own ambitions, goals and cosmologies. So they are really occupying a central position in connections between past and future and tradition in modernity. They are aware of this. that the struggles are no longer five guys, they know that they have to occupy institutions, the streets, that they have to make connections with people from the suburbs of big cities, LGBTQ communities.. They are not isolated. They are protecting the forest, but reinventing forms of resistance. The anti-colonial battle against extractivism is continuously being renovated in more radical and aggressive forms of methods of resistance. This is something that we wanted to put in the film. 

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