Killing an Indian, fast and effective

Brazil’s latest contribution to the Berlinale is a politically charged, yet conventional film about the deadly saga of Xingu Indians

by Victor Fraga

Three Brazilian feature films were selected this year for the two most important sections of the 62nd Berlinale, one of the largest and most prominent film festivals in the world. The event awarded its highest prize, the Golden Bear to two Brazilian films Central Station and Elite Squad (respectively in 1998 and 2008), a huge step in re-establishing the confidence and the morale of Brazilian cinema industry pundits and audiences alike.

This year the same has not happened, as only one Brazilian film made it to the competition, and in reality it is a Brazil/Portugal/Germany co-production called Tabu rather than a genuinely Brazilian film.

But Brazil contributed to other parts of the festival.

Xingu was presented in Panorama, a section of the Berlinale purporting to showcase auteur films, but with a history of presenting highly conventional and unimaginative Brazilian films from the big production companies such as Bossa Nova, Redentor and the House of Sand. Well, at least in my experience at the Berlinale, which stretches back to 1999.

Refreshingly this year, the Brazilian fiction entry for the Panorama section is an engrossing and effective tale of the toxic and destructive relationship between Brazil’s desenvolvimentismo (bullish  economic growth and development policy by the Brazilian government) and the indigenous people. A beautiful and powerful film, if timid and unadventurous from a cinematic perspective.

The movie was directed by Cao Hamburger and portrays the historical events surrounding the Villas-Bôas brothers, three young men who passionately engaged with the Xingu Indians in the 1940s. They unwillingly enabled the Brazilian government to build military facilities and hand the indigenous land to their powerful associates, as part of a fisiologismo (horsetrading) tradition. These new landowners then conducted fast and effective mass murders of the indigenous people.

This genocide – coupled with “white-man diseases” such as the flu  – wiped out entire tribes almost instantly. Brazil´s growth and development policies have been consistently toxic and deadly for indigenous people.

On the other hand, the Villas-Bôas intimate and candid relationship with the Indians and vocal criticism of the Brazil’s destructive development strategy helped to establish a sense of respect towards the indigenous people. It also led to the creation of the Xingu National Park, the first large and legally-protected indigenous park in South America, in 1961.

Xingu is beautifully crafted film shot on location and with good attention to detail. But it is also highly conventional and formulaic, entirely devoid of format and language innovations. The storytelling is similar to a Globo series (Brazil’s TV giant) and television audiences would have no difficulties engaging with it (unsurprisingly, Globo Filmes is one of the production companies). The narrative is entirely linear, chronological and borderline didactic. It is an easily digestible history lesson for school children and adults alike.

Most of the acting is effective and the shooting on location helped to establish a sense of realism and an effective cinematography. The film does, however, veer towards the overtly epic and monotonous towards the end. The ageing make-up of the Villas-Bôas brothers could also be improved.

The timing of Xingu‘s release is very convenient for environmentalists, who oppose the construction of the Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River (in an area that is not part of the reserve). This is part of Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC), Brazil’s  latest desenvolvimentismo initiative.

The topic of the film remains sensitive and politically inflammatory as ever, and Xingu satisfactorily fulfils the purpose of informing a nation and the world about the consequences of aggressive and short-sighted development. The film raises important questions that will feature at the top international political and environmental agenda for a very long time.

Brazil with a Portuguese accent

The Brazil/Portugal/Germany co-production entry to the festival’s official competition tells the story of Aurora, an old lady who spends her meagre savings at the tables of a casino in Portugal, while hiding an adventurous past of forbidden love in the Africa.

The Portuguese director Miguel Gomes created a highly lyrical black-and-white film, meticulously divided in two parts: Aurora’s final days at old age (first half of the film) and her eventful youth in exotic African continent (second half). The two parts are largely disconnected and convey very different emotions: the first one is dark, slow and painfully nostalgic, while the second one is flooded with music, love and stunning landscapes.

But there is nothing Brazilian about the Tabu, not even a remote accent in the background. The country’s contribution was relegated to some of the shooting locations and the production, which was partly financed by the Brazilian government agency Ancine.

The vigorous lyricism of Tabu is also more commonly associated with Portuguese and European cinema, the likes of Manuel de Oliveira and FW Murnau (the title of the movie is a reference to the 1931 classic by the same name). Brazilian directors Marcelo Gomes and Lírio Ferreira have recently created graceful films such as Cinema, Aspirins and Vultures and Árido Movie, but neither one is as poetically audacious as Miguel Gomes’s Tabu.

The third Brazilian film in the Berlin Film festival is Kiko Goifman’s Olhe pra Mim de Novo/ Look at me Again. It is a road movie documentary about Sylvio Luccio, a human being “who has broken free of the sexual catechism’s stale trinity of hetero-homo-bisexuality”. Goifman chose to discuss sexuality in his film, a much-welcomed topic in the highly progressive German capital.

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