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A requiem in Amazonas and a new beginning

The final film in a trilogy documenting the indigenous struggle for land rights was released this year. It focuses on the personal relationship between an indigenous leader and the film-maker which developed slowly during the period of over 30 years that he has been working in Brazil. If Bolsonaro is re-elected it will be disastrous for indigenous people.


The Captain and Vincent Carelli. Photo by Ernesto de Carvalho / Vídeo nas Aldeias.

Graham Douglas


Vincent Carelli is an activist film-maker for indigenous rights in Brazil, and his “Martyrdom” trilogy of films has just been shown at the 20th DocLisboa film festival. This interview by email from Brazil, will focus on his most recent film, “Adeus Capitao” (Goodbye Captain), which tells the story of his long relationship with Krohokrenhum, known as ‘O Capitao’, the leader of a group of Gavião Indians (The Hawks), who died in 2020.

Carelli’s project Video nas Aldeias (Video in the villages), also trains indigenous people in making their own videos, which are hosted on the website.

He has worked with indigenous peoples in four areas of Brazil, and the first film in the trilogy “Corumbiara (2009) documents a massacre of indigenous people in this area of Rondônia state, in 1985, which was exposed by a courageous worker in Fundação Nacional do Índio (Funai), the government foundation for indigenous people, for whom Carelli also worked. “Martirio” “Martyrdom” 2017), shows the intensity of the conflict over land between the indigenous peoples and the vicious so-called ‘ruralistas’, who are supported by Bolsonaro.

The video he brought back from Corumbiara in 1987, showing how the Nambiquara were recovering their traditional festivals and other practices had a big effect on the Gaviao, and Krohokrenhum realised that it could both give them a voice in the world and also preserve their traditional culture.

The Nambiquara name may be familiar to readers of “Tristes tropiques” by the famous anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss.

The ‘Kupen’ (white people) are a pernicious influence with their religion and their diseases, yet it seems that the Indians are quite happy to become Christian. Why do you think that is?

There are two permanent movements going in opposite directions, one of appropriation of Kupen´s things, and the other to “keep our things”. A movement of being “like” the other, in order to escape from the prejudice of “wild Indian”, and a movement to distinguish yourself reaffirming your own identity and reinventing it.

The movement goes from side to side. It is evident that our power of seduction and invasion is very great.

But people also experience a permanent identity crisis, a feeling of loss and a desire to react. These two aspects are permanently side by side in the film, in this clash of these two civilizations.

For warriors like the Gavião even contact with whites is like defeat. Can you say more?

For decades they resisted the invasion of their territory, a resistance armed with bows and arrows and progressively with firearms.

It was the contagion, which long precedes the definitive contact, that cooled the resistance of the Indians.

Krohokrenhum sought contact because they were already very few and feared reprisals from the other Gavião da Montanha group.

He surrendered to the contact, which seemed wonderful at first – the iron tools, there was great desire at this point – but the real defeat was the endless slaughter.

Can you say more about the history of Funai– they replaced the Serviço de Proteção ao Índio (SPI) which was corrupt, but then in turn have become ineffective, and exploit the Brazil Nut gatherers?

Funai is simply the change of clothes of the former institution of the SPI, The Indian Protection Service. Firstly, military control over indigenous populations and secondly, the concept that assistance to indigenous people cannot be a burden on the State, and therefore the exploitation of the natural resources of indigenous reserves (until their exhaustion) must subsidize their assistance. In this scheme, the indigenous people end up being the slave labour of this great “father boss”. Nowadays the indigenous peoples in Brazil act without considering Funai´s opinion, an institution that was turned into a frontal enemy of the indigenous peoples under Bolsonaro´s government.

How was it that you moved between the Nambiquara and the Gavião?

Before making the video, I had already worked with both, the Nambiquara and the Gavião. After the Gavião autonomy process was consolidated, I started to work in the North of Mato Grosso with the Nambiquara and with the isolated groups of Gleba Corumbiara.

When that catharsis of the Nambiquara faced to their ownimage and knowing about the process of retaking the Gavião of their own memory as a people, I went to take the good news to Krohokrenhum who immediately appropriated it.

Why were the women more interested than the men in maintaining their culture?

I think this question is well answered by Jopramre who is worried about the fate of her children. Will they have white names or indigenous names?

This movement of young mothers attended college in the city of Marabá, and felt ashamed of being recognized as indigenous without knowing how to speak their language. The rest of the women are converted into our religions.

Your Nambiquara film archive from Corumbiara that you showed to the Gavião was instrumental in energizing them to restore their festivals. Why did it have this effect, did they hope to gain something?

The piercing, whether on the lips, nose, ear, are true marks printed on his  body, something seen by the local population as something a little “bestial”, with a lot of prejudice.

Summarizing, the hurricane was a very strong identity affirmation, energized or catalyzed by the action of the Nambiquara. This progressive movement of taking the records of the reception of the video by various peoples always ran like this: “They are like that, now we are going to show how we are.”

You have described your film-making as a form of activism. How much influence can your films have on a government like Bolsonaro’s?

A few decades ago, the indigenous people lived a true apartheid, due to the government’s control over them, even usurping the free right to come and go, there was almost complete invisibility and widespread ignorance of the cultural diversity of peoples in Brazil.

Bringing the indigenous reality to the Brazilian imagination on national television, in festivals and many alternative circuits through the indigenous perspective was the real activism.

The indigenous resistance movement grows every year in protagonism and visibility.

As long as the government is on the right, it will be anti-indigenous, there is nothing to do but resist and call on the allies of Brazil and the world that share the concern with the climate emergency we are experiencing.

The trilogy deals with the emblematic crimes of a colonial process that continues to advance, revealing the invisible face of history.

Krohokrenhum saw the film as a way to preserve their culture, but it ends with the Gavião achieving some economic guarantees but accepting the inevitable decline of their culture. Did the film become a requiem for their culture as well as for The Captain?

The Captain’s death itself sparked a new awakening in many Hawks. I was there a year later for the end of the mourning and the community had mobilized by rehearsing songs in their language for the children to sing at the ceremony. The return of the film to the Gavião was remarkable for both the elders and the new generations who had no idea of the saga that their grandparents went through to reach the present day. Young people who start singing have been drinking from the sources of what was recorded, and it seems that the Captain’s absence caused a void that needed to be filled.

At the end of the film some Indians said they feel ashamed not to speak Portuguese, as if they have completely swallowed the ideology of the whites and their religion. Film-making too depends on white man’s technology – can you say more about the ethical issues you faced?

The indigenous peoples want to share technology with us, it is a right they have. Technology is not White or Black, it depends on the use you make of it, against you or in your favour, or both. It’s not my role to judge the choices they have made, but to show the complexity of the process, it’s not because you have lost your own language that everything is lost. Cultures don’t necessarily disappear, they recreate themselves.

(Photos from “Adeus Capitão”, provided by the interviewee and authorised for publication.)

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