The Last Forest Director Luiz Bolognesi On The Threats Facing Indigenous People In Brazil

Director Luiz Bolognesi joins us on Close-Up Culture to talk about his new film, The Last Forest (Última Floresta). It documents the Indigenous community of the Yanomami and depicts their threatened natural environment in the Amazon rainforest.

You are returning to Berlinale after the success of Ex-Shaman in 2018. What does this festival mean to you?

This festival is very important not only for me personally, but for the films which I’ve worked on because it’s like a window to the world. When a film is selected for Berlinale, it becomes worldwide news. We get people from all over the world to watch the film. We’ve received a lot of invitations from several festivals from different parts of the world in the week after the announcement in Berlinale.

What we want more with the film isn’t the profit, it’s actually the message and the language of the film to be spread all over the world; to connect the audience to the issues raised in the film. In this case particularly, to show how strong, beautiful and connected Yanomami people are within the community. Even if they’re leaving their isolated area in the middle of the Amazon, they have to be connected in order to protect their land from the white gold miners. We need to raise awareness to this matter through word-to-mouth and the media. We need to help them by pressuring the Brazilian government to respect the law so these invaders can be removed by the Brazilian army. That’s why Berlinale is so relevant, it’s a validation of a film’s quality and importance.

‘Última Floresta’ (The Last Forest) has been described as a ‘very political’ film. What were the forces that drove you to make this film?

It was a kind of feeling of justice, as I was shooting a film that told the story of an indigenous village where the shaman had lost not only his political power, but also his mythological and scientific power. I felt that would be important to show the opposed situation in which an indigenous village is still resisting, where the shamans are very politically, mythologically and scientifically strong and all of their society structures are working exactly the same as before. That was the main reason why I decided to shoot the film and when we began the project, gold miners were invading the land.

Then, I decided that we’d focus on the Yanomami and their very strong shaman, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami. At the same time, it was very important to show what is happening in the Amazon now with these very awful invasions by gold miners. 

Can you tell us more about the story of ‘Última Floresta’ (The Last Forest) and what themes you explore through it?

I’ve decided that it was important to tell this story while I was shooting my last film Ex-Shaman, in which a indigenous community is weakened by the arrival of evangelists priests. They say the indigenous’ beliefs are the devil, it destroys the shaman and therefore they also destroy the center of an entire culture.

Then, I noticed there are a lot of indigenous communities in Brazil whose shamans are battling and not allowing evangelists priests to arrive with white goods in an attempt to destroy their way of life. I decided it was important to portray this situation in which the shamans are strong, the traditions are alive, the bond with their ancestrality is preserved and the community is still fighting against the white gold miners.

I invited the great shaman, Davi Kopenawa Yanomami, to be the main character of this next film and more than that, I invited him to be co-writer, to be the one to tell the story. He accepted and invited me to stay in his small village in the middle of the Amazon forest for two weeks. There, we decided what story we’d tell. He wanted to show how strong and beautiful his people are. He didn’t want to portray the Yanomami as victims, as poor people that need help, even though they’re dealing with some major problems, such as the gold miners invasions. He preferred to show how they are dealing with the problems and the solutions they come up with – not focus on the problems themselves. That’s the way we chose to tell the story.

How did you ensure you stayed respectful and true to the Indigenous people while making this film?

I was not 100% sure that I was succeeding at being respectful, but that was my main priority. We were like children for them because when we were walking in the middle of the forest, we didn’t know anything about the ants, jaguars, birds, fishes and even the water. For example, we didn’t know whether we could bathe in the river or drink some of that water because a sucuri – a big snake – or a jaguar could come up from nowhere. They looked at us like we were children. Even the Yanomami children would love watching us to see how ill-prepared we were. We didn’t have life skills for the forest.

What I tried to do, as a way of ensuring that I was being respectful, was to accept that I’m a fool, that I indeed don’t know anything. I was not trying to show them that I was a smart white man that knew lots of stuff only because I drive a car in the city. No, in that situation I was indeed an ignorant man. We, as white people, think we are very strong – however we just know few things.

I was not the kind of director that would determine how everything would happen. In many situations, instead of pretending that I was controlling everything, I let everyone know “I don’t know how to shoot this scene,” and they decided what kind of situations we’d shoot. I needed their help and we all wanted the same thing: to tell their story so that white people all over the world would watch the film and get to know a little bit more about the Yanomami people.

Indigenous people are used to not trying to control everything, they are not trying to control the future nor what’s going to happen in the afternoon. This is how we worked and things went really well. When I accepted to not control everything and to be open-minded and open to the environment I was in, things went very well between us. They gave me much more than I was capable of, but they understood that I was really engaged to tell their story and I think this was fundamental to shape this strong relationship. It made me very happy.

I showed the film to Davi Kopenawa and his son, Dário Kopenawa Yanomami, and they loved it. They laughed, they cried and they wanted to show the film to other Yanomami in different villages, but we haven’t done that yet due to this COVID situation, but as soon as possible we’ll go over there to do a screening. Davi wanted the film to be first shown to the Yanomami people and their youth, even before the white people.

Did you face any major barriers (perhaps from the Brazilian government) or disruptions while making this film?

Yes, when I arrived in Boa Vista, Roraima state in the Amazon to talk to Davi for the first time, we had some problems meeting in the city. That was because he was receiving death threats from gold miners. We had to go someplace else where people didn’t see us – it was a dangerous situation for him. We had these kinds of problems.

At the same time, the Brazilian government didn’t want us to shoot the reality so we didn’t get any kind of help. However, they didn’t try to stop us. When I was shooting, the Brazilian army went there and they respected it, they didn’t do anything about the situation – legally or by force. The situation is more complicated with the gold miners because they were saying they’d kill people who’d try to report them, and at the same time, the Brazilian government didn’t want us to show the real situation. They like fake news very much. 

Prospectors are increasingly tempting young people to abandon their traditional lives in the rainforest. These people, along with those high up in the Brazilian government, clearly have little regard for Indigenous tradition. Why do you feel it’s important that we persevere and protect these Indigenous cultures?

The Indigenous cultures are older than we are, I mean than the European civilization from the Renaissance and the Modern Era, the Indigenous civilizations are here for over 4 thousand years, having the same life, of course they have come a long way and changed a lot, because historically people change, but we know the forest civilizations of America know a lot about this land, they know how to live in harmony with biomas, ecological environments. They don’t destroy to get food, they don’t destroy to get comfort, they know how to live in peace with nature, and that’s why we are now dependent on them, we need to understand how to live in such a economic way of life, even though their diet is based on lots of proteins and carbs, they don’t need more than the food they have. Now I think we need to understand them, we must be taught. They know a lot, they have a very strong science and mythological narratives that explain how to live in harmony with nature, preserving the earth and we’re destroying everything so I think not only we have to protect, we have to learn. It’s time to study with them, it’s time to learn with them. 

With Jair Bolsonaro still in office, what will be the best way of protecting these traditions? Are you hopeful for the future?

I think we need to put pressure on the Brazilian government through public opinion and media attention. It’s very important for foreign countries to impose sanctions, such as limiting commodities imports on Brazilian government if the law is not respected, in order to protect the jungle and the indigenous people that live there. It works, it has worked in the past. So I hope our film can help it.

With international pressure from the USA, Europe and even from Asia, things can change and the Yanomami can get protection. The law is against the invasion, it protects the land but the Brazilian government is not respecting it. We need pressure to make it valid. I hope there’s help from people in general, governments and institutions even by social media to put some pressure on Bolsonaro’s government.

What do you hope audiences at Berlinale and beyond take away from your film?

I’d love it if they could understand a little bit more about the Native American civilisations, because the way Yanomami live is kind of the same as other civilisations that have been in America – even before the name of this place had been given by the first European people’s arrival.

I really hope the audience understands how they think; how dreams are important for them; how these civilisations don’t try to control the future; how they are very linked to the present; how they understand the ecological economy, how they are not so linked to money and goods and how fertility is more important than having and buying things; how they approach healing and medicine; and how their science belongs to the nature and isn’t a science that destroys and controls it. It’s a kind of science that goes into mythological narratives.

I hope people can get to know a little more about indigenous from all over America: North America, Central America and South America.

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