Director Inês T. Alves stops by on Close-Up Culture to talk about Waters of Pastaza (Juunt Pastaza entsari).
A group of Achuar children moves through the endless green. Along the course of the Pastaza river, on the border between Ecuador and Peru, they catch fish, hunt and cook, play with lianas and watch videos on their smartphones.
Can you tell us about the community featured in Waters Of Pastaza and what brought you there?
Searching on the internet I found an informal education project, “Proyecto Suwa”, that a European couple had started some years ago to help the local teacher in the primary school of Suwa, a community of about 80 inhabitants, isolated in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest belonging to the Achuar indigenous tribe. Since I was already interested in knowing the Amazon rainforest I decided to contact them.
So in early March 2018 I arrived in Suwa. To get there you have first to fly through a large area of the forest in a small plane and then sail for 2 hours on the Pastaza River, in a motorized canoe. In addition to being physically isolated, the community had no access to the telephone network or the internet. Electricity was very recent, it was assembled in January 2018 and works with solar panels. To communicate with the outside world they had a radio, which does not always work.
I lived 2 months with this community where I could collaborate with the local teacher. At the time I didn’t have the idea of making a film, I was more interested in developing film workshops with the kids, so I took with me very basic film equipment.
What was your initial impression of the community and the children?
They were very welcoming from the beginning. Naturally there was a culture gap between us, but they were very curious about my culture and me.
Despite the isolation, their westernization was evident, ranging from the music they hear (South American pop music) to their clothes and habits. Of course they maintain a lot of their traditional ways of living, cooking, and celebrating, but it’s very much mixed with the Western traditions and Catholicism.
While the division of the daily tasks between men and women were very evident, between the children the tasks were naturally shared despite the gender.
It was with the children that I spent most of my time, with whom I didn’t feel so much the cultural gap. So I developed a very close relationship with them, who taught me and helped me with everything necessary to “survive” in that territory. From the beginning I was impressed by how independent the kids were and also their collaborative way of living.
And how did that change over the process of making the film?
Despite the openness of the community I felt that many times the adults didn’t have so much time for me. From one side, as I was a woman, I thought the men didn’t feel so comfortable to have me around during the “men” tasks and from another side almost every woman was very shy and it was difficult to get intimate with them.
But on the other hand the children were very much willing to show me around, teach me things, and share their lives. Of course, naturally there were some more open to me than others.
With the process of making the film I got very close to some of the kids that were spending so much time with me and were sharing a lot of thoughts, desires, fears. I realised as well that even though they have a strong sense of collaboration, responsibility, and support, they also had a lot of conflicts between themselves, especially inside school, where a lot of frustrations and competition feelings were rising.
Can you tell us about the impact smartphones and new tech are having on this community? Do the kids interact with the tech in different ways to Western children?
The children of this community, as happens everywhere, were very much fascinated by the new tech that was just starting to appear with the recent advent of electricity.
As there was no telephone network or Internet, smartphones were used to watch or make videos, listen to music and play games. They also sometimes watch American films on the smartphone or laptop that someone brought from the city.
In a community that has always lived in isolation and never even had a television, the appearance of smartphones will certainly have a strong and rapid impact on the habits and relationships between people and the environment.
Four years ago when I was living in the community they still didn’t have the internet, but nowadays they already can have access to it. So I guess they are living a really crucial and transitional moment. It is very likely that in a few years life in this community will be completely different from what it is today.
I’ve seen some beautiful clips of the film observing the rich nature in this part of the world. What was your approach to capturing this setting?
I let myself be immersed in nature. I spent my days walking with the kids in the forest, sometimes they were pointing out something, some mushrooms bugs, giving me fruits. I also did a lot of walks by myself. Sometimes something was calling my attention so I filmed. Since I didn’t have big film equipment I could always bring with me my small film camera.
What did you take away from their way of life and their approach to raising children?
I was very much inspired by the sustainable relation they established with the environment and the natural resources and how resourceful they were with their knowledge of the forest.
In my view, the autonomy and independence of these children contrasts strikingly with the patronizing and super protective way with which children are raised in the West. I feel it’s really important that we stop infantilizing children and instead give them the freedom they need to grow in a harmonious and empowering way.
What are your hopes for Waters Of Pastaza at Berlinale and beyond?
For me this film is a way for these children to communicate with the world, to inspire the world, to make the world recognize the strength and beauty of the Amazon rainforest with all its biodiversity. Especially at this time when indigenous communities in the Amazon are under a strong permanent attack, intense deforestation driven by external economic interests, which are destroying their cultures, ways of life and subsistence.
To be shown at the Berlinale it’s amazing because it will reach a bigger audience. Also being in the Generation section it makes a lot of sense, because it’s important that other children see the film and can dialogue with it.