“A Arca dos Zo’é” at Videobrasil

The short film A Arca dos Zo´é, preceded by O Espírito da TV – both born out of my partnership with anthropologist Dominique Gallois – are the stepping stones of the Vídeo nas Aldeias (Video in the Villages) project. Gallois, who had been working for twelve years with the Wajãpi tribe, of Amapá, and spoke their language fluently, got most of her information from the intellectual and tribe chief Wai Wai. It was a unique opportunity to document what the natives’ access to audiovisual had afforded them: the possibility of a new memory, reflections on how they would be seen, on how to present themselves in the most strategic way.

For O Espírito da TV, we documented Wai Wai’s pilgrimage to the Wajãpi villages, showing footage of other natives, making comments and drawing analogies with the experiences they had had themselves. With A Arca dos Zo’é, as I fulfilled Wai Wai’s dream of filming those he had identified as his ancestors during the screening sessions at the village, I made my fastest, easiest film ever: it wasn’t about an idea out of my head, it was about a desire Wai Wai had expressed. All it took was to produce the meeting and follow Wai Wai through his adventure. On completing the film, I didn’t suspect it would be so successful. Back then, I knew nothing about Jean Rouch or “cinema vérité.” The idea of opening a camera to feedback from the natives, who’d watch everything I filmed under their own direction on a daily basis, had naturally led me in that direction.

These films got rotation at several international festivals, where I became aware that native media was a fledgling phenomenon in many places around the world, especially those where minorities had already gained access to universities and film schools. The time had come to give the natives a camera and teach them, with no embarrassments, to reach beyond the mere registers they were making. To teach them to tell their stories, to make cinema. The outcome of the first few workshops was surprising: Wewito Ashaninka made Shomotsi, “a short masterpiece,” in the words of Eduardo Coutinho. Vídeo Carta das Crianças Ikpeng para o mundo enchanted children aged two to eighty around the world. Viewers were taken aback by this new gaze that presented the indigenous world in its intimacy.

For eighteen years we progressed slowly, with artist scholarships granted by American foundations and the scant resources from International Cooperation, which funded our political militancy with indigenous peoples. We were internationally recognized and received messages from all over the world, from projects that Vídeo nas Aldeias had inspired, yet we wouldn’t see a dime in Brazil. It wasn’t until with the advent of the Lula age – with the revolutionary cultural policy of ministers Gilberto Gil and Juca Ferreira, oriented towards social inclusion and the valuing of Brazilian cultural diversity – that the project was discovered and got a boost through Cultura Viva funding. Initiated in the mid-1980s, during the VHS revolution, the project was now experiencing the digital revolution – which enabled us to complete all of the steps in production onsite at the villages. We multiplied our workshops and native-made films, which enjoyed wide acceptance at film festivals, breaking out of the ghetto of ethnographic festivals.

A new, seemingly contradictory concept of the indigenous filmmaker began to emerge. The natives, regarded by the common sense as outdated, now enjoyed the glamorous status of filmmakers. Picture the middle-class youth from Acre, a state whose film production was still incipient, finding out that local indigenous filmmakers hailing from poor, isolated areas had won prizes at national and international festivals. This fuelled a new admiration and insertion for the natives. Today, indigenous fine art pieces and films are shown at Paris’ Cartier Foundation, for instance. The dozens of communities we were unable to reach out to, especially after the dismantling of the Lula age’s cultural policy, sought out local partners and, everywhere around this country there are natives producing and filming.

New vistas open up as laws command public schools to address Afro-descendant and Indian cultures. Making these filmmakers’ films public, now at a new scale, is our latest challenge in facing the herculean task of rescuing the heritage of native cultures from invisibility and ostracism. To raise awareness among new generations from an early age; to populate the Brazilian collective consciousness with the Indian reality, because, as Juca Ferreira has recently and adeptly put it, Brazil without the Indians is not Brazil.

When A Arca dos Zo’é, which had won prizes at documentary film festivals in Tokyo, Paris and New York, was shortlisted for the 10th edition of the Videobrasil Festival , in 1994, I felt like a fish out of water amidst art videos that innovated the language of film. I felt the audience response was lackluster, that this wasn’t what they had come for. But Videobrasil made a bold move in shortlisting the film for its competitive show, realizing that its originality lay in its approach of the indigenous issue. Here was a film that didn’t speak of, but gave voice to the natives, a film where they ceased to be the objects to become the protagonists of his own history, one that pointed not to their distant exoticness, but to their humanity, which is so close to our own.

Though unable to attend the closing panel of the Unerasable Memories show at this time due to health issues, I could not refrain from expressing my satisfaction and pride in having A arca dos Zo´é be one of the eighteen films selected for this first major exhibit curated from the vast universe of videos shown and awarded throughout the history of Videobrasil’s festival. With these brief words, I join you in this gleeful celebration.

Vincent Carelli

Olinda, November 27, 2014