There is both irony and poignancy in Bruno Jorge’s deep dive into the lives of the uncontacted Korubo people, a remote indigenous tribe living deep in the Amazon rainforest who have – remarkably – largely avoided contact with civilisation until now.
Symbol of struggle
The irony is that this is a film about making contact in order to save the Korubo from the dangers of disease, poaching, and illicit logging. From the threats posed by the encroachment of ‘civilisation’ and the white man.
The poignancy is that the Brazilian government expedition – organised in 2019 and the largest such foray into the world of the uncontacted tribes for decades – is led by Bruno Pereira, the man whose murder (along with British journalist Dom Phillips) in June 2022 by illegal fishermen, thrust his work into the limelight, making him in death an international symbol of the struggle for the forest and its peoples, which had been his life’s work.
Jorge, who won the jury award for best international documentary for The Invention of the Other at this year’s Docville festival, essentially allows his copious footage to tell the story of Pereira’s expedition in linear fashion, the narrative snaking along like the wild Amazonian rivers and verdant foliage their boats glide through as they approach tribal lands far inland close to the tri-country border of Brazil, Peru and Colombia.
The irony is that this is a film about making contact in order to save the Korubo from the dangers of disease, poaching, and illicit logging.
Both joker and sage
The story pivots around the expedition’s Korubo guide Txitxopi, a fierce and able warrior who killed five men from an enemy tribe in one confrontation – at least by his own (extremely dramatic and dramatised) account. Txitxopi is part of a group of Korubo who became separated from the rest of their community in 2015 after a conflict with a neighbouring tribe, the Matis. The key aims of the expedition are to pacify relations between the Korubo and Matis, contact the remaining Korubo and conduct medical monitoring and minor treatments. By contacting the Korubo, the expedition also hopes to reassure them that their rights are protected and prevent further encroachment by definitively identifying their lands.
Txitxopi is both joker and sage. Often carrying a worried frown on his forehead, he is as anxious – if not more – than Pereira about the expedition. Fearing that he may not find his community or that he will discover they have been killed by the Matis (like his mother and son in the past), his bravado and accounts of how he is able to kill a man with one swipe of his wooden pole, seem designed to keep his dark thoughts at bay.
For viewers more used to understanding the dynamics of remote tribes through Hollywood blockbusters such as Avatar, the violence of everyday life for the Korubo may come as a surprise. These are people who are used to life and death in the raw environment of the Amazon, where hunting their prey and killing their enemy are done with equanimity. The camerawork undermines this: close-ups of monkeys being skinned before their bodies, tails cut off, pale white skin and tiny forms uncomfortably similar to the form of a sickly human child are roasted over an open fire. When the remaining Korubo – a group of 34 (20 children and 14 adults aged 17-48) – are found, we observe small children carrying tiny baby monkeys around their necks as pets. What happened to their monkey parents? The question is left moot.
More questions than answers
The Invention of the Other is a film best allowed to flow over the viewer; there are more questions than answers here. How do these people live? How have they avoided contact with the rest of the world into the second decade of the 21st century? What awaits them now that they have made contact? What do they carry in their small ‘backpacks’ – an assembly that looks as if it is made up of a couple of large nuts and a pouch containing… what exactly?
What is the meaning of the ritual dance conducted when the white men and their helpers meet the uncontacted? Why is it that these people who – apparently – know little or nothing of the white man and his ways are apparently unconcerned about their equipment, cameras, and guns? Txitxopi – still on a high after meeting long-lost brothers, hugging and stroking them, combing their hair (another habit we are offered no insights into) – tells his tribe not to worry about the cameras; they simply capture images. Later, we see the men, women and children laughing as they watch themselves on a video playback monitor.
Medical inspections are carried out, and a helicopter flies in with supplies (medicines?) at the end of the 32-day-long expedition. We leave the Korubo now in a lesser state of innocence than before – if we can presume earlier innocence.
The Invention of the Other makes a large claim by its title; the film does not really provide an answer to the implicit question; but as a record of the prosaic process of meeting people who have lived entirely within their own primordial universe until that day of contact, it is a beguiling experience.