«The Yanomami have inhabited a territory in the north of Brazil and south of Venezuela for over 1000 years. 500 years before either country existed, the Yanomami were already there.»
Decades after the discovery of gold in Yanomami lands, the area straddling the Brazil and Venezuela border has seen a renewed influx of illegal wildcat miners. Prospectors, known as garimpeiros, have poured into the area in thousands, scouring the Amazon rainforest in hopes of tapping its mineral riches. Recent reports reveal an expansion of illegal mining activities in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, with an increase of 30 per cent in 2020 alone. Some blame far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, whose rhetoric is believed to have emboldened illegal gold prospectors in the area. With the rising encroachment on Yanomami lands have come environmental degradation, mercury pollution and deadly diseases, including most recently COVID-19, even in some of the isolated indigenous communities.
In his new film The Last Forest, Brazilian filmmaker Luiz Bolognesi delves into the depths of the Amazon rainforest, engrossing the viewer into the reality of its dwellers as they struggle to safeguard their environment and way of life. Coalescing observational footage with staged sequences – used here to depict Yanomami’s folklore and dramatise its creation myths – the film captures the interior lives of the indigenous people, illuminating their reality and belief systems rooted in the mythology that defines their relationship to nature. One of such myths describes the Yanomami as children of Omama who created the forest and Thuёyoma, a «fish» from the water world who «allowed herself to be captured in woman form.» Omama «put this forest under our care,» the shamans and elders of the community affirm. As the night falls, we see the Yanomami in firelight, resting in hammocks. «I’m the forest itself,» we hear shaman Davi Kopenawa say, driving home an elemental truth about man’s place in the ecosystem.
Recent reports reveal an expansion of illegal mining activities in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory, with an increase of 30 per cent in 2020 alone.
The film foregrounds the Yanomami’s grave concerns about white people «turning over» native lands to find oil and gold, thus releasing «the smoke of disease» that Omama – according to the myth – had «buried along with the ores.» Speaking on a mobile transceiver, Kopenawa recalls the year 1986, the start of the «great invasion» of gold prospectors, which resulted in the death of up to 1800 natives. «They’re coming back now,» he warns, urging indigenous peoples to take care of their children’s health amid the widespread mercury contamination of water. On a mission to salvage indigenous lands, Kopenawa, an internationally known Yanomami spokesperson, journeys to «the white man’s land.» «I don’t want to go there, bringing festive food and traditional dancing,» says Kopenawa solemnly ahead of his trip. «I must teach them our way of thinking.» His trip culminates in an address at Harvard University, in which he deplores «the white people in authority» for «allowing» the gold in indigenous lands to be prospected. «The non-native authorities use this word a lot: ‘important.’ For you, who live in the city, products are the most important thing,» Kopenawa contends. Making too many products is bad for the forest. What matters to us are the animals in the forest, fertility. What’s important is sharing food amongst our people, our survival, […], our way of life and our existence as a people.»
The Last Forest is a startling piece of filmmaking that immerses the viewer in scenic images and rich soundscapes of the everyday life of the Yanomami people who call the Amazon rainforest home. However, most importantly, the film is a collaborative exercise with members of the indigenous community, who, alongside Kopenawa, the film’s central figure and co-author, were engaged in the decision-making process about what stories should be told and how. Some also partook in the production itself – as actors in staged sequences or as field translators. In such a collaboration, Bolognesi admittedly had to let go of the reins as the film’s director, which he has described in an interview as accepting a certain ‘loss of control’. Ultimately, Bolognesi did what perhaps an outsider filmmaker ought to do – make a film with and for the community, so as not to fall back on the white saviour trope and merely «give» the indigenous people a voice, but to co-create a cinematic space for them to present themselves as storytellers in their own right.