Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The children of the Amazon

NATURE / Following the close-knit collective of Indigenous Achuar children as they live a life in harmony with the environment.
Director: Inês T. Alves
Country: Portugal

«Sunsets, like childhood, are viewed with wonder not just because they are beautiful but because they are fleeting», American author Richard Paul Evans once wrote. Many parents are scared that their children will grow up too quickly, and this fear is not helped by the overwhelming presence of technology, which can make the world seem full of threats that can rob a child of youth.

This makes Inês T. Alves’ debut feature-length documentary Waters of Pastaza (Águas do Pastaza) all the more refreshing. The film explores the concept of children’s maturity in an empowering and hopeful way, where children are exposed to more nature than technology, and childhood takes on a different definition.

Waters of Pastaza, a film by Inês T. Alves
Waters of Pastaza, a film by Inês T. Alves

«Proyecto Suwa»

For two months, Alves followed the lives of the indigenous children of the Achuar community in the remote village of Suwa, Ecuador, on the banks of the Rio Pastaza.

Within the framework of the independent pedagogical project «Proyecto Suwa», Alves initially intended to teach English and offer filmmaking workshops to the local community. However, as her fascination with the independence and resourcefulness of this community’s children grew, she realised the community would teach her rather than the other way round.

Against the backdrop of lush green foliage and the constant soundtrack of the forest, the children run through the dense tropical woodland, scale the trees and cut down bananas with machetes. The rainforest is their playground, their home and their source of sustenance. The children’s freedom is reminiscent of the utopian world found in The Lord of the Flies, but this is not fiction — it is the everyday reality of the Achuar children.

…she realised the community would teach her rather than the other way round.

Observing nature

This film could be seen as a response to the lack of nature-based activities in many children’s lives across the globe, but it is far from being a lecture on the importance of reconnecting with nature. In Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, a book that breaks down the fundamental need for nature in the lives of children, a fourth-grader in San Diego is quoted as saying, «I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are». Alarmingly, electricity is seen as a pre-requisite for fun by many children. However, when observing the Achuar children’s response to nature, the viewer is reminded that this is not an organised expedition into the wild or an attempt to prize children away from screens for a few hours. This is an insight into the children’s daily interaction with their natural habitat. The film’s observational nature allows the message of symbiotic integration with nature to be conveyed without giving the film a preachy or accusatory tone. The message is subtly presented and is clearly understandable: technology exists, but we’re part of nature, and nature can support us in ways technology cannot.

Just as natural ecosystems allow life to flourish, so too the children of the Achuar community are shown working together in pairs or groups. In contrast to works like Walden, in which the author Henry David Thoreau ventures out into the woods in an experimental fashion to experience solitude and a lack of amenities, the Achuar children do not need to get to know the forest to understand what can be gained from simplicity.

«We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aid, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn», Thoreau writes in Walden. The beauty of Waters of Pastaza is that the children are «awake» in the purest sense because they do not know what it is like to be mentally «asleep» or reliant on «mechanical aids» for their daily activities. Smartphones are present in the film, but they are used to play music to enhance the group’s enjoyment rather than presenting an opportunity for fruitless doomscrolling.

The intimate nature of the film was achieved through Alves’ ability to build trust with the children she was filming. In this respect, Alves’ lack of sophisticated filming equipment worked to her advantage because one woman shooting a film on a Canon EOS 70D is far less intimidating than an entire film crew.

Waters of Pastaza, a film by Inês T. Alves
Waters of Pastaza, a film by Inês T. Alves

The voice of the forest

Throughout the film, the voice of the forest emerges in the form of birdsong and the hum of insects. It was a challenge to accurately capture the sound of the forest, as Alves did not have a sound recorder with her. The sounds, therefore, had to be enhanced in post-production to make the viewer’s experience as close to the reality of the rainforest as possible. Giorgio Gristina, a sound editor who worked on the film, saved some of the original sound and then added more layers that had been recorded in the same part of the Amazon. The result is an immersive natural soundtrack, which reminds the viewer of the life force of the forest. This idea is further driven home by the heartbeat-like bass in Virgilio Oliveira’s composition, which turns the rainforest into one of the living, breathing protagonists of the film.

While the film is not as playful as it perhaps could have been given the subject matter, it does remind the viewer of the beauty that can be found in unplanned, collective experiences that centre around places and group dynamics rather than the individual. Alves may have cited directors such as Agostino Ferrante, Werner Herzog and Agnès Varda as key sources of inspiration, but it is the forest and the river that runs through it that act as the real lifeblood of the film. This is a film that revels in its simplicity and encourages the viewer to simplify their own life by reconnecting with the natural world.

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Melita Cameron Wood
Melita Cameron Wood
Freelance journalist, film critic and voice-over artist.

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