Birdwatchers - Movie Review

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By Jonathan W. Wind

Birdwatchers chronicles the land battles of indigenous Brazilians forced to find work on their own lands as seasonal laborers. In the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sol, a small band of Guarani Indians, unable and unwilling to subsist on the reserve mapped out for them by wealthy white settlers, camp out in shaky trash bag tents on the roadside fringe of a plantation intent on reclaiming what was once their holy ground.

Led by Osvaldo, the tribe's young hero, and the venerable tribe Shaman, their presence on the land creates distrust with the owners mixed with a quiet curiosity, what does the other really want? The tribe itself just stares at the fields, waiting for a miracle. Even this is better than the reserve where poverty and suicide have reduced their numbers and damaged their spirit. But they are hounded even by their own most exalted spirit, Anques, and, as ends most stories of indigenous peoples, they lose their land, their dignity and their lives.

I recalled reading "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee," and how every chapter about trusting Native Americans ended in slaughter, so I knew full on that hope was a false god for the shaman and his tribe. Their ancestors, now buried in a treeless beet field, lay just yards from their roadside encampment

Performed by a mostly amateur cast in Guarani and Portuguese, the story begins with wide eyed tourists canoing through supposedly "hostile" territory - Indians, frightfully painted and armed with bows and arrows, stare down the encroaching pilgrims, even arc a few arrows in the boat's general direction - and the rattled travelers hightail it back to civilization with a great story. But, once the tourists have gone, the tribe ambles up an embankment, they change into their civvies, get paid by the tour operator, and truck on home to the nearby reserve in a Ford pickup.

Inevitably, after a protracted struggle with the landowners, the suicides continue and the tribe leaders are killed. In the end a success is claimed because Osvaldo cuts himself down before hanging himself, in a first step towards saving himself and his tribe.

Released at the 2008 Venice Film Festival, Birdwatchers was written and directed by Marco Bechis, who adds "five hundred years after the conquest, the conflict is the same as then." Punctuated incongruously by classical compositions by Domenico Zipoli, a Jesuit composer who failed to convert the Guarani in the early 18th century, the score lends electrifying depth by juxtaposing classic detail with a tribe robbed and deprived of their culture. The movie is a tender portrait of decline, brought home by an accidental bond between the landowners daughter and the young Osvaldo.

It would be easy to feel weary of the outcome of such movies, do the indigenous people ever get what they want, would it make a a good story if they did? The peculiar dichotomy of using indigenous people to play themselves in an imaginary plot itself smacks of exploitation, a kind of full length National Geographic special. But throughout it is plain that the writers had the best intentions, even providing a website to contribute money to the Guarani Indians plight. When Europeans first arrived in South America, the Guarani were among the first peoples they met. At that time, the Guarani numbered more than 1.5 million, today they number around 30,000.

I say wait for the DVD but see it, it will wake you up. Because however daft the plot the meaning comes through. The rights and lives of indigenous peoples are sidelined for profit and until people realize the extent and meaning of their loss, the situation will only continue.

© 2009 - Jonathan W. Wind - Air Date: 10/14/09
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