Review: The Buriti Flower
by Elena Lazic
- CANNES 2023: João Salaviza and Renee Nader Messora craft a film both direct in its portrait of an indigenous community in Brazil, and evocative about the role of memory in its endurance
The reverberations of the past into the present are perhaps never more keenly felt than in stories about indigenous people. Though they might be existing in circumstances that are in some key ways very different from those of eras more directly associated with colonisation, these communities still have to fight to survive — both literally and in the more figurative sense of keeping their unique identity alive, resisting absorption into the globalised Western world. With The Buriti Flower [+see also:
interview: João Salaviza and Renée Nad…
film profile], filmmaking duo João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora craft a film that mixes together fiction and documentary out of a necessity to account for both the material facts of life in the indigenous Krahô community of Brazil, and the influence on them of memories, stories and perspectives.
Shot in collaboration with the people of the Kraholândia Indigenous Land, the film — premiering in Un Certain Regard at this year’s Cannes Film Festival — features a few central characters played by non-actors from the community, within an otherwise largely documentary context. This confluence of fiction and documentary is however far from a gimmick: unlike other such hybrid films, the filmmakers here are not at all interested in capturing the performative quality of existence. Rather this mode allows the film to avoid an othering outsider’s gaze (one that would marvel at how “exotic” or, by contrast, familiar certain aspects of this community seem to Western eyes), to therefore better focus on what truly matters: the way the people within the community perceive both themselves and their enemies, now and throughout history.
The directors however unearth this view only progressively, as is to suggest that it can be difficult for people who have been brutalised over many years to ever see themselves as main characters in their story, to have their own perspective — to be active in the act of history. Much of the film is concerned with the parallel stories of a mother and her daughter, who both come to understand over time things that are slightly different in nature, but equally important and intimately linked.
The mother finds herself growing increasingly convinced, despite the less than enthusiastic reactions from other people in the village, that someone should represent their community at a large conference in Brasilia about the rights of indigenous communities in the country. The film’s languid rhythm shows her awareness mature and grow in a way that is utterly intertwined with her daily tasks, for the simple reason that the Krahô community and identity are threatened from all sides. More and more people are illegally stealing rare animals out of the area to sell them in the city, pushing locals to keep watch day and night. During traditional ceremonies, no one is naked anymore — though the makeup and chants remain traditional, everyone wears pants and shorts. The mother complains to a friend in the city, where she only occasionally goes, that her daughter has requested to sleep on a mattress, which is simply unheard of. Looming large in the background of the entire film are the constant threats to the land, with developers looking to take it from the families that have lived on it for hundreds of years.
The film’s runtime and patience allows to imprint and reflect on all these ways, big and small, that the Krahô are pushed into an assimilation they do not want. Nader Messora’s stunning images capture the beauty of the forest, its many colours and textures, its slow rhythm and warmth, but the film’s strength is such that it eventually becomes impossible not to look at this beautiful place without feeling a real sense of urgency and alarm.
In line with this dual pace — the leisurely cadence of life in the village on the one hand, and the time-sensitive need to save it on the other — is the storyline of the daughter, which brings together past and present in a similar mix of fast and slow. The child is having trouble sleeping, plagued with visions she cannot make sense of but whose meaning progressively dawns on the audience as we learn more about the past. This series of ambiguous images is very evocative, capturing a more mystical version of the same reality that the mother offers us to see — mystical because intrinsically linked to history. It builds to a stunning and devastating sort-of reenactment of a 1940 massacre where many Krahô people were killed by farmers under cover of darkness. The directors are careful not to perpetuate violence by re-creating this traumatic event, and instead capture its horror in a more oneiric way which translates the wounds it has left on the collective, intergenerational memory of this people. The daughter’s visions are, her uncle believes, signs that her restless soul is getting in touch with the past. This deep understanding, coming as it does while the mother is at the conference in Brasilia, galvanised by the inspiring speeches of hundreds of other indigenous people, suggests that connecting to past traumatic history can be troubling indeed, but also a powerful moment of realising that one is not alone in the fight, for both the present and the future.
The Buriti Flower is produced by Karõ Filmes (Portugal) and Entre Filmes (Brazil). International sales are handled by Films Boutique. The film will be released in France by Ad Vitam.
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