Heinz Förthmann (sometimes referred to as Henrique Forthmann or Foerthmann) was probably the most accomplished of all early ethnographic film-makers in Brazil, but his best films exist only in degraded or fragmentary form, or have been lost entirely, and he has therefore not received the recognition that he deserves, even within Brazil.
Förthmann was born in Hanover, in Germany, but as a teenager, he moved to Brazil with his family and settled in Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. Here his older sister married the brother of Harald Schultz, the head of the Seção de Estudos of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI). After a period working in a photographic and design studio, it was through his connection with Schultz that Förthmann was recruited into the Seção de Estudos in 1942.
Schultz encouraged him to take a basic course in cinematography, but initially Förthmann worked for the SPI as a photographer and later as sound-recordist before eventually beginning to direct his own films around 1946.
Förthmann’s first films were mostly informational works about SPI posts, though they sometimes also included ethnographic passages, as in Os Carajá. Notwithstanding the informational subject matter, these films showed that Förthmann was a highly talented cinematographer and as a director, of a generally more artistic inclination than his mentor, Harald Schultz.
In his later works for the SPI, Förthmann collaborated with the eminent Brazilian anthropologist, Darcy Ribeiro, who had also by then joined the Seçao de Estudos. With Förthmann contributing his cinematographic skills and Ribeiro his anthropological expertise, they shared the direction of two substantial ethnographic films: Os Índios “Urubus”, released in 1950, and then, in 1953, a film about a Bororo funeral.
Sadly, the original negative of the first of these films was destroyed in a fire in the Cinemateca Brasileira in 1982, and the film now appears to exist only in a degraded form without the original soundtrack, while the Bororo funeral film was never completed and now exists only as an incomplete rough cut.
In the later 1950s, with the SPI facing severe budgetary cuts, Förthmann reluctantly went to work in the US with an American producer on some 16mm colour films that he had shot in the Xingu Park, but these too were not finished for budgetary reasons and now appear to be lost. While he was away in the US, his contract with the SPI was terminated on the grounds that he had neglected his duties in Brazil.
In 1959, Förthmann returned to Brazil and spent the last fifteen years of his life at the Universidade de Brasilia, where along with informational films about architecture, he also shot some short films in the Xingu Park, including the charming Jornada Kamayurá (1966).
Förthmann’s last film, Rito Krahô, concerned the sweet potato festival of the Kraho of Central Brazil, the indigenous group with whom his mentor, Harald Schultz, had made many films. This film was shot in 1971-1973 but it was not until some fifteen years after Förthmann’s death in 1978, aged only 63, that the editing was undertaken by his former student, Marcos de Souza Mendes. It was finally released in 2015 on the centenary of Förthmann’s birth.
A filmed interview about the shooting of this film with the anthropologist Júlio Cézar Melatti, who acted as an adviser, and which includes a numer of clips, is available here.