Funeral Bororo, fragmentos (1953) – Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro*

The Elder chants during the decoration of the bones – Funeral Bororo (1953), dir. Heinz Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro.

41 mins., b&w, silent.

Production: Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI).

Source: Museu do Índio, Rio de Janeiro. Viewable on the web here.


If this film had been finished, it would undoubtedly now be regarded as one of the high points of ethnographic film history, not only within Brazil, but more generally, across the world.

Even as it stands, this work is far from being the mere ‘fragments’ that its conventional title suggests. In fact, it would be more accurate to describe it as an almost-final rough cut. It may lack titles and intertitles, and have no soundtrack, but the image track has clearly been very carefully edited and possesses a clearly identifiable narrative thread.

There are certain redundancies and inconsistencies, but otherwise it seems very close to completion from a visual point of view – apart, that is, from the very obvious absence of the last phase of the funeral that is its principal subject matter. It is not clear whether this absence is because the original footage has been lost or because it was never filmed in the first place.

The original material was shot during visits to two different Bororo communities in Mato Grosso state, Central Brazil. The first of these took place in November and early December 1952, when Heinz Förthmann travelled to Pobore, on the middle reaches of the São Lourenço river. The other took place towards the middle of 1953 and involved a visit by both Förthmann and Darcy Ribeiro to Córrego Grande, a village located to the southwest of Pobore, on the lower reaches of the São Lourenço.

Förthmann and Ribeiro had previously collaborated on making Os Índios “Urubus” (shot and released in 1950) among the Kaapor, who live on the boundary of Maranhão and Para states in the northeast of Brazil. At the time, both men were members of the Seção de Estudos of the Serviço de Proteção aos Índios (SPI). While sharing the directorial role, Förthmann had contributed his cinematographic skills and Ribeiro his anthropological expertise. It seems that they envisaged a similar division of labour when filming with the Bororo.

In 1952, Ribeiro had been appointed head of the Seção de Estudos and had received a large grant from UNESCO to study ‘racial democracy’ in Brazil. Ribeiro proposed to use this grant to examine the process of assimilation of the indigenous population into Brazilian society. It was initially in this context that he commissioned Förthmann to film in Pobore.

In a letter to Ribeiro reporting on his visit to Pobore, seemingly written in early 1953, Förthmann states that he had shot some 2000m of film (around 70 minutes) on a variety of subjects, mentioning particularly various fishing activities. Although he had also filmed certain ritual events, including a symbolic mourning ceremony, he does not mention the filming of a funeral as such (see Souza Mendes 2006, pp. 279-280).

Moreover, at this point, Förthmann clearly did not envisage any further filming with the Bororo since he ends the letter by commenting on the film stock that will be needed for a forthcoming project to be shot among the indigenous groups of the upper Xingu river.

Cadete and Rondon, Cörrego Grande, probably in 1943.  Photograph by Heinz Förthmann. Acervo Heinz Förthmann. Reproduced in Souza Mendes 2006, p.311.

However, shortly afterwards, General Cândido Rondon, the original founder of the SPI in 1910, and still the chairman of the body overseeing the organisation, received a telegram from Córrego Grande inviting him to attend the funeral of Cadete, a senior Bororo headman.

Rondon, who was of part-Bororo inheritance himself, had known Cadete for many years. But as he was by then in his late 80s, he asked Ribeiro to attend the funeral on his behalf. He also recorded a message, in Bororo, on an early audio recorder, telling the people of Córrego Grande that they should consider Ribeiro to be his eyes, ears and mouth, and asking them to allow him and Förthmann to make a film so that he could see the funeral, even though he was not able to attend in person.

However, when Ribeiro and Förthmann arrived at Córrego Grande, they discovered that an epidemic of smallpox had broken out and that several other people had died as well as Cadete. Ribeiro therefore returned to Rio to seek further medical supplies, urging the Bororo to minimize the risk of further contagion  by postponing any major ceremonial events connected with the funeral.

Förthmann was left to administer the medecines that he and Ribeiro had brought with them and to film whatever might happen in Ribeiro’s absence. In the event, as Ribeiro was away for some time, Förthmann filmed almost everything by himself, as well as recording some eight hours of funeral chanting.

During much of the shoot, Förthmann was not able to control the action through a careful mise-en-scène, as was his usual practice. Instead, he found himself obliged to shoot hand-held, simply following events as they unfolded.

After the filming was completed, a preliminary assembly of the material appears to have been made. A ten-minute sequence of this assembly was even screened at the 31st International Congress of Americanists which was held in São Paulo in August 1954 under the aegis of Ribeiro’s academic mentor, Herbert Baldus.

But due to the chronic underfunding of the Seçao de Estudos, before the editing of the material was completed, Förthmann was obliged to move on to the Xingu project when the opportunity arose to collaborate with a US producer, James W. Marshall.

Neither Förthmann nor Ribeiro ever had the opportunity to finalize the edit. Ribeiro left the SPI in 1957 while Förthmann’s Xingu project dragged on for a number of years, eventually requiring him to move to the US for a period. But all this effort proved to be in vain since this project was also never finished. In his absence, in 1958, Förthmann was released by the SPI on the grounds that he was neglecting his responsibilities in Brazil.

The original negatives of all the material shot by Förthmann among the Bororo in 1952-53 appear to be definitively lost. What happened to the eight hours of audio recordings that he made in Córrego Grande is not clear.

The rough cut of the funeral that is available today on-line is based on four rolls of printing negative discovered by chance in a deteriorated condition in the 1970s in a warehouse of the Brazilian state film company, Embrafilme (now no longer in existence). These were first sent to the Cinemateca Brasileira and then to the Museu do Índio. The museum is to be warmly congratulated for having recently put this material up on the web.

Film Content

On the basis of content, the rough cut available on the web can be divided into four parts of not dissimilar lengths:

  • an introduction to the world of the Bororo and to certain personae of the film (8½ mins.)
  • the initial burial of the corpse and the subsequent dancing  and chanting in the central plaza of the village (14 mins.)
  • the exhumation of the cadaver after the flesh has rotted and the washing of the bones in a marshy savanna outside the village (10 mins.)
  • the decoration of the skull and other bones in the men’s house (8½ mins.)

In reality, the funeral would have concluded with an expedition by canoe, involving men only, to a nearby lagoon, during which a basket containing the bones of the deceased would have been lowered to its final resting place at the bottom of the lagoon.

Although this scene is described very graphically by Darcy Ribeiro in his novel, Maíra, (cited at length in Souza Mendes 2006, pp.307-08), there is no firm evidence that he witnessed this phase of the funeral himself, nor that it was filmed by Förthmann.

This is not the only part of the traditional Bororo funeral that is ‘missing’ from this account. Comparison with earlier films by Luiz Thomaz Reis and by Dina and Claude Lévi-Strauss, as well as the many textual accounts, suggests that there is much that is also missing from the coverage in second part of the cut, i.e. the material concerning the dancing and chanting that typically take place between the first burial and the exhumation of the cadaver once the flesh has rotted.

However, particularly when used in conjunction with these other accounts, the material presented in this cut is nevertheless of inestimable value as ethnographic reportage, particularly given the remarkably high standard of the cinematography.

Part One – Introduction (8½ mins.)

In terms both of content and of style, this part is very different to the rest of the cut. There is not only no direct reference to the principal theme, i.e. the funeral, but also, in contrast to the largely observational style in the remainder of the cut, it is structured around a very skilfully constructed mise-en-scène, with apparent references to well-known cinematic works. These differences suggest that this part may have been shot in Pobore, during Förthmann’s first visit.

The part begins with a dramatic shot, set on a wide river, of a young boy being ferried to school in a canoe paddled by an elderly man. This boy is apparently being set up as a character who will guide the audience through the film as a sort of proxy witness, in the manner of Alexander, the young boy in Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948).

‘Racial democracy’ in action: indigenous, white and black children sit side-by-side at school.

We then see the Bororo Boy sitting at his school desk surrounded by other pupils. Close-ups establish that they represent the three principal groups that make up the ‘racial democracy’ of Brazil. While most of the children are clearly indigenous, with some even wearing face paint, one shot shows two boys, one Black, one white European, sharing a desk. This shot appears to be a reference to the agenda of the UNESCO research project that Darcy Ribeiro had sought to develop through commissioning Förthmann’s shoot in Pobore.

The Boy opens a book and looks out of the window at the side of the classroom. A line of peasants are shown walking past, with their digging tools over their shoulders, as if they were soldiers. This must surely be a reference to an almost identical scene in All Quiet on the Western Front, the classic 1930 anti-war film directed by Lewis Milestone, with which Förthman would surely have been familiar, in which German school boys are encouraged to fulfill their duty to the fatherland and join the army. The message here seems analogous:  the children are apparently being encouraged to join the noble ranks of the Brazilian peasantry.

However, the film-makers apparently have other ideas for this scene gives way to  one in which the children head off in a large canoe and are shown in an idyllic bathing place upriver, entirely naked in the case of the boys, and only lightly clothed in the case of the girls.

This scene is quickly followed by another in which The Boy is ferried downstream by the same elderly canoeist as we saw earlier in the film in order to take part in a fish poisoning. Though this is very brief, it seems quite likely that this would have been one of the fishing scenes that Förthmann spoke of in his letter to Ribeiro about his visit to Pobore.

An intriguing moment in this sequence is when The Boy swims across a stream on his way to join the fishing expedition. As he does so, he holds a bow out of the water. This is no ordinary bow, however: it is a boeiga, a ritual bow, as indicated by the feathers dangling down from it. The boiega anticipates the theme of the film as a whole since its presence is a sign that the fishing expedition is taking place in preparation for a funeral.

After the fishing sequence, the film acccompanies The Boy as he walks into a village with a line of men carrying large fishing nets over their shoulders. This arrival is reinforced by a somewhat brusque pan across the village. This village is not identified but it seems likely that it is Pobore, particularly as it looks somewhat different to the village seen later in the film, which is certainly Córrego Grande.

The Elder explains the village layout to The Boy –
– men’s house in the centre, matrilineal clan houses on the periphery.

The Boy is now seated beside a very craggy Elder who will also appear at various points in the film acting as a linking thread between the various parts. The Elder draws out the celebrated circular plan of the typical Bororo village in the sand, with the large men’s house in the middle and the matrilineally-defined clan houses around the periphery. After further shots of the houses themselves, The Elder is then shown pointing them out one-by-one and talking about them.

The introductory part of the cut concludes with two shots of young men in traditional Bororo dress, before finally ending with a relatively lengthy sequence of a group of domesticated macaws in the branches of a tree in the centre of the village. This may well have been intended as a segue into the funeral theme since the Bororo believe that the aroe, the spirits of the dead can take up residence in these birds.

Part Two – Initial burial and subsequent events in the villlage plaza (14 mins.)

This part begins with a sequence of a corpse being wrapped in a woven mat in the centre of the bororo, i.e. the plaza of the village, by a group of men. The camera is unforgiving in a manner that some viewers may find ethically disturbing since, judging by the many photographs taken of him in life, the corpse appears to be that of Cadete himself.

The mat containing Cadete’s corpse is then lowered into a shallow grave and as in the Reis film, a woman pours water over the corpse to speed the process of decomposition. This is the first stage in the process of turning the deceased into an aroe, a spirit.  Other women then use hoes to fill the grave with earth.

Shortly afterwards, we see what is apparently a second corpse wrapped in its mat and a young man chanting beside it.

We also see many other ritual and ceremonial events that typically follow a first burial.

A very old woman with her head shaven as a sign of mourning is shown grieving in a private manner: we might surmise that she is Cadete’s widow.

Two men dressed in fine pariko headdresses mourn in a more public manner, striking jaguar hides on the ground (as also shown in the Reis film) while periodically throwing their heads back in grief.

There is also a very well-executed sequence of dancing with the marid’do, the large rings made of palm leaves and branches, 1.5m in diameter and weighing at least 60kgs, that at a certain point men hoist onto their heads.

Further fine shots, taken from interesting low angles, show the dancing and chanting, as the men move in a circular fashion around a grave. In the foreground are bows or staves decorated with feather headdresses and other ritual paraphenalia that have been planted in the grave.

There are many perceptive shots of detail too, such as the close-up of a young man playing a powari-aroe, the small gourd that functions as a musical instrument evoking the voice of a particular deceased relative. Another close-up shows a four-chambered pana, a sort of trumpet made from gourds glued together with resin. This is thought to reproduce the voice of Itubore, the ancestral spirit that rules over the eastern part of the Bororo village.

The ritual activities following the initial burial are complex and varied, and impossible to cover exhaustively in a brief passage of film

But the interlude between first burial and exhumation can last in reality for several weeks, and during this time, many ritual events can take place. Inevitably therefore, in a part lasting only 14 minutes, there are many absences. In the case of the particular funeral represented in this rough cut, it is also quite possible that the extent of the ritual activities was much reduced on account of the threat posed by the smallpox epidemic.

These absences relate particularly to the supposed attendance of the aroe, the spirits of the dead. According to Bororo belief, the aroe attend a funeral ceremony by taking over the bodies of living dancers. Their presence is revealed by particular forms of body decoration, modes of dancing or musical instruments. In effect, living men become aroe. The voices of aroe are said to be contained in the whirring of bull-roarers around the plaza while women and children are safely enclosed within the houses.

The aroe-maiwu typically wears a visor of yellow feathers, as here, but his face is usually also covered by a veil of women’s hair.

Even the spirit of the recently deceased person is said to attend their own funeral in the form of the aroe-maiwu, a dancer who dresses and dances in a very particular way. The aroe-maiwu is supposed to bring the period of mourning to an end by killing a jaguar and presenting its hide to the relatives of the deceased.

But apart from a brief moment where two men in wasp-like costumes dance together, and the even briefer shots of the powari-aroe and the pana, any direct allusion to the attendance of the aroe, while present to a limited extent in the Reis and Lévi-Strauss films, is almost entirely absent here.

Also absent is the initiation of young boys, an event which normally accompanies a Bororo funeral and as shown by Reis, also involves men embodying the spirits of the dead. Nor is there any reference to the burning of the possessions of the deceased person whose funeral it is, though this is a feature that is missing in the other films also.

A particularly important missing element in this part of the film are the women of the village, who in the Reis film, are shown playing a much more active role in the dancing than they do here. In this film, they are only to be glimpsed in the background.

The Boy appears only briefly in this part, and is not seen again in the cut.

Another, more editorial, absence is that of The Boy, who is seen only briefly in this part. The role of providing narrative continuity is in effect assigned in this part to The Elder, who appears at various points. Moreover, in contrast to The Boy, who disappears completely from the film after this part, the Elder will re-appear later.

This part of the film is eventually rounded off with a fine scene of the dancers refreshing themselves, drinking from large gourds. This refreshment typically takes place immediately after the male initiation ceremony. What the men are drinking is noa kuru, which is water mixed with tabatinga clay and sweetened with honey or grated palm heart –  the preferred drink of the aroe.

The final shot of this part is the first in which there is a direct shot of the women, sitting on the sidelines, observing the proceedings with interest. This is indeed the normal order of events at a Bororo funeral since it is only after the initiation ceremony is completed and the men have begun to refresh themselves with noa kuru that the women appear.

Part Three – Exhumation and Washing of Bones (10 mins.)

Although the subject matter is certainly striking, from an editorial point of view this part of the film is very straightforward.

In effect, it is structured around a simple linear process narrative, beginning with the exhumation of the palm mat containing what is now only the skeleton of the deceased and continuing with its transportation, slung from a pole, to a marshy savanna outside the village. Here it is opened and the skull and all the other bones are carefully washed and placed in a basket.

A young man in a straw headdress sits by the skull (bottom right) as it dries out

There is then a scene in which a young man, wearing a remarkable headdress, is shown sitting by the skull. This has been placed next to a smouldering fire, presumably to dry it out. Other men stand around, looking solemn, but they do not include The Elder, nor The Boy.

In this part too, the cinematography is excellent: Förthmann follows the process itself very effectively and makes good use of the long reeds of the marsh to show human figures evanescently appearing and disappearing.

However, editorially, there is a relatively high redundancy of shots in this part, suggesting that it is rather less finished than the other parts.

The part ends in a very classical fashion with the action returning to where it began, i.e. with men returning to the village, shot from a low angle, where they deposit the baskets of bones in the centre of the plaza.

Part Four – Decoration of the Bones (8½ mins.)

The final part of the rough cut follows the climax of the funeral ceremony, which takes place within the men’s house. While the men paint the skull red with urucu, decorate it with feathers and set it within a basketry tray filled with down, the women wail, chant and clap in grief, and feverishly lacerate their bodies, collecting their blood to scatter over the bones as if to restore to them some semblance of the flesh that has decayed.

Among the mourners is the elderly woman whom we saw at the beginning of the second part of the cut, whom we presumed to be Cadete’s widow. Her face is deeply scarred through self-laceration. Meanwhile a group of men, wearing headdresses and abundant face paint, each shaking two large maracas, are chanting.

Among the singers is The Elder whom we saw in earlier parts of the film. There is no sign of The Boy, but fulfilling a similar narrative function as proxy witnesses are a young woman and even a small child watching intently, observing the ancestral tradition.

The cinematography in this part is again magnificent, with the subjects’ faces obliquely lit, presumably by means of a hole cut in the roof of the normally entirely enclosed men’s house. (Something that the subjects of Reis’s 1916 film would not allow him to do).

The editing is similarly refined and appears to be approximating a fine cut. As it is roughly the same length, it seems very likely that this part is in fact the assembly that was prepared for the 1954 Congress of Americanists.

Although this is not evident from the cut, normally the decoration of the skull takes place behind a screen because, in effect, this process converts the deceased person into a spirit, an aroe, which is something that women and children are not meant to see.

However, at a certain point a basketwork bundle containing the now-decorated skull is brought out from behind the screen and presented to the women mourners. The wailing and self-laceration of the women intensifies, as does the chanting of the men. Cadete’s widow cradles the bundle in her arms as if it were a child ….

But at this point, most unfortunately, both this part and the rough cut as a whole comes to an abrupt end.

TextsCaiuby Novaes 2006a, Caiuby Novaes 2006b, Souza Mendes 2006, Souza Mendes 2011, Caiuby Novaes 2016, Caiuby Novaes, Cunha and Henley 2017,

See also the filmed interview with Darcy Ribeiro about the making of this film, directed by Maureen Bisilliat (1990).

Many thanks to Sylvia Caiuby Novaes for her comments on this entry.

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© 2018 Paul Henley