Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness (1932) – John. S. Clarke *

The Bororo dance by firelight. A scene from Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness‘(1932), directed by John S. Clarke, assisted by Floyd D. Crosby and David M. Newell.

49 mins., b&w, sound : English voice-over commentary, extradiegetic music, but also some location sound.

Production: Matto Grosso Expedition Inc., New York.

Source : Penn Museum – this film is not available as part of the museum’s on-line collection, but it invites interested parties to make contact. A DVD copy is held by the NAFC.

This film is one of four films made during the course of the Matto Grosso Expedition (MGE), a privately sponsored venture that took place in 1930-31 in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, usually referred to simply as ‘Penn Museum’. The title of both the expedition and this film features the double ‘t’ that was standard in the Brazilian Portuguese spelling of the name of the Mato Grosso region until 1938.

This film is particularly interesting from an historical and technical point of view since it is one of the first films made outside a studio that features passages of synchronous speech. From an ethnographic point of view, on the other hand, it is very confused, and therefore only of limited value as a representation of the indigenous peoples of Central Brazil at the time that it was made.

Some ten years after the release of the original film, the more ethnographic footage was re-edited to produce two short films, one about the Bororo, the other about various indigenous groups of the upper Xingu, which although also limited, certainly  have greater ethnographic integrity than the original film.

The same film-makers also made a short fiction, The Hoax, apparently aimed at children, which was released in 1932, the same year as the main film. But this is a light-hearted fantasy that is not intended to be taken too seriously and if it has any ethnographic value, it is no more than minor and indirect.

Background: The original idea for this film was formulated by Alexander Siemel (1890-1970), a Latvian adventurer who spent many years as a professional jaguar hunter in South America. In April 1930, he travelled to the US to seek financial backing for the making of a film. There, he was introduced to the then-active world of wealthy  private organisations on the East Coast dedicated to hunting, fishing and exploration by  Vladimir Perfilieff (1895-1943), an emigré Russian artist, and David M. Newell (1898-1986), a journalist and maker of newsreel shorts about hunting. The trio  approached John S. Clarke, a wealthy New York businessman who wanted to get into film production. Together, the four of them set up a joint stock company, Matto Grosso Expedition Inc. and developed a film proposal with the working title Big-Cat!, in which Siemel featured prominently spearing jaguars.  They then sought private investors who would be offered the additional opportunity to join the expedition themselves.

The most significant investor was E.R. Fenimore Johnson (1899-1986), who was the son of the founder of the Victor phonograph business, which had recently merged with the Radio Corporation of America to become RCA Victor. Johnson provided funding for the expedition and also the latest sound-recording technology in the form of the RCA Victor Photophone system. He also had links with Penn Museum, and through him, it too became involved in the expedition, sending a graduate student of anthropology, Vincenzo Petrullo (1906-1991), to act as its representative.

Various other scientific and technical personnel also joined the expedition, including a team of professional film-makers. Among the latter was Floyd D. Crosby (1899-1985), who had just completed the shooting of Tabu (directed by F. W. Murnau and initially by Robert Flaherty), for which he would win an Academy award immediately following his return from Brazil. Crosby was assisted by Arthur P. Rossi, while the principal sound recordist was Ainslie R. Davis, who was on loan from RCA Victor.

The film-making team also eventually included George Rawls, a hunting and fishing guide from Florida, originally recruited as a general handyman, but later asked to play the role of Uncle George, the leader of the expedition for the film, thereby testifying to the fact that in the 1930s, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction film-making was more blurred than it would subsequently become.

On the film itself, the direction is credited primarily to John S. Clarke, whose name appears in large letters, and in smaller letters, to Floyd Crosby and David Newell.

Circumstances of production : The expedition arrived in Mato Grosso in February 1931, when the rainy season was at its height, and based themselves at Descalvados, a vast US-owned cattle ranch on the upper Paraguay river, some 400 kms north of Corumbá. They then engaged in hunting and the collection of zoological specimens, and shot a considerable amount of footage on these subjects while they waited for the waters to subside and for a permit to enter indigenous areas.

During this period, the anthropologist, Vincenzo Petrullo visited Laguna, a nearby village of Western Bororo accompanied by Fenimore Johnson, Floyd Crosby and others. Here they shot some footage of a “jaguar dance” performed at their request. From the description that Petrullo gives in his 1932 report, and in the light of subsequent ethnographic research, it seems clear that this was a performance of the dance associated with the traditional Bororo funeral.

The dancer filmed at the Western Bororo village of Laguna

But although they participated enthusiastically in this performance, Petrullo reported that the Laguna villagers were not only in a very poor physical condition, but they had abandoned many of their traditional customs and were unable (though perhaps only unwilling?) to explain the meaning of the dance. Petrullo concluded that the expedition would have to penetrate much further into the interior of Mato Grosso to find indigenous groups still living in a traditional manner.

By June 1931, the permit had come through and the waters were low enough for the expedition to travel beyond the immediate vicinity of Descalvados. Further enabled by an amphibious plane donated by Fenimore Johnson’s father, they began to explore the headwaters of the Xingu river. Having sighted some Xinguano villages from the air, Petrullo set off overland, eventually reaching the confluence of the Curisevo and Culuene rivers after six weeks. By prior arrangement, he met up there with other members of the expedition who had arrived by air. Arthur Rossi , the expedition’s assistant cameraman, then remained behind and, over a period of about three weeks, he accompanied Petrullo and shot some footage of everyday Xinguano life. Although they visited several villages, most of the material appears to have been shot in the villages of the Yawalapiti and the Naravute.

Meanwhile, in July 1931, the other members of the expedition  travelled south and established themselves at Córrego Grande, an Eastern Bororo village on the São Lourenço river, a left-bank tributary of the Paraguay. Here they remained for about two weeks and shot most of the material concerning the Bororo there.

Film content – Although Penn Museum had been an important patron of the project, this film was aimed unambiguously at a popular audience and there is no mention of the museum in the credits. The subtitle of the film constituted an obvious reference to Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt’s hugely popular account of his travels through Mato Grosso in 1914.

In general form, the film conforms in many ways with the conventional tropes of the interwar US travelogue. It is heavily structured by a jocose and ironic ‘green hell’ commentary. Rather than presenting the world encountered by the expedition directly to the audience, in almost every sequence the commentary presents that world as it is experienced or understood by  the travellers.

The film was not a box-office success: far from making a handsome profit, as they had hoped, the investors in the project lost a great deal of money. There were undoubtedly many reasons for this, but a contributory factor would have been the disjointed narrative. This can be attributed to the diverse motives and interests underpinning the expedition. What had started as a project to make a commercial adventure film about spearing jaguars had become, with the participation of the Penn Museum, a scientific expedition that aimed to report on the ethnography and natural history of the region. In order to combine these various elements together into a single unitary story, the narrative jumps back and forth between materials shot at various different times and in various different places, and seeks to make connections between them that are at times not merely factually spurious, but also threaten the very credibility of the film as an account of what was supposedly a real-life venture.

This weakness was exacerbated by the fact that George Rawls was not a professional actor and his performance as ‘Uncle George’, whose presence is supposed to hold all the disparate sequences together, is very stilted. The requirement to set shots up so that synchronous sound could be achieved would not have helped in this respect.

The first ten minutes of the film charts the expedition journey first by sea from New York, and then up the Paraguay river.  The long stop over at Descalvados is  omitted and the expedition is shown arriving at Córrego Grande in the river steamer.  This scene is manifestly contrived, not least because the camera is already ashore as the steamer approaches. As Uncle George disembarks and shakes hands with the chief, there is some stilted conversation in synch in a mixture of English and Bororo.

Uncle George, the expedition leader,  is welcomed by the  chief with synchronous speech. Penn Museum image 25671.

The remainder of the film then takes footage shot in the upper Xingu and  Descalvados and combines this with footage shot in Córrego Grande so as to form a single unitary narrative supposedly all happening in Córrego Grande and its surroundings. Thus immediately after the arrival scene, there are various establishing shots of a village that are said to be of Córrego Grande but which in fact were shot in the upper Xingu. The film then cuts back to Córrego Grande to show Uncle George, in another self-evidently set-up scene, engaged in trading with the Bororo. After being shown various Bororo artisans at work, he then makes friends with the chief’s son, Tari who introduces him to his pet otters.

This is followed by various fishing and natural history sequences, most of which were shot in Descalvados, before the hunting theme is reintroduced by a commentary point stating that the peaceful atmosphere of the village has been disturbed by the roar of a jaguar.

The Bororo are then shown preparing to hunt the jaguar with various dances to appease its “demon spirit”. However, this sequence is based on an entirely indiscriminate jumbling of material from Córrego Grande, the Western Bororo village of Laguna and the upper Xingu. The sequence concludes with a line of Xinguano archers practising their marksmanship, supposedly in preparation for the hunt. On the grounds that the “Bororo” marksmanship is “feeble”, the commentary explains that the expeditionaries decided to go after the jaguar by themselves. But the real reason that there are no Bororo in the following hunting sequence is that it was shot at Descalvados.

“Across the village, another group performed a second and related dance”. This follows the shot of the Western Bororo dancer (shown above) but in fact it was not taken in the same village at all but rather 500kms away in the Naravute village in the upper Xingu

The hunting sequence is very well executed and involves two hunts, one of a puma, the other of a jaguar, nicknamed ‘El Tigre’ (a Spanish name, probably due to the fact that Descalvados was very close to the Bolivian border). These are led by the jaguar-hunter Siemel but neither involve any spearing because  this had proven impossible to film. Both animals are finished off by rifle shots after they have taken refuge in a tree.

The Bororo of Córrego Grande are then shown celebrating the jaguar’s death. This sequence quickly turns to night and there is some remarkable footage of men dancing, their bodies and their magnificent diadem headdresses silhouetted against a large fire (see above). They are accompanied by sound apparently recorded on location sound and the total effect is entrancing. This should probably be put down to the skill of  the Oscar-laureate director of photography, Floyd Crosby.

But now it is time for the expedition to go home, and the last five minutes of the film begins with Uncle George giving a penknife as a parting gift to Tari. However, the boy playing Tari in this scene is considerably older than the Tari who introduced Uncle George to his pet otters earlier in the film. This was because the gift-giving scene was shot in Córrego Grande whereas the scene with the pets was shot in Descalvados, so it was necessary to cast two different boys.

There is then a departure scene at the river bank that is as self-evidently contrived as the arrival scene and which was probably shot at the same time and certainly at the same time of day as the light is coming from the same direction. A boy waves goodbye whom we are led to assume is the same Tari who has just received the penknife. This boy waving goodbye had also appeared in the arrival scene, but he is clearly different both to the boy who received the penknife and to the boy who showed Uncle George his pets.

The film concludes with a long sequence on board the ship home, showing all the live animals that the expedition has captured. These include ‘El Tigre’, the jaguar, though this does not make much sense since the unfortunate creature had been declared unequivocally dead at the end of the hunting sequence.

As the film finally draws to a close, a passage of voice-over synthesises the core idea that underpins the film as a whole. For all the expedition’s success, it declares, “our results were as if a match were lighted in the blackness of some enormous cave. In Mato Grosso, the vast silence remains unbroken”.

The reaction of present day Bororo to the film – In 2011, the Brazilian anthropologists Edgar da Cunha and Sylvia Caiuby Novaes screened this film to the Bororo of Tadarimana, a village about 150kms upstream to the east of Córrego Grande. The villagers greatly enjoyed the film, particularly those sequences involving animals. As they did not follow the English narration and read the film as a series of self-contained scenes , they were not at all disturbed by the mixing up of the Xinguano and Bororo material. On the contrary, they were sorry that there was not more footage of the Xinguanos as they found it very interesting.

Tiriacu Areguiri Ópogoda, a ‘bari aroe toarari’ (shaman of the souls). Note the labret plug beneath his lip from which a stingray tail would have hung on ceremonial occasions.

More generally,the screening evoked many memories for the older members of the audience. The trading scene reminded one elderly man of the time before ‘pacification’, when the Bororo were regarded as potentially hostile, and he interpreted the distribution of goods by Uncle George as a strategy to ensure that the expedition received a friendly welcome. More touchingly, and notwithstanding the fact that the image had been taken eighty years previously, he recognised in one of the intimate cutaways of the crowd at the arrival scene, the decorated face of Tiriacu Areguiri Ópogoda, a bari aroe toarari or ‘shaman of the souls’, renowned in his day for his bravery in killing both men and jaguars.

Texts : Duguid 1931, Petrullo 1932,  King 1993, Petrullo 1993, Pourshariati 2013, Hobson 2018, Pezzati 2018, Cunha and Caiuby 2019, Henley, Caiuby and Cunha in press. See also the comprehensive Penn Museum website specifically dedicated to this film here. This entry also draws on a series of personal communications from Professor Eric Hobson, of Belmont University, Nashville, who is currently writing a book about the MGE.